No soap, radio: confronting our fear of asking questions

No soap, radioThose of you who grew up in the U.S. may be familiar with “no soap, radio“, a prankster’s joke.  When I was a kid, it was the kind of gag that older kids would pull on younger ones. The prankster and her accomplices — a group of sixth graders for example — would approach their mark — a younger sibling in the fourth or fifth grade perhaps — and offer to regale him with the funniest joke ever.

In the version popular in my hometown, the joke went something like this:  “Two elephants sitting in a tub were taking a bath together. One elephant says, ‘Hey, pal, pass the soap.’ The other elephant replies, ‘No soap, radio!'”

On cue, the prankster and her accomplices begin to laugh uproariously.  The younger kid surreptitiously glances at them, not sure why his older sibling and her friends are laughing.  Puzzled and uneasy, but not wanting to appear unworldly (meanwhile wondering anxiously whether ‘radio’ might be some kind of sexual slang), the younger kid begins to laugh, too, hesitantly, then with more conviction.  The prankster and her friends suddenly stop laughing, and maliciously one asks, “Hey, kid, what’s so funny?”  The younger kid stops, sensing too late the undercurrent of cruelty.  The air is charged with it, as a shameful silence hangs.  The older kids explode with laughter again, and in triumph the prankster shouts out the real punchline, “If it’s so funny, then explain it to me!”

Like a home-grown version of the experiments in social conformity conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s, it’s a prank that exploits a strong fear and an equally fierce desire: our fear of looking stupid, and our desire to belong.  Unfortunately, when you don’t ask, the joke’s on you.

It takes courage to admit when we don’t know something, and courage as well to ask.  As the proverb says, “The one who asks questions doesn’t lose his way” — or, for that matter, look like an idiot on the playground. It’s a grade school lesson that all of us should heed.

(Photo credit: Emiliano Spada.)

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