Imagine this. You’re walking around the downtown of whatever city or town you live in. You pass someone wearing a chicken suit. The giant chicken is taking two real chickens wearing harnesses and leashes for a walk.
Now imagine this. You’re enjoying a cup of coffee at your favorite café. A woman wearing an extravagant feathered hat two times the size of her head walks into the coffee shop. Besides the crazy hat, the woman looks pretty normal and totally confident in her headwear choice. She orders a cup of coffee, finds an empty table and quietly reading How to Win Friends and Influence People.
I absolutely love the occasional social norm-breaking prank. It makes people curious. It encourages conversation. When done right, good-natured social pranks can be unifying. They serve as reminders to not always take life so seriously — to smile and laugh about the silly things.
Good humored abnormality adds much-needed color to the world.
The trick to being a legendary social norm breaker is to keep it subtle and unexpected. If you’re always doing odd and slightly uncomfortable things, that defeats the surprise factor. The art of clever social norm breaking is much like the art of being a ninja.
There have been several crazy and scary stories in the news lately about ill-intentioned people doing strange things in public. For this reason, it’s wise to stay away from breaking social norms that might trigger panic and legitimate fear.
The other day I was cruising down the highway, jamming out to “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls, when I saw a car with a leg dangling from the trunk. It looked like a child’s leg. I drove closer to check it out, and it looked very real. I was horrified. The car exited the highway and I called the police to report it. Then I spent the rest of the car ride sick to my stomach, trying to not overwhelm myself by imagining how something like that could have happened. It wasn’t until later that night that I found out it was just a Halloween prank. I didn’t realize how real those fake leg props look.
That’s not a funny prank. It was dangerously distracting to other drivers, mocked violence, devalues the life of children, and adds sentiments of fear and death to an already fear-filled world.
To make it abundantly clear, this article is not talking about dangerous, mean or scary pranks.
I’m striving for a life that promotes whatever is true, beautiful and excellent. I believe that pranks, when done right, can achieve all three.
Plenty of Debbie Downers out there will argue that all pranks are despicable. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and I respect that. But that means I’m entitled to my opinion on pranks, too, and I’d like to make the case that they can be uplifting and valuable to society.
Before continuing, I need to clarify what I mean by social norm breaking and pranking. I use these terms interchangibly in this article, but they have notably different meanings.
A social norm breaker is someone whose actions or words go against the unspoken rules of a specific place. For example, when you’re a passenger on a public bus, there’s an unspoken rule that you can’t reenact a scene from Pirates of the Carribbean. Doing such a thing would violate the acceptable bus riding behaviors that all the other passengers and bus driver expect you to follow. Social norm breakers may or may not realize that their actions go against social code.
A prankster is someone who plans and executes practical jokes. She knows full well that her actions break social codes and intends on leveraging the element of surprise to achieve a desired reaction.
8 Pillars of Great Social Norm Breaking and Pranking
1. Intended to make people laugh and/or feel good about life
Great pranks start with great goals. What are you trying to accomplish through how people react to the prank? How would you feel if someone pulled that prank on you? What value would this prank add to the world?
Great pranks aim to produce laughter, positive curiosity, stories, and unity. Truly great pranks never seek to hurt, humiliate, harm or destroy.
2. Creative and original
Don’t just Google “funny pranks.” Use your mind. That’s half the point of pulling a prank. If you’re not willing to invest time into kicking around ideas and wandering off on creative tangents, then you shouldn’t quit your day job. Positive social norm-breaking isn’t for everyone. It’s only for the brave at heart and witty of mind.
3. Non-destructive, non-defamatory
Stick to a 15-minute clean-up rule. Try to leave as little clean-up as possible and make sure no long term damages are incurred. If the prank requires breaking something that doesn’t belong to you, go back to the drawing board.
Not only do great pranks avoid physical damage, they should also be sensitive to potential emotional damage. If you make someone besides yourself the butt of the joke, seriously consider how that person will take it. It’s not worth damaging someone’s self-esteem or a relationship. If someone has to be humiliated, let it be you who takes the blow. Stay tuned for Pillar 7 for more on this.
4. Collaborative and unifying
Pranks are best done in collaboration with other people. The solo prankster is a lonely fellow with nobody to celebrate successful pranks with. One of the things I love most about breaking social norms is the bonds it creates.
Some of the most memorable conversations I’ve ever had have been late-night prank brainstorming sessions. Even if we didn’t go through with all the ideas, the process of creative thinking and belly-laughing with other people is absolutely beautiful.
When people plan pranks, they’re willing to be vulnerable with their ideas and sense of humor. Many people have a hard time sharing what’s on their mind. Vulnerability can be scary. But when the topic of conversation is funny ways to break social norms, people don’t hesitate to pitch in with their ideas. The entire process builds trust and unity — two values today’s society is sorely lacking.
5. Logistically-sound; flawlessly executed
A prank half-done is not worth doing. You have to think about the details. Know what needs to be done before, during and afterward to pull off a five-star prank. Much like planning an event, you need to start with a goal and have a strategic planning session to work out the kinks and get past the hurdles.
Pranks require time and resources. If you’re going to invest in a prank, at least let it mean something. Let the message your prank sends be positive and evoke thought. People should walk away from the encounter mulling over what happened, why and how.
My senior year of college, I was waiting in the hallway outside of my next class. There were several other students nearby, working on homework or absentmindedly scrolling through Facebook. Nobody was talking. The hallway was dead quiet. Then this dude wearing superhero pajama pants, a tiny red cape and a sweatband entered the hallway, blasting early 90s music, and confidently strutting as if he were on a fashion show runway. Eventually, he turned the corner and the music faded in the distance. Then the hallway returned to the ordinary, quiet state it was in Pre-Social Norm Breaker. I laughed to myself, I laughed with the other students sitting next to me, I laughed with my roommates when I got home, and I’m laughing about it right now.
Such a strange and simple act can bring joy and laughter to the world. Nothing damaged. So much gained.
7. Shamelessly owned
If you’re going to break social norms, you absolutely have to own it. Be confident about it. Commit to it. Afterward, don’t blame the results on someone else. Once you’ve carried it out, it’s your job to take responsibility for it — for better or for worse.
8. Story worthy
Throughout time, our society has depended on storytelling for building relationships, making negotiations, settling disputes, and passing down history. Having an interesting collection of stories makes it easier to find connection points with other people and contribute to conversations.
Stories are the age-old currency of life. Social norm-breakers add to that wealth. Not only do the pranksters cash in on the tale, but those who were pranked and any bystanders also have a new addition to their story bank.
So many people forget to live interesting lives. They get so caught up with work and responsibilities that they go years without adding anything unique to their story bank. Social pranksters essentially hand out free stories.
Stories have the power to inspire. They get the mental gears turning.
That’s Why I Love A Good Prank
The relational capital built through well-done pranks is beautiful. The stories get people thinking about life and what is true. The execution of a prank requires preparation and logistical forethought. When done right, breaking social norms showcases excellence.
There are obvious beauties in the world, like sunsets and mountaintop views. Then there are the hidden beauties that only reveal themselves to those who care enough to notice or create them.
I’m on a mission to live a life rich with interesting stories. Pranks and breaking social norms are a way for me to express myself, be creative, convince other people to join me, form new friendships, enjoy lots of laughs, and so much more. There’s true beauty in being an occasional social norm breaker and good-natured prankster.
I love talking about my social norm-breaking success stories and my ideas for future pranks. Feel free to ask me about it if you’re someone I know in real life.
One prank I had the honor of filming a few years ago went viral on YouTube. You can check it out here: Zorro Kills Theif in Lecture Prank.
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