USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘rooms’
Folk speech

Three Lightbulbs, Two Rooms, One Answer…

Folk Piece

Question: There are two rooms, one room has nothing but three switches. The other room has nothing but three light bulbs. You can only enter each room once. How do you determine which switch corresponds to which light bulb? Also: the walls aren’t transparent.

Answer: Flip one on, wait a couple minutes, repeat. Feel the heat of the bulbs in the other room.


Background information

The participant likes this riddle because it’s a bit longer than most of the ones he tells. I talked a little about his story in my post ‘A Dog Walks into a Forest…’ But essentially, he likes these riddles because they remind him of him and his dad growing up telling them to one another. He also said “Usually I’d ask riddles that have more to do with word play, I don’t know. But this one is just like a fun variation on that and makes the person think a little bit harder.



I actually guessed this one right, and he was pretty impressed. He asked, “You hadn’t heard that one before?” It was originally being told in a battle of wits between him and a friend of mine, who were asking riddles to one another trying to out-riddle the other. He usually will tell it if someone else will tell one first, or he might do it just to break the ice between he and someone he knows.



Just like the other riddles, this one was told as a back-and-forth exchange between two informants. What I find to be most interesting is the competitive aspect of this folk telling. The informant actually seemed to be legitimately surprised, and even almost a bit annoyed, that I had known the answer. As with traditional riddles, like this one is, there are traditional answers. Typically, those answers are not supposed to be easy to think of; they wouldn’t be considered good riddles if they were. Riddles almost give the person telling them the power to drive the conversation; only they know the answer, or other people who may have heard it.


Also intriguing is the competitive aspect between the two participants. I asked for different riddles, or jokes, but it seemed that just as one ended, another began. I didn’t say that the best one won some sort of prize, or that the most clever would be included. However, it seemed that they were more interested in telling one another these riddles than to me. Why might this be?

I would argue that these participants had learned these riddles throughout their childhood and early adulthood; to them, they own their histories and the memories of them. These riddles, actionable to recall at any time, act as a way to show the history of their wits. Whoever is able to stump the other repeatedly, or has more clever riddles, is the one that has had superior intellectual exposure to riddles. It’s common after someone tells a riddle to say “Ooooh, that’s a good one!” This qualification of which riddles are the most clever can act as an actual social agent in determining the wits of an individual.