Apr 1, 2007

I Swear, I Only Listen to Bright Eyes Ironically. Really.

I really like Irony. I like it so much, I just capitalized it.
Back home in the Usa, sarcasm was basically a constant fixture of my speech- and working in a dysfuntional (but charming!) local bookstore with a bunch hipster/geek types was exactly the environment where this sort of thing flourished. I don't think I went a whole day without making fun of Nicholas Sparks, James Patterson, or Nora Roberts. No, I've never read any of them- but we mercilessly skewered them anyway, even as we sold half-priced copies of their paperbacks.
Here, though, things are different. Obviously they are, otherwise I wouldn't be writing about it.
Many people mentioned that most Japanese people don't have much a sense of sarcasm, culturally. I sort of thought that this was some sort of fatuous generalization- I mean, who couldn't have a sense of sarcasm and irony? It's innate, right? Right?
Well, no. It's not. Being perpetually sarcastic and ironic, it seems, is basically the province of snooty effete intellectual types and cantankerous old people. My old job had both, and I include myself in the first category.
Here, though, my sarcasm runs right into the face of my job- I mean, I'm dealing with people who need to be introduced to basic stuff like the passive voice. My most advanced students struggle with euphemisms. Sarcasm is so high up the communicative ladder (especially my own style of dry sarcasm that sometimes even confuses other native speakers) that I need to turn it almost completely off when I talk to students.
Broad stuff is okay. Really, really broad stuff- like claiming that it's a wonderfully sunny day when in fact it's raining outside. That works. However, subtlety doesn't really make it's way through the communicative wall.
I've resorted to (gasp!) having to say exactly what I mean without resorting to wit, euphemisms, guile, or intonation. My words have been forced to, as directly as possible, correlate precisely to what is going on in my head. While this may seem intuitive to some, I find such unshaded and direct communication to be exceedingly strange. Even though I've gotten much better at it, I'm still not used to speaking without my old friend Irony.
I'm sort of worried about this.
I mean, it's bad enough that I like Belle and Sebastian and U2, twin pillars of rock-'n-roll earnestness. It's worrisome to think that perhaps when I get back I'm going to be this overly earnest, utterly sappy, irony-free bag of sincerity. I imagine myself as going from this smiling, funny, occasionally witty guy to the worst sort of overly earnest "sensitive" guy. You know- the sort of person who listens to Bright Eyes. I think of myself soulfully, earnestly, and humorously pouring out my feelings without a white of self-awareness and I sort of cringe a little.
Though such a thing is not likely. If anything, this is probably a good thing. Perhaps, sometimes, I was too ironic, too sarcastic. Perhaps, sometimes, it was a crutch and now I'm learning to walk without it.
When I speak with native speakers I'm still the same old sarcastic person that I always was- mostly. I still love irony dearly- and I mean that sincerely.


Kori the tomorrow lady said...

It's a slippery Emo slope. If I ever hear you singing the Titantic theme song with no irony in your voice, you've gone to far. I'll shoot you for your own good.

I think most foreigners here go through a phase in their first year where (when they are around other native English speakers) they lose some of their 'nativeness.' sometimes its the indefinite articles, sometimes its the humor, sometimes its the irony. BUT, everyone I know who has been here for years and years, has returned to sounding pretty normal. (with the exception of losing some esoteric vocabulary)

I don't know why it happens or why, after some time, our language returns more to normal. but it seems to. you'll be fine.

Maggie said...

Oh poor thing (meant sincerely), the idea of communicating without irony does seem extremely daunting, as well as tragic. One time when I was having a real "woe is me" moment full of twenty something angst and despair, a friend of mine trying to be all optimistic and earnest says to me, Surely there are many things in this world that make you happy, now what do you love?" I sat for moment, and thought. Then I turned and looked my friend in the eye and said, "Irony, I really think Irony makes this life worth living."
So you see, it would be like killing fairies and puppies to hear that you have given up the ways of sarcasm and irony. So please hang on Bright Eyes.
Bye the way you should know that although I never get around to commenting. I read your blog often and think about you all the time.
Love Ya.

Paul said...

It would be hard to imagine you with out the wit, the sarcasm, and the elitist twist of distain for the dumb. Often we don't realize how much our conversations contain such small nuances. I didn't realize it until I was helping a Korean student with idioms.

I've never commented on your blogs before, but I figured I should say hello. Your a hell of a writer. Later Joe.

Joseph said...

Don't worry, SonicLlamaWhoIMayApparentlyCallJoe, I'm sure your sense of sarcasm and ironic detachment will return to you in due course. Until then, I hope that you are not too unduly burdened by the curse of saying things that you actually mean.

On the other hand, apparently you being earnest would cause Maggie anguish and mental distress, so maybe it would be worth it, just for that. (Love you, Maggie...)

Sydney said...

Well, if you ever want to repeat this experience in English, try North Carolina. Pete and I went there for one of his sisters' weddings and it was like being on another planet. They'd ask about the weather in Oregon, and I'd say (sarcastically), "Sunniest place on earth!" and they'd say, "Oh really? I heard that it rained a lot there! Huh! Well I'll be!" And then I'd have to say, "Oh no, it does rain a lot, or at least often if not a lot in quantity. I was being ironic because..." and then I'd have to stop because explaining why irony might be appropriate seemed really rude and patronizing. The whole wedding process, from arrival to departure, lasted three or four days, and by the final evening, all of the Oregonians were huddled around our reception table making non-stop snarky comments and basically daring each other to say something earnest. Although I couldn't live that way, I will say this: the North Carolinians we met were some of the nicest most genuine people we've ever encountered. They were kind and generous, and even funny (in an earnest sort of jokes-with-punchlines kind of way).

I think that you lose some of your nativeness in your first year abroad because the other half of your brain is working so hard. Second language is done on the opposite side of the brain than native language. Everyone whose French improved in my program began to have issues with their English by the sixth month we were there. We all started switching back and forth between English and French, sometimes in mid-sentence, depending on which hemisphere could access the appropriate concept. I think that when the second langauge part of your brain gets as strong as its going to get, you get back what nativeness you lost in your first langauge because it's not having to "divert power," so to speak, to learning new vocab and grammar and morphology and pronounciation and...

Also, just as an aside, my dad listens to and enjoys Bright Eyes and you can't get less "earnest" than him. He is the KING of irony and tall tales. You know how they say "ask a silly question, get a silly answer" (or sometimes it's "stupid" instead of "silly")? With Dad it's more like "ask a question, get an answer of extremely dubious veracity."

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

I knew there was some example of something similar to sarcasm the I see in my Japanese friends. I couldn't put my finger on it but now I figured it out!

sometimes they use overly formal language in non-formal situations in an effort to be funny or to make fun of someone who is acting like a superior when they aren't.

ah ha! I'm now on a quest to find anything at all sarcastic in my students and friends and document it.

its on.