Caution: Sarcasm detected!

By | September 14th, 2016

Everyone wants to tell you what to write. Everyone and everything.

Take a look behind the scenes on this site — which is to say, log in to my WordPress account — and you’ll see several plug-ins that instruct you how to write.

“Use less passive voice,” they scream.

“Write shorter sentences,” they order.

I usually ignore them because if I didn’t, this site would read like a children’s book. But one thing these oh-so-clever applications haven’t been able to do yet, and may never be able to do, is detect when I’m being sarcastic.

When will they come up with a sarcasm-meter?

They should, and if they do, they should let us use it with email. Why? Sarcasm may be a useful rhetorical device, when used sparingly. But when it comes to resolving customer service disputes, it’s almost always counterproductive, if not also destructive.

I searched our recent cases for examples. The standout: Earlier today, I wrote about a United Airlines customer flying from San Francisco to Chicago. The plane had to return to the gate for fuel, and although it had an on-time-ish arrival, it upset some passengers.

“Maybe United forgot the credit card to pay for the fuel,” the passenger opined, sarcastically.

Sarcasm in that context does not endear you to the folks in the customer service department, who are reviewing your complaint. Actually, it makes you look like a real jerk.

As a matter of fact, a lot of consumers come running to us when their complaints are ignored by a company. The requests are often perfectly reasonable. So why is the company throwing the book in their face?

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So I ask for the paper trail. And when I read it, I say “ah-ha!” The complaint is riddled with sarcasm.

But why is sarcasm so problematic in the context of a complaint? A few reasons:

It’s hard to detect. Even when it’s obvious to you or me that someone is being sarcastic, it’s still really difficult to detect. If you don’t believe me, run a quick search for the word “sarcasm” in the comments. You’ll find frequent questions such as, “Is that sarcasm?” or my favorite, “.” English may not be a tonal language, but sarcasm is. As a result, your sarcasm can confuse a company.

It suggests a no-win scenario. If you immerse your complaint letter in sarcasm, and if you’re obvious about it, then a company may believe there’s nothing it can do to fix the problem. And that may doom your case. It’s a lot like ending your complaint with, “I’ll NEVER do business with your company again.” So why should a representative even try to help if you’ve already made up your mind?

It conveys a barely contained fury that screams “bad customer.” Sarcasm, and especially the dark sarcasm that is inevitable after a dreadful customer experience, broadcasts a loud and clear message: “I’m angry. If I ever darken your door again, you’ll pay.” I pity the customer service representative on the other end of such a grievance. It’s hard to not take that kind of rage personally. You can forgive a representative for sending the requisite form letter and closing the case. What more is there to say?

Now, I admit to using sarcasm every now and then in my posts. It’s one of many writing techniques that helps tell a story. But I also use humor, statistics, facts, and my son’s Photoshop illustrations to help readers like you navigate the confusing waters of customer service. Sarcasm alone would make this site unreadable.

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I would never use sarcasm in a complaint letter. I have to assume that the person on the other end just wants the facts. When I say I’m disappointed, I assume they will think that’s what I actually mean.

If you have a customer complaint, don’t handicap it with sarcasm. Save it for your blog.

  • Jeff W.

    Sarcasm in the written form is a very difficult skill to master. Most people cannot do it properly. It is a verbal thing.

    But you are correct. Written or verbal, sarcasm does not really have much of a place when communicating an issue or complaint. There are too many risks and very few upsides.

  • sirwired

    I think the most important thing to remember when writing a complaint letter is that the person that’s going to read the letter is unlikely to be anybody that had anything to do with the problem happening to begin with. Try and leave “you”/”your” out of the letter, if possible; it’s hard to not take that personally.

    They need the following information, no more, no less:
    – Enough to identify the problem and you (i.e., for a flight issue, date, flight number, record locator, and maybe your FF number, if you have one)
    – What went wrong. Don’t speculate as to why unless you know. (The LW with the delayed UA flight went VERY awry in that dept.)
    – What you expect as a resolution. Be reasonable. Very few circumstances warrant a full refund.

    A little humor is fine (especially if it’s self-deprecating), but sarcasm and “funny” insults go over like the proverbial lead balloon when you are six hours through your letter-reading shift.

    A little sincere praise is fine. (like “I’ve been a loyal Crash ‘n Burn Airways customer for many years, and have always enjoyed the experience, which is why I was disappointed and surprised by what happened.)

    And leave out the Card Deck of Misery. (Elderly, “Fixed Income”, Single Parent, Police Officer, Student, Cancer patient, Headed to once-in-a-lifetime-vacation, etc.) unless it’s truly relevant, and it usually isn’t.

    Finally, yes, “Your business is horrible, and I’ll never use you again” never works. For starters, it’s likely to be untrue, and they know it. And it also tells them that you’ve stated that your decision to use them in the future (or not) does not depend on the outcome of the letter.

  • Rebecca

    Excellent advice. I would add, if you have a sequence of events, it is extremely useful to make a bullet list. Pared down, to the point. The truth is these letters are skimmed. A bullet list is the most likely way something relevant won’t be missed. And the person reading appreciates it, and is thus more likely to respond more favorably.

  • Pat

    I have advocated for myself on a number of occasions and have learned to get results, be professional in your tone, be direct and short in what the issue is, and do not ask for any more than what you need done. The last two times that I had to email the CEO of a business (Comcast and Dish), I took that approach and got what I needed done and they added a little more for my trouble I had to go through. I appreciated that they went above what I needed but did not ask or expect it. Also I did not expect a response from the CEO. I knew it would be passed down to someone else that is able to address the issue.

    A number of the stories I read on this site, the person failed to self advocate because they either used a laundry list of issues or asked for more than they were owed or needed done.

  • Annie M

    And also don’t say “I’ll never use you again”. Why would anyone try to help you if you are never going to use the company again?

  • DChamp56

    Someone actually said “Write shorter sentences”?


    I write letters of complaint when i feel that I have experienced a problem that should be brought to a company’s attention. But I always start out with a compliment about an employee or an aspect of the service that went well. Seldom is everything a complete disaster and the compliment puts the reader in a good frame of mind. Then I mention my problem and always suggest a solution. And I seldom ask for anything other than that I not experience the problem again. The last time I actually requested a specific resolution was for a flight that ended up with an FAA incident report–never a good thing. But even then I found quite a bit the airline did right. I got the requested reimbursement. A colleague on the same flight wrote complaining about the entire experience and received nothing but a curt note back. A polite letter goes much further.

  • Tricia K

    I knew I was in trouble when my son, then four years old, said “that’s sarcastic,isn’t it?” The same time that had amused my friends in college didn’t work as well on a parenting front. I get irritated by the computer programs that tell me how to write, but that aside, you are right. Sarcasm is hard enough for some people to detect in person, it is probably not well suited in a letter where you are asking for help bending the rules from a company exec.

  • joycexyz

    We need to calm down and put some space between the incident before calling or writing. Communicating while riled up can cause not only sarcasm, but other regretful language as well. A sure way into the circular file.

  • DepartureLevel

    I once had a passenger who stood in front of me and complained about all the errors and failures of her many flights on my airline, albeit some legitimate but most exaggerated. I let her rant on and finally just asked calmly…..”If you’re so angry and disappointed, why do you keep flying this airline?”…..”it’s like saying you absolutely hate the food at a certain restaurant but you keep going there”. Of course I just got the blank stare.

  • Patrica

    hmmm… heard a similar remark from Sheldon on Big Bang Theory ! Great minds and all that, little guy! ;)

  • JewelEyed

    Using shorter sentences can avoid meandering, so it can be useful in the right context.

  • Love it!

  • LonnieC

    No. Chris was writing about a suggestion he gets from one of several writing/grammar programs he uses when writing his column.

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