Air Quotes were born from sarcasm.
Raise both hands up in the air. Make the sign of the rabbit, or the vee, or peace with two fingers up on each hand. Curl the raised fingers down half way, then raise them up again. You just made air quotes.
Air quotes tell the person you’re talking to, “I don’t really mean what I’m saying,” or air quotes tell the person you’re talking to, “I don’t believe in the meaning of the word.” If you can put the disqualifier of “so-called” in front of a word, then you could use air quotes. Or, if you could actually say “quote-unquote” around a certain dubious word, air quotes could be used.
For instance, you might question the skills of a manager at your work. You know full well the person was given the title because they’re currently in the position.
Occupancy doesn’t equate to skill.
Yet the title remains.
You happen to be talking to one of your co-workers about that particular person, and you say, “Dave is a fabulous,” insert air quotes, “manager.” You even pause just like you did while reading this. So of course Dave, whoever Dave might be, is a fabulous manager—in someone’s mind, or in some alternate dimension. But here in the real world, his qualifications are in name only. Dave is a so-called manager. Whether he actually manages to manage anything is up for debate.
Maybe you’re not talking about work at all. Maybe you want to talk about the weather. A friend brings up a recent tornado, and says, “Man, I can’t believe we got so much climate change yesterday.” Without slapping your head, you could drift into sarcasm, because you know the accepted scientific definition of climate is the measurement of weather over a long period of time, so by that definition, no single event could be titled “climate” or “climate change“, at least not in that context. If you choose this route, you’ll be a better friend. Say something like, “There’s a weather pattern in your,” insert air quotes, “brain, that I’m more concerned about.”
Maybe you’re not shooting the bull about the weather. Possibly the conversation is more drastic, more life-threatening. You’re a man, and a woman just asked you the deadly question of whether a specific clothing item changes her appearance. “Does this shirt with the vertical stripes make me look slimmer?” Your job as a man is to make her feel good about herself, but you want to be honest. If the truth is different from the sentence she wants to hear, let it play out like this:
“Yes you look slimmer.”
Notice there was no pause. Don’t pause at all. Say it fast and get out of there. Go to another part of the house, or go to work, or go to the bowling alley. You could even find a quiet location somewhere in the wilderness. When you’re miles away, make the air quotes. It doesn’t matter that you said “slimmer” an hour ago, or three days earlier. So long as you got those air quotes in there. Honesty maintained. Deadly conversation avoided. Phew! Now you can stop holding your breath, too.