Tag Archives: Practical Jokes

“Can you go get some steam?”

Text:

When there’s a new person working at the pit lane of a racing track, there’s a hazing ritual that the new worker goes through where they’re asked to “get some steam” because they ran out. So, they’ll ask if anyone else has it, and when they ask a person they will usually send the newbie to the next lane, saying they have it. This continues until they reach the main lane, essentially. Sometimes, instead of needing to get “steam”, the newbie will have to get “a left handed screwdriver”, which once again, doesn’t exist because screwdrivers work with both hands.

Context:

The informant had a job in public relations and sponsor acquisition for a racing team.

Analysis:

Beyond being a simple practical joke, “getting steam” for a pit crew can be seen as a way of testing how a recruit reacts to and handles a future situation. While the team may not ask for steam in the future, they might ask for something else that is hard to find, or ask for something in a strange fashion. Being able to react to that information and find such an object is an important part of the job. Additionally, it fosters a sense of community between other members of the pit crews, as having a common joke that they can all be in on and trick new workers with serves as a way to strengthen the bond between the workers.

Snipe Hunting

Informant Information — KL

  • Nationality: American
  • Age: 19
  • Occupation: Student
  • Residence: Los Angeles, California
  • Date of Performance/Collection: April 10, 2022
  • Primary Language: English

The informant shared this story with me in an in-person interview. She participated in a “snipe hunt” during a visit to her grandparents’ house when she was about ten years old.

Interviewer: 

How did you come to participate in the “snipe hunt”?

Informant: 

When I was probably ten years old, my parents sent my brothers and I to spend a few weeks with my grandparents in Arizona. We were super excited to see the desert because my mom told us that there would be lots of cool animals there. 

About halfway through the trip, my grandparents were probably starting to get kind of tired of us, so they told us that we were going to spend a day snipe hunting. They drove us about 20 minutes away from their house and let us run around for like three hours… they didn’t even tell us that the snipes weren’t real! We found out after we got home and told our parents that we couldn’t find any. 

Interviewer: 

Had you heard of snipes before? What did your grandparents tell you to look for?

Informant: 

We hadn’t ever heard of snipes before, I thought they were native to the desert. My grandparents said we were looking for little brown birds that couldn’t fly and had really long beaks. They said that we would have to creep up on them and jump on top of them to catch them. 

Interviewer: 

How did you and your brothers react to learning that they weren’t real?

Informant: 

My brothers didn’t really care. I think they would’ve been happy to catch any animal at all. I was a little disappointed because I really wanted to catch a snipe and hold it, since they were supposed to be soft like birds. Now I think it’s really funny. 

Analysis:

The snipe hunt was a joke played on my informant by her grandparents, but it could also be considered a rite of passage (transitioning from being in the group that doesn’t know what snipes are to being in the group that’s in on the joke). I hadn’t heard of snipe hunting, but I have been sent on similar fool’s errands. As a child, my father once let me run around Home Depot looking for a “left-handed screwdriver” while he was shopping.

WORKPLACE PRANKS

MAIN PIECE: 

Informant: Well… So, my coworkers and I like to prank each other, and there was a time when there was this really stink––I can’t remember who started it––but one of us got this stinkiest cheese from the store and hid it in the other one’s desk. And then he hid it in my desk. And then I hid it in his car. Like, I found a spot under the driver seat where I stuffed it up there and he couldn’t ever find it. So I mean, there’s stuff like that. One of the guys also covered my phone in Vaseline and called me and I answered it and freaking shoved a glob of Vaseline in my ear hole… One time I heard that someone was running late for a meeting so I went and parked both of our moving vans on both sides of his car within like three inches. He couldn’t open his doors so I saw him out in the parking lot––he had to open the trunk––it was a station wagon… So he crawled in through the trunk to get to his car. Um… The other thing we’d do is if like the other guy left his door open, we’d like recline the seat…? Because a lot of times when you get in your car you just automatically lean back without looking and so you see him like disappear. It was so funny. Like I did it to him one time, and you know, I saw him like go out to his car and he like went to lean back and he just disappeared. So, I don’t know, just stupid stuff… And we do it to our boss too. Like sometimes when we know he’s going skiing, we pack his boots filled with like popcorn… Uh… Styrofoam popcorn, or uh… We’ll turn his bindings backwards. Or, yeah.   

INFORMANT’S RELATIONSHIP TO THE PIECE:

Interviewer: Why do you think you guys do these pranks in the workplace? 

Informant: ‘Cause our job’s boring, and this makes being at work fun… There’s no real reason other than to have fun, you know? We’re all stressed out, we’re all… You know, working hard, and then… All of the sudden you start laughing ‘cause you find a block of stinky cheese under your desk… You know, or someone shrink wraps my entire desk with like computer and everything, like… With this like moving tape… It’s just part of the culture of the office to have fun together… Everyone’s like, you know, we’ll let air out of our boss’ tire when he’s going biking, just… There’s always stuff. 

REFLECTION:

Pranking coworkers is often associated with rites of passage, as the pranks are often geared towards new employees who have yet to be “initiated” into the in-group. Pranks are often associated with thresholds, as demonstrated by trickster characters who are neither entirely good nor entirely bad; they are unstable, liminal figures. This piece, however, demonstrates that pranks are not limited to transitional periods of time. They can also be ongoing components of a work culture, and may continue amongst the in-group. It appears here that pranks are used to make a very stable, predictable environment slightly more unstable. It reduces the formality of the workplace, blurring the divide between employer and employee, and between professional and casual relationships and conduct.

‘Joota Chori’: Dipping Your Toes Into a New Phase of Life

The Interviewer will be referred to as ‘I’, and the informant as ‘S’. Translations for Hindi words will be italicised and in parentheses. The Informant is a 52-year-old Punjabi mother, born and raised in North India. ‘Joota Chori’ essentially means stealing shoes.

I: So, we have many wedding rituals and games, and practical jokes are part of that. Could you describe one?

S: Yeah, this is during the wedding ceremony, or you could say through and post it, but somewhere during the wedding ceremony, when the — both the groom and the bride have to remove their footwear to get onto the… the podium for the phere (Seven circumambulations performed by the bride and groom during Indian weddings), the sacred… the holy ritual, the seven rounds we take. So, at that point in time, the girl’s sisters and friends, they get together and hide the groom’s shoes. Basically, to seek ransom in return, at some point, and make some money, some cash. And the boy’s brothers and friends are attempting to manage to make sure they don’t manage that, and if they do manage it, they’re attempting to kind of… look for the shoes and find them to save that money. It becomes a major, a big thing, good fun thing, and mostly the girl’s sisters and friends make money. The guy comes practically prepared for it [she laughs], that x amount will mostly have to be given.

I: So, would you say it’s kind of like a rite of passage, in that sense?

S: Rite of passage, introducing each other to the families, the families and friends, yeah. Testing them and joking around, getting familiar.

Analysis:

Weddings are often known to involve the liminal space, the transition period where one person is moving from a certain identity (the family they were born into), to another one (the family they are marrying into). This liminal space is between the stages of departure from the initial and arrival and acceptance into the latter, and therefore, practical jokes and rituals are part of the experience, even in Indian weddings. Here, the practical joke is, as my informant states, a rite of passage, a welcoming of both parties into their counterpart families and communities, and they also have the auxiliary purpose of acquainting both families and friend-groups with each other in a lighthearted, fun way. This wedding game, a practical joke, signifies the introduction of the two families at the wedding, as well as the initiation of the bride and groom into these families, since the people being ‘pranked’ are not exactly entirely moved away from their previous community, and neither are they fully integrated into the new one.

The Mail Buoy – A Practical Joke on New Sailors in the Navy

Item:

T: With new sailors, we go out and say “Hey! Watch out for the mail buoy so we can pick up our mail!  Keep an eye out for that mail buoy, if you’re not gonna get that mail buoy, we’re not gonna get our mail!”

Q: So the new sailors would go out and they would look for it?

T: Yep.

Q: So how long is it gonna take them before they find out it’s a joke?

T: [Laughs] They will never know unless somebody tells them.

 

Context:

I collected this practical joke in a conversation about the informant’s time in the U.S.  Navy; I asked him about a few of the traditions I had heard about before and he also told me about a few others including the mail buoy joke.  The informant is denoted by the pseudonym ‘T’ and I am ‘Q’ in the exchange above.  The informant served in the U.S. Navy for 26 years before retiring as a Senior Chief Petty Officer in 2017.  He learned this joke from other sailors in 2002 when he was stationed on a ship for the first time since enlisting in 1990.  He never got this joke played on him since he was more experienced when he was first on a ship, leading others to believe he had been stationed on a few before, nor did he play it on other sailors, mentioning how there were plenty of younger sailors to play pranks on the new seamen fresh out of boot camp.  He remembers this joke as a humorous part of the time he spent stationed on a ship, and also mentioned other funny rituals and jokes played on new sailors later on.

 

Analysis:

The mail buoy prank on new sailors is a classic example of practical jokes played to establish who is in and who is out of a particular identity, further distinguishing who has the knowledge and experience from who doesn’t.  In this case, the mail buoy practical joke is a way of legitimizing the change in identity from a new to a seasoned sailor.  Particularly in the military where a power structure determined by rank already officially exists, these kinds of practical jokes and other initiation rituals serve as a further distinguisher between those of different power, experience, and knowledge levels.  There are also other identities that transcend the official structure, such as being a sailor in the Navy since members may not always be initially stationed on a ship.  When the more knowledgeable, higher power, or more experienced individuals initiate the joke, they display the fact that they are in that particular identity (though it may not yet be known to those the joke is being played on).  Once the other individuals learn about the joke, though, or get the punchline in other words, they are now also in on that group.  In the mail buoy joke, seasoned sailors would know that mail is not actually delivered in a buoy to the ship, but the seamen straight out of boot camp may not and actually take the warning to find the buoy seriously.  The fact that the new seamen would believe in the buoy would clearly mark them as new sailors.  The humiliation of realizing the mail buoy is not a real thing would serve as an initiation ritual to the group of seasoned sailors and the recognition of the joke would be an internalization of this new change in identity.  These types of practical jokes, particularly in the military, are significant ways in which people ritualize a change in their identity and studying them, like in the mail buoy piece above, can indicate what change is occurring.