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?
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.
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.