31 Mar 2023

April fools' etiquette

Image from Panorama's 'spaghetti harvest' in 1957.

April Fools’ Day, 1 April, is one of the world’s most widely acknowledged non-religious holidays. There is much dispute about is origins, but they can probably be traced back to the Roman festival of Hilaria, which was celebrated at the end of March by followers of the cult of Cybele, and involved people dressing up in disguises and mocking their fellow citizens.

It was several hundred years later before the first recorded mentions of the festival appear. In 1586 a Flemish poet wrote some comic verses about a nobleman who sent his servant on a number of “fool’s errands” in preparation for a wedding feast on “Fools’ Day”, 1 April. Other historians argue that Fools’ Day can be traced back to the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, decreed by the Council of Trent in 1563. According to the Julian calendar the new year began at the time of the vernal equinox, around 1 April; new adherents to the Gregorian calendar began to celebrate the new year on 1 January. In France, people who were slow to adjust to the new timings and persisted in following their traditional April new year, were mocked as “poissons d’Avril” (young fish were easily caught in spring and therefore seen as foolish and gullible) and became the butt of jokes and hoaxes. The first mention of April Fools’ day in Britain was in 1686 when the biographer John Aubrey described 1 April as “Fooles holy day”.

April Fools’ Day became an occasion for pranksters and mischief-making – the intention was to play light-hearted tricks, for example gluing money to the pavement, or swapping sugar for salt. As time went on, these pranks became more elaborate, and newspapers, media outlets and businesses now use the day to set up elaborate scams or to launch false announcements as a way of boosting business or publicity – the BBC’s 1957 straight-faced report on the Italian spaghetti-growers, who harvested spaghetti from trees, is legendary; spaghetti was still seen as an exotic food in 1950s Britain and many viewers were fooled.

There is a tradition that pranks can only be played until noon; if anybody transgresses and plays a prank after that cut-off time, they are considered the fool. In 1855, the following ditty was recorded in the county of Hampshire:

            April fool’s gone past,

            You’re the biggest fool at last;

            When April comes again,

            You’ll be the biggest fool again

April Fools’ Day has also long had a reputation as an unlucky day, and therefore a bad day on which to schedule important events, such as a marriage. After Napoleon married Marie-Louise of Austria on 1 April 1810 his subjects mocked him, as follows:

            Napoleon, Napoleon

            We thought you were a nice Italian dish!

            Instead we have discovered that you are a small April fish!

April Fools’ Etiquette

We have established the historic credentials of April Fools and some of the traditions associated with it. But should we be participating and playing practical jokes, and how do we judge when April Fools’ horseplay is inappropriate?

If you’re an inveterate prankster, remember a good practical joke will do no more than showcase the victim’s gullibility, ideally in an ingenious and amusing way, and should not therefore inflict lasting damage. Before you devise a fiendish array of practical jokes, just pause and consider the following:

• Think about the target

While nobody wants to be played for a fool, many of us are robust and self-confident enough to laugh off any embarrassment. However, there are some people who will find being targeted genuinely upsetting; they may be shy, self-contained, self-protective, thin-skinned and vulnerable. Refrain from putting people like this through the practical joke trauma – it may do much more damage than you intend.

• Only play pranks on people you know well

For all the reasons given above, you should be very cautious about blithely assuming that someone you don’t know very well shares your sense of humour. If they don’t, the embarrassment and discomfiture you inflict on them may be the cause of deep resentment and may make you look cruel and vindictive.

• Don’t make jokes about serious matters

You might think it’s hilarious to shatter your target with lies of the “You’re fired!”, “Your mother and I are getting divorced”, “We’re moving to Australia” variety. But if they’re taken in, even if it’s for just a few minutes, they will experience a genuine sense of shock and desolation and may find it very hard to recover or forgive you for your insensitivity.

• Be prompt to admit you’re the prankster

If you’ve played a practical joke and your victim comes to the realisation that you’ve done so, hold your hands up and admit it when asked. Otherwise, you’ll be wielding the power of uncertainty over your target for the whole day, which will justifiably build up a feeling of animosity.

• Don’t be mean-spirited

Think about your proposed prank and how it would make you feel if you were the victim. If that makes you recoil in horror, you can safely assume that you have crossed the border into transgressive behaviour, which will cause shame and distress rather than good-natured laughter.

• Think about consequences

Playing practical jokes can make you feel like a powerful puppet-master, but don’t take it too far, especially in the work context. If you play on someone’s vulnerabilities or desires (for example, a workplace crush or a secret ambition), you may end up causing such painful humiliation that you run the risk of being accused of workplace harassment or bullying.


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