Friday, February 20, 2009

And I Am Being Facetious

Here's my theory: when we talk about developing a personal style in our blog-writing, what we really mean is establishing an exact ratio of facetious:serious content. And when drive-by commenters misinterpret our writing, it's usually because they get that ratio wrong. Perhaps we should include a warning right under our profile pics: the content of this blog is 87% facetious.

"Facetious" is a word that has many opposites. Its opposite could be "literal" or "sincere" or "precisely accurate." If I say, "I'm going to strangle my husband," my words are not literally true, but they are probably sincerely heartfelt. That remark is true on an emotional level; it is facetious only because it is not to be taken literally.

If, on the other hand, I say, "Children are a practical demonstration of the doctrine of Original Sin," (not that I would ever say something like that at, say, a small-group Bible study and then have to face down the shocked stares from everyone else in the room), my words do not represent my sincere emotions: they are facetious in that fuzzier sense of being true, but only kind of true.

I once had someone link to a post in which I made the following remark: "After a year of practising family law, hubby says that divorces always happen for the same reason: one partner is crazy, and the other is controlling." The linker commented - probably facetiously - that she had always assumed her ex-husband was both crazy and controlling, but now she had to rethink. Her commenters responded with a chorus of sincere and literal outrage. How could anyone make so offensive and untrue a statement? How disturbing that someone holding such beliefs was practising family law!

Regular readers of my blog seemed to take that remark in the spirit in which it was meant: when I say "always," what I usually mean is "maybe about fifty percent of the time." (This is why it's my husband who's the lawyer and not me: he naturally loads his remarks with qualifications to ensure technical accuracy. So not only was his remark not to be taken in an absolute or literal sense, but it was also probably misquoted.)

Facetiousness is a lot easier to recognize when it's funny. According to, the word has the following meanings:

1. not meant to be taken seriously or literally: a facetious remark.
2. amusing; humorous.
3. lacking serious intent; concerned with something nonessential, amusing, or frivolous: a facetious person.

The third definition, I think, has always been characteristic of my personal writing style, dating back to Grade Seven when Mr. Steers criticized my school diary for being overly concerned with trivialities. The second definition is trickier. Not all amusing or humorous remarks are facetious; to be considered facetious, a remark must be funny precisely because we know the speaker doesn't sincerely or literally consider it to be true.

A great example of humorous facetious writing is this recap of Heroes:
Sylar and his new padawan Luke are on a road trip in the Griswald family truckster, and Sylar totally made a mixed tape with such staples as Steppenwolf's Born to be Wild- the extended cut. Luke doesn't understand the word "skanky" as he uses it to describe a diner, which is unlike every diner I've ever been in but exactly like the one I'd like to go to.

This is exactly what facetious humour is supposed to look like. The first part is funny merely because of the Star Wars/Vacation movie references; the facetious part kicks in in the second half of the first sentence. Sylar did not make a mix tape; Sylar would never make a mix tape because he's too busy stalking people with superpowers so he can cut their heads open with his finger. The writer knows this and readers familiar with the show know this, so the remark is funny precisely because it's not true (and because the weird emphasis in the show on the road-trip music makes it seem kind of plausible). The second sentence is facetious humour for the rest of us: whether or not we watch the show, we can recognize that expressing a desire to visit a skanky diner is the kind of thing that is both sarcastic and sincere at the same time.

Mostly true but kind of not true. (Or, alternatively, clearly untrue but kind of true anyway.) The Heroes review works because it deploys this kind of facetiousness in every single paragraph. My blog, on the other hand, uses facetiousness only in emergencies, and thus alienates readers unaccustomed to my writing style who don't know when and to what extent I'm being sincere.

Perhaps a good user's guide to this blog would go something like this:

The following blog may contain vast overgeneralizations. These statements are not usually made sarcastically, and may well contain a nugget of truth. It is the reader's responsibility to supply the omitted qualifications: phrases such as "in most cases" and "with some exceptions" are not included. Use at your own risk.

Does your blog need a user's guide? What would it say?


mek said...

I like imagining that, if your blog were a physical space, there would be a niche in the wall for a canister of facetiousness and a glass panel that reads "Break only in case of emergencies!"

I think the user's guide to my blog would contain a warning that there is no organizing principle at work - you may end up reading about my child, my work, or looking at photo after photo of bread.

Blog Antagonist said...

Sarcasm/facetiousness is a skill that needs to be honed and used with a certain degree of skill, I think. When used properly, it isn't difficult to recognize. It can be wickedly funny, and really effective for making a point.

The trouble arises when one of three factors is at play: 1. It is used ineptly, 2. The reader is very literal minded, 3. Someone is looking for trouble and purposely disregards the obvious sarcasm.

I tend to use sarcasm a lot. And thus, my children are becoming skilled at using and recognizing it themselves. The other day someone made a sarcastic remark in front of Diminutive One and was surprised and dismayed when he perceived it as such.

Do I have a point here? Ummm, maybe just that I think that if someone misinterprets sarcasm, it's most often the fault of the reciever, rather than the giver.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

"Both my short-term and my long-term memory are faulty."

Swistle said...

I put my warning as it a "subtitle"? I forget what that thing is called. But anyway, it says "I acknowledge my luckiness without giving up my claim to the suckiness." This is a warning that I am not going to be talking all the time about how "blessed" I am, nor do I think that only the worst-off person in the ENTIRE WORLD has the right to complain. And yet: if I complain about my husband, I still get comments informing me that MANY WOMEN have DEAD husbands and would give ANYTHING to have them back again. Warnings don't seem to HELP.

Swistle said...

Oh, "tagline." I think it's called a tagline.

kgirl said...

My user guide would be short, but sweet:

Welcome. If you don't like what you read, get lost.

Janet said...

Mine might say:

Warning! May cause drowsiness.

Chaotic Joy said...

Great post. The comments are funny too. Or would that be facetious? Janet, in particularly cracked me up.

Jenni said...

Oh, I love this. My blog definitely needs a disclaimer. I think I may confuse people with my spiritual posts being quickly followed by those employing the phrase "flaming rat's ass".

But if people would just realize that I have multiple personalities, everything would be fine.

The real problem is that people are so darn literal when you don't want them to be, and abstract in the same proportions.

Bon said...

i end up being facetious even when i'm trying to be sincere. and painfully serious about big stuff yet still flip about the details. can't help it. i just wrote a post about how vasectomies shouldn't be treated so facetiously, and Veronica told me it was my funniest post ever.

wheelsonthebus said...

great post. you are so clearly an academic!

Omaha Mama said...

It's funny that you write this (funny as in coincidental, not as in facetious)because I've been thinking about how literal my writing is and have even thought about how to write about it. I don't use visualizations, similes, analogies, or even big words. My writing is simple and literal. Every now and then tough, I get a little facetious. Usually with a sarcastic tone.

Merle said...

I love your warning. You should totally post it on the blog. It is hilarious!

Mad said...

My writing has become more literal and more self-absorbed as my blog has aged. That doesn't make for good blogging nor, come to think of it, does it make for good wine. I have also noticed that this trend has gone hand in hand with my reduced consumption of wine while blogging. Perhaps I need to reconsider.

Also, if you think humour, facetiousness, sarcasm and whatever are often lost on blog readers, you don't know Twitter yet. That place is a minefield for misinterpretation.

Beck said...

I don't think about what I write very much, but I recently had a reader attempt to chastize me for saying that kids would rather hear raunchy stories than listen to math class. Obivously, I am anti-math! Obviously, I have a subpar intelligence!

Catherine said...

Ha! This is fantastic. I don't know if my blog needs that disclaimer, but if my personality came with it, it could have saved my husband and I a lot of grief in learning to communicate with each other. :)

Stimey said...

Great post. It is often so hard to translate a voice into the written word, that sometimes it is hard to figure out the intent of the post. My blog alternates between sarcastic merry-making and super-sincere posts that I'm sure my readers have whiplash. I give them credit for getting it right, most of the time.

DaniGirl said...

I think it's probably a good thing and really hardly surprising that the artsy academic in your dyad is a lot less careful with her statements than the lawyer, yanno?

Myself, I notice I err on the side of tentativeness too often. My posts are peppered with "I think" and "maybe" and "in my opinion." I need to be braver and more assertive, I think, especially when I'm trying to be funny.

If I had a user guide, it would probably be "if you don't like the mood around here, wait a minute." Either that or "Beware of loquaciousness."

minnesotamom said...

Funny, our church often uses children as an example of Original Sin. We are born into total depravity. I do not claim to be a 5-point Calvinist, but most in my church are. I probably would have been shocked at such an assertion myself prior to sitting under my current pastor.

I have been misunderstood (misinterpreted?) too many times to keep track. It still feels crummy, every time.

I have learned to attempt to limit my sarcasm when blogging, though when you meet me in real life, BEWARE. I think that would be my user's guide. "Beware: Nutbar. With a camera."

Antique Mommy said...

I definitely need that disclaimer. For my mother. Whom I love, but doesn't quite get me.

My *favorite* is when the drive by reader chastises me because she/he doesn't get my joke.

Carrien said...

Mine would say, "This blog is most often ploddingly dull because it's author can not escape the need for extremely accurate detail and curbs her tendency to exaggerate to the point of killing everything interesting in the story. She is trying to overcome this tendency, but you can be sure she is not facetious very often, more's the pity. It would be more entertaining if was. You can count on her to say things she believes are helpful quite often however. My tone is that of an advice column most of the time."

ryjus said...

Did Simon Cowell use "facetious" correctly last night on American Idol? He originally told a contestant that his rendering of the song was clumsy and awkward. Ryan Seacrest asked him to explain how "clumsy" relates to singing a song. Simon replied "You're just being facetious - go back and do your part of the show." I think it fits the second definition you list here - trivial and/or inappropriate.