Snipe hunters of preys with low epistemic vigilance
What weapon would you use to hunt a dahu? Where would you start looking for a Volkswagen Beetle radiator hose? Does elbow grease come in cans or tubes? You shouldn’t even begin thinking about these questions because they are just introductions into elaborate hoaxes. Dahus are fictional deers said to be adapted to the terrain of the Alps by having the feet on mountain side shorter than the feet on the valley side. The Beetle has an air-cooled engine and does not have a radiator. Elbow grease is a metaphor for strenuous manual labour. What makes these ficticious items successful cultural replicators? How can we explain the occurrence of “snipe hunt” in so many different social settings across the world?
During my fieldwork in a Romanian village, I spent some time as an apprentice in a construction team.When one of our workmates accidentally broke a wooden plank, he was sent by the master builder to search for an “acacia electrode” to weld it back into one piece. One evening during after-work drinks, the team managed to convince a young villager that his skills as swimmer were needed early next morning, when the team was to build a dam on one of Romania’s largest rivers. These practices are part of a cross-cultural set of practical jokes called the fool’s errand or the snipe hunt.
My favourite Wikipedia examples are:
In construction, sending someone for a “pipe-stretcher” or “camouflage paint” In offices, sending someone to buy “verbal agreement forms” In the navy, asking someone to get a visual on an incoming B1RD contact. In car repair, requesting someone to bring some diesel engine spark plugs In orchestras, requiring some members to find their “tacet” in their parts
Another prank occurs in the Alps, Mexico, the Philippines and United States and many other places where naïve individuals are coaxed into hunting non-existent animals with fantastical features. American Jackalopes are rabbits with antlers while their cousins, the Bavarian Wolpertingers, also have feathers and fangs. Folklorists have a long history of documenting the hunt for fantastical animals (see for instance here and here).
I think that modern fool’s errands and folkloric snipe hunts are basically the same prank which is based on an intentional exploitation of a recurrent failure of human communication. Let me unpack the prank into its components to demonstrate this. First of all, these pranks occur in a social interaction between non-equals. The party which is exploited is a naïve participant. Naïve not only in the sense that he (or she, but in the ethnographic examples I evoke, only men were involved) does not know that a practical joke is unfolding, but also naïve in the sense of having little or no knowledge of the relevant domain. A fresh building apprentice does not know the names of most tools, a beginner sailor is unfamiliar with all the short codes used on deck and tourists are inexperienced in rural folk biology and taxonomy. The exploiter, on the other hand, is an expert in the domain: a master builder, a commanding officer or a local mountaineering guide. The success of the prank depends on the gullible party being convinced that the information transmitted is genuine and relevant. The fool must believe that the “left-handed screwdriver” requested by the expert refers to a real artefact because the expert indicates his urgent need and uses technical jargon.
If you are truly a novice, you do not know the object referred to as a “left-handed screwdriver”, but nor do you most tools of the trade. Even if you do not a clear mental representation of the object, you defer to the master’s authority, you believe “semi-propositionally” that he does need a left-handed screwdriver (whatever this may be) and, as a good apprentice, you go around looking for it. When you ask a second master for instructions, the goal of causing hilarity is achieved and, if the second master is also a skilled “sniper hunter”, the joke may be kept alive by a new request.
Why do we not only believe in this non-sense but also act upon such beliefs with most embarrassing consequences? The reason lies, I suggest, in the structure of the communicative act. The speaker is much more competent in the topic discussed than the target. The topic discussed is, moreover, filled with jargon and mental shortcuts. The jargon is almost never taught explicitly and participants learn many terms of the trade during practical tasks. If the novice interprets the utterance as a genuine request, he also accepts the premise that the left-handed screwdriver refers to an actual object available nearby. When the novice accepts the assertion without further request for clarification, acts upon it and makes it known that he does so, he swallows the cognitive bait hook, line and sinker.
Almost always, the artefact used in the prank seems genuine and needed but also surprising or even fantastical. The first requirement satisfies the condition of believability: you cannot trick someone with just any bizarre term. If I ask you to search for a bicycle carburettor, it might be too easy to for you to realise the absurdity of the request. On the other hand, the second requirement needs to be satisfied if the joke is to achieve its purpose. I can ask you to look for a (non-existent) green hammer, but that would hardly result in the outburst of laughter which accompanies a novice asking around for a glass hammer. The mastery of the prank is achieved by a maximisation of outlandishness within the limits of believability.
The exploiters know, of course, that a beginner knows little but tries to be serviceable because of his subordinate position and desire to please. The joke is sometimes a collective enterprise in which the several “insiders” play on the gullibility of a single(still) “outsider” and the greater the number of confederates or witnesses participating in the joke, the merrier it is.
Here is a sketch of the causal mechanism which makes the “snipe hunt” a successful attempt to exploit an asymmetry of information and authority. The common features of cross-cultural practical jokes are:
an initiator (or a group of them) who transmits an absurd request with the appearance of relevance; a victim whose epistemic vigilance is at a low threshold due to the structure of unequal competence and social hierarchy;
a conceptual domain characterized by a complex jargon and intensive communication relying on it. a structure of social interaction with a clearly defined, largely accepted difference of competence between experts and novices.
This account goes somewhat towards an explanation of proximate causes, but leaves much to be explained for the persistence and reproduction of the “snipe hunt”. Why does it exist in so many cultures and technological domains? How is the prank reproduced/changed over time? Is there any purpose for its use except good old fun? Let me venture a couple of hypothesis.
The reproduction of the snipe hunt is partly based on the transformation of the novice into an expert through repeated pranks. After some time, the ex-victim becomes a victimiser for the current newcomers. He is now “one of the boys” and he can practice his skill of deceit which asserts his new status in the pecking order of the social group.
The “snipe hunt” might play a role in the “education of attention” in the social group.Naïve participants are taught by recourse to a cruel example the importance of discriminating between relevant and irrelevant information. Especially in the construction trade, much of the communication is non-verbal or non-directive and requires extensive self-reliance, simultaneous representation of a task, and participatory imagination. The fool’s errand can, thus, be a lesson in how not be a fool i.e. to become a competent, useful member of the team/group/community. Supporting evidence could be the integration of the snipe hunt in the Boy Scout general training routine (http://www.jstor.org/stable/540502)
I will end with a case of “snipe hunting” which takes the ethnographer as its target due to his ignorance of local beliefs and characters. In a builder’s culture valuing manhood and physical endurance, I was the only member of the team using protection gear. One day, my master builder told me that he was quite upset; he had been approached by an old villager, Uncle Toma, who asked whether the beautiful houses were the design of that new fellow, the engineer with the bright orange hard hat spending his time on the site and sometimes working on his laptop in the village pub. The master was angry that his skill was not acknowledged and that my showing off with smart contraptions put me in an unearned limelight. Several other team members advised me to “keep it cool”, and stop being such a poser. The entire story was an elaborate hoax; there was no old man (of course I asked around and made a fool of myself), no such gossip, everyone knew very well who was who and who did what in the building site. I was taken for a (cultural) ride as a naïve ethnographer with a very sensitive awareness of his ambiguous role in the village.
I have a few questions of my own for fellow C&C members. Have you been taken aboard for the snipe hunt in your fieldwork or personal life? Do you think there is a connection with initiation rituals such as hazing? What is the role played by laughter and humour in this prank? Can we discard some of the particular features of the snipe hunt in order to achieve a general model of recurrent elaborate deceit?
 In our building team, we collectively used the term “petalude” (from Gr. Petaloudes) to refer to an implement resembling a butterfly because our master learned his trade and the terminology in Greece and always called for the implement by this name (in the beginning, pointing out the tool at the same time). No-one in the village would understand the meaning of this term and many others like it, something very useful in our secretive trade.