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Keywords:

  • shyness;
  • verbal irony;
  • pragmatic competence;
  • communication;
  • social anxiety

Verbal irony exploits the ambiguity inherent in language by using the discrepancy between a speaker's intended meaning and the literal meaning of his or her words to achieve social goals. Irony provides a window into children's developing pragmatic competence. Yet, little research exists on individual differences that may disrupt this understanding. For example, verbal irony may challenge shy children, who tend to interpret ambiguous stimuli as being threatening and who have difficulty mentalizing in social contexts. We examined whether shyness is related to the interpretation of ironic statements. Ninety-nine children (8–12 year olds) listened to stories wherein one character made either a literal or ironic criticism or a literal or ironic compliment. Children appraised the speaker's belief and communicative intention. Shyness was assessed using self-report measures of social anxiety symptoms and shy negative affect. Shyness was not related to children's comprehension of the counterfactual nature of ironic statements. However, shyness was related to children's ratings of speaker meanness for ironic statements. Thus, although not related to the understanding that speakers intended to communicate their true beliefs, shyness was related to children's construal of the social meaning of irony. Such subtle differences in language interpretation may underlie some of the social difficulties facing shy children. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.