Anyone who spends time online, especially in comment sections and forums, has run into one of the major shortcomings of text-only communication: It’s really hard to convey sarcasm. The gestures and tones that are normally used to broadcast mockery in person are completely absent in emails, blog posts, or text messages.

Research has even shown that people (and even highly trained computer programs) can’t reliably identify sarcasm on the Internet—as familiar memes have also suggested, albeit in a far less scientific way.

A new study in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, however, finds that there is a pretty reliable way to show your readers that you’re, like, totally being sincere, of course: the winky face. A quick little bat of the emoticon eye can make “you’re terrible ;)” seem less like an insult and more like a rib between friends, and "I was riveted ;)" sound like a lament.

The researchers asked 144 people to read scenarios in which characters sent texts or Facebook messages to another character, and interpret whether the comment was sincere or sarcastic. Some of the comments were positive and some were negative, and some featured emoticons while others did not. Each of the sentences included the context surrounding the sarcastic or sincere comment. For example, “Tanya had noticed that Jenny had put on a lot of weight. She texted her to say: ‘I see the diet is going well [:-P / ;-) / . . . /!]’” (At which point, Jenny would presumably block Tanya’s number, but that’s neither here nor there.) The participants rated literal comments as more sarcastic if they had emoticons.

In a second study, a new sample of 48 students read short conversations between characters that ended with a positive or a negative comment like “I thought it was so interesting” or “I thought it was so boring.” Each one ended with a period, a wink emoticon, or an ellipsis, but didn't directly describe the context of the conversation, such as whether the event being described was actually very interesting or incredibly boring.

The researchers asked participants to rate how sarcastic the first person’s comment was, and how they thought the second character would feel about it. They found that winks made people think the comments were sarcastic and that the emoticons dulled the impact of the comments, making negative statements sound more positive, and positive statements sound more negative. Winking made negative comments seem more complimentary, such as, “Your talk was so boring ;)”.  

“If a sarcastic comment is written in an ambiguous context (i.e., the receiver cannot tell from the context whether the comment is to be interpreted as literal or sarcastic), accompanying the comment with a wink emoticon (rather than ellipsis or simply a full stop) is a good way of reducing the possibility that it will be misunderstood by the receiver,” the researchers advise.

There you have it. If you want to be misunderstood, give 'em a wink. ;)

[h/t: Slate]