Joking rituals amongst the Ausies

Further ethnographic fieldwork amongst the citizens of Adelaide, South Australia, has revealed the presence of other rituals, in particular an almost ubiquitous 'joking ritual'. Whether this ritual is a survival from the primitive past, or a modern development, is, at present, unknown, there being no evidence yet available for either conclusion. The fieldwork which resulted in the discovery of this ritual was begun during the early part of 2015, and is still in progress. Thus, this paper is a preliminary report and should not be seen as definitive.

The situation in which the ritual develops begins when one person approaches another and requests that some service be performed. Although this approach is necessary to set the scene, the actual performance can only be initiated by the person providing the service. Nor need the ritual commence immediately; the 'officials' may defer the start until a plan of action is decided. How long the start may be deferred is difficult to define, and varies from situation to situation. However, the ritual must start before the service is completed: waiting too long can mean a lost opportunity or a performance which leads to an unsatisfactory conclusion.

The ritual is always performed by a group (the 'officials'). Where there is the appearance of a single official, there are always others in the background, offering suggestions and ideas. This multiplicity of officials is necessary for a satisfactory performance, since it allows the introduction of new ideas and subtle shifts of direction which bring so much enjoyment to the ritual. The primary aim of the officials is to prolong the ritual as long as possible.

On the other hand, there can only be a single subject (sometimes called the 'customer'). Where two or more subjects appear to be involved, they are invariably involved in separately performed rituals, which may be so intertwined as to be difficult to separate.

The ritual is dyadic, in that it requires the full participation of the two parties. Indeed, the ritual cannot be properly performed by one group alone. Some situations have been noted which, at first glance, appear to be single-sided enactments. However, these have always turned out to be performances where one or other party was not properly participating in the spirit of the ritual, or merely coincidental similarities.
There are a number of technical terms used during the ritual. For instance, 'passing the buck' means that the official is introducing a new player into the ritual. "Your letter is in the mail." or "I'll get Mr. So-and-so to call you when he comes in." are useful ways of slowing down the proceedings, and thus drawing out the enjoyment. "We seem to have misplaced your file." often means that someone has lost control of the ritual and needs time to sort it out, or perhaps needs time to set up the next episode. A full analysis of the specialised jargon will need more work, which will be reported in a later paper.

When properly performed, the ritual gives great pleasure to all involved. Perhaps the most important aspect in generating that pleasure is the final conclusion, which can only be initiated by the subject, but at a time dictated by the officials. Thus the subject needs great skill in detecting the right moment to draw the ritual to a close. Failure to do so will negate all of the benefits which might be gained from the ritual, and may result in the subject being treated with contempt by the officials. A successful conclusion depends very much on the performance and involvement of the participants, the subtlety of the performance, and a number of other factors.

Here I shall describe two examples, drawn from many hundreds of cases studied, to illustrate the basic form, and suggest how each  might be interpreted. Since there is a wide variety of ways and situations in which the ritual might be performed, the cases described should be seen as examples only. The first is part of a long-term ritual, whereas the second is a shorter one.

In this example of the ritual the informant was Michael (a pseudonym), who is a university student. This case is actually one episode in a ritual which has been running, at the time of writing, for more than three years.

Michael received a survey form from the government department which provides allowances for full-time students, requesting information on his income and studies. It also warned that his allowance would be discontinued if the survey form was not returned within fourteen days.

Since he received the form only three days before the expiry date, Michael took it personally into the office of the department, where it was date-stamped and placed in a pile with some other forms. A week later, he received a letter informing him that, since he had not returned the survey form, his allowance was to be discontinued.
Michael returned to the department and was told that "It [his form] must have got lost somewhere in the system.". The clerk added "We sent out thousands of these forms, you know, so we can't be expected to keep track of all of them." While he was there, Michael filled out another survey form.

A week later, Michael received another, different, survey form, from the same department, which asked for virtually the same information. Again he delivered it personally to the department. But this time he was told that he need not have taken the trouble, since there was no due date, and that, in fact, he need not have filled it out if he did not want to!

Here we can see the steps through which the joke was built. A form is sent out late, accompanied by a threat of dire consequences if it is not returned immediately. When it is returned, it is promptly 'lost', so that now there is the opportunity for a threat to implement the threat, in effect raising the game to a higher level, like 'doubling' in backgammon, or raising the ante in poker.

If he had been in doubt before, Michael immediately recognised the official's response - putting the blame onto 'the system' - as part of the ritual. An alternative which is becoming increasingly popular is to blame 'computer error'. The episode might have ended there, but someone then thought of an even better ending. They sent Michael another form, but without telling him that the rules had been changed!

This second example of the ritual was described to me by Bob (a pseudonym), who took his computer for a minor fault to be repaired. Being experienced in electronics, Bob was able to give an accurate description of the fault, and knew which parts would have to be replaced.

Bob delivered his computer to the service department of BDM Engineering (a pseudonym) on a Thursday morning, and was told that someone would ring him when it was ready to be picked up, probably on the Friday, but maybe on the Monday.
Not having received the telephone call by the following Wednesday, Bob rang BDM, to be told that there was nothing wrong with the computer and that he could pick it up any time. He said that he would come immediately.

While Bob was on the way to BDM Engineering - an hour trip through heavy traffic - a serviceman rang his home to tell him not to come, as further checks had revealed a fault: In fact, it was the fault that he had described in the first place. So, when Bob arrived he found that his trip had been unnecessary. Although he admitted that he was not aware of it at the time, Bob had set up an ideal situation for the joking ritual, and the people at BDM lost no time in implementing it.

Next, Bob was told that the replacement parts would have to come from Sydney, and would arrive in a day or two. He would be notified of the arrival by Friday at the latest. [Note: Sydney is a large city on the east coast of Australia, about 1500 kilometres from Adelaide.]

On the following Tuesday, Bob telephoned to see if the parts had arrived, and thus allowed the people at BDM to play out the next part of the ritual. The lady on the switchboard told Bob that everyone in the service department was at a meeting, but would be out soon. She would make sure that someone returned his call "in a few minutes". One hour and fifty minutes later, Bob received a call telling him that there had been a hold up in Sydney, and that the parts would be delayed "a few more days". They would let him know when the parts arrived.

The call came on the following Friday. However, this was not to be the end: Now the computer must be returned for the parts to be installed, and for "a few more checks".

An analysis of this case shows some interesting points. Whether the wasted trip was actually the beginning of the ritual or merely a fortuitous coincidence is not known. If it was fortuitous, then obviously it was too good a chance for the people at BDM to pass up. I suggest that they would have immediately seen the possibilities, and thrown themselves into their performance. Note also that they signalled to Bob that he was to be the subject, by mentioning the far away Sydney, always a good indication that "the game is afoot". This signalling shows the politeness of the people at BDM; many of the more aggressive players would simply have gone ahead without any warning.

The people at BDM are obviously conscientious and keen players of the game. They have slowly built up their performance, giving Bob ample time to become involved, thus ensuring that both sides get the maximum enjoyment. There is still plenty of time for the introduction of more subtle themes, as the end is not yet in sight.

As mentioned above, the way in which the ritual is concluded is most important for all involved. The ideal conclusion should be an exchange of jocular insults. There are, however, limits to what might be said. These are set by the cultural milieu, and depend on the age, sex and social class of the participants, as well as other factors.

It was not possible to describe the conclusions of either of the examples above, since neither has yet reached the proper point in the proceedings. But, as an example, a typical exchange might go:-

Customer: (derisively) "Don't tell me its done at last!"
Official: (smugly) "We always aim to satisfy."
C: (rhetorically) "Do you get paid to waste people's time?"
O: (with a smile) "Have a nice day."
C: "Up yours!" (etymology not clear, but apparently an invitation to sexual congress, perhaps as a gesture of appreciation).

Customer then departs with a sneer on his or her lips, to the ringing laughter of the officials, and the satisfaction, for all, of a job well done.

Although my descriptions might suggest that each ritual is an isolated event, in actual fact there are uncountably many occurring at one and the same time - overlapping in time and space - such that it is sometimes difficult for the ethnographer to separate them for individual study. However, the Australians appear not to have a problem, as an individual might be involved in a number of different rituals at the same time.

The 'joking relationship', which defines those with whom one can exchange ritual insults, is known to exist in many cultures. However, in most cultures the 'joking relationship' depends on the juxtaposition of social categories, such as age-set and "mother's-brother". Since the Australians do not have strong kinship ties, nor rigid age-sets, these options are not available to them. I suggest then, that to fill the social void, 'joking rituals' as described above have been developed, in which temporary 'joking relationships' are established. Once the ritual is concluded, the 'joking relationship' is broken, and the participants are released to take part in new formations.

Thus the 'joking relationship' in Australian society is not rigid, as it is in other cultures, but is constantly changing. As in all such exchanges, the aim is to release social tensions. It can be seen, then, that the system used by the Australians has the advantage of maximising the cathartic effect by distributing it throughout their society in a fluid and variable manner.

Taking part in the rituals, therefore, has great benefits for everyone. Subjects spend considerable time discussing ritual performances; being the subject of a particularly ingenious or long, drawn out ritual is a great social asset. On the other hand, officials do not talk much about their performances, and may even, at times, deny their involvement. But officials do gain social merit from performing the ritual, to the point where some have become widely known. They are often greeted, even by complete strangers, with the admiring sobriquet "Bureaucrat!", delivered, as required, in a sneering tone of voice.

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