Even though I am slowly improving, I often have trouble understanding sarcasm, both in face-to-face conversations and in emailing in the English language.

In a 1971 study, Albert Mehrabian found that when people are trying to communicate feelings or attitudes, the message conveyed by words is only 7% of the total message, while the tone of voice and body language account for 38% and 55%, respectively. This study has become widely cited and is often used to demonstrate the importance of nonverbal communication.

Abdi Nor Iftin is a Somali-American writer, radio journalist and public speaker. He lives in Yarmouth. He can be contacted at noriftin@gmail.com.

That is why English as a Second Language classes in Maine should include teaching American sarcasm and body language. Learning English, in my experience, is not enough to navigate different cultures and norms. When we don’t get the jokes, the sarcasm or the body language, we can feel excluded and confused. One time I showed a photo of my mother to some young teens. One boy said something like, “Put a mustache on her face and she would be your copy.” Everyone laughed. It left me frozen in anger.

I learned English from watching American movies, but I did not pick up on the sarcasm in them. We can only learn the meaning of the satire and body language when we live here. I remember watching the 1989 movie “Glory” when Morgan Freeman asks Denzel Washington where about he is from. Denzel replies that he is from Tennessee. “I ran away when I was 12 years old and I ain’t never looked back.” When he is asked what he has been doing since then, Denzel replies that he ran for president and after some pause, he says he did not win. For some time, I thought Denzel’s character did run for U.S. president.

Sarcasm is a form of humor, but it can also be used to convey irony, skepticism or criticism. Without an understanding of the cultural context and conventions of sarcasm, it can be easy for ESL students to misinterpret or misunderstand what is being said, like I did, when I thought the teenager was insulting my mother. During my first job at an insulation company in Yarmouth, I remember several misunderstandings with coworkers. One time I asked someone if he needed my help loading heavy insulation bags into a truck. He said he was having too much fun doing it. I did not help because I did not want to interrupt his fun. I learned later that he was being sarcastic and that he would have liked my help.

ESL classes that include sarcasm in their teachings would help immigrants better understand and navigate the cultural norms and social cues of this country. Learning about it will enable us to identify and understand the different forms of communication and expressions and to better navigate social interactions, helping us be more a part of American society. It can be a way to bridge the gap between our different cultures and find common ground through shared forms of humor and communication.

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