Every year on exactly this day, people in large parts of the world play pranks on each other – April 1st. Some then make fun of each other, others leave their fellow human beings in disbelief for a moment after hearing an absurd story. The situation is resolved with an exclamation of “April, April!” and the fib turns out to be a joke.

But how anchored is the custom of sending someone “into April” like that? And what actually distinguishes a lie from an April Fool’s joke?

What significance does the joke still have?

Joke and humor are basic anthropological constants, explains cultural scientist Gunther Hirschfelder from the University of Regensburg. This means that people have it firmly anchored in their being and have a need for it.

Although humor exists in all cultures, it is always negotiated differently and the boundaries are defined. “Jokes are instruments for establishing contact in a certain environment,” explains Hirschfelder. Whether a joke is understood as a joke always depends on the environment. In some environments April Fool’s Day is understood, in other environments it is completely misunderstood. You can’t make a joke like that with strangers; the joke requires familiarity, says the cultural scientist.

How the joke has changed

The Internet and television also play a role in April Fools’ jokes: the increasingly digitalized world has changed humor, says Hirschfelder. April Fool’s Day relies on direct interaction, but “because we not only communicate digitally but increasingly asynchronously, the humor loses meaning,” he says. Humor thrives on spontaneity and April Fools’ jokes even more so – with digital and asynchronous interaction, the spontaneous can no longer arise.

In addition, April Fool’s Day can no longer compete with the daily flood of images from the Internet. April Fool’s Day thrives on a mini-scandal in public space, says Hirschfelder. There are almost no scandals regarding pictures on the Internet anymore because almost everything can be shown. “The “prank culture” undermines April Fools’ Day anyway,” explains the cultural scientist. People film themselves playing pranks on others – completely independent of a specific date.

According to Hirschfelder, another aspect of the decreasing importance is the general commercialization of the dates established for the customs: Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Christmas played an increasingly important role. Hirschfelder comments: “Things that cannot be commercialized at all are rapidly losing importance. Today’s cultural markers need not only a media component, but a commercial component. That’s missing from April 1st.”

What distinguishes a lie from an April Fool’s joke

“Lies are intentional false statements,” explains Philipp Gerlach, professor of general and social psychology at the Fresenius University in Hamburg. In his words, this means: We intentionally claim something so that another person will believe something that we know is not true. A lie is therefore a written or spoken intentional deception. An April Fool’s joke can’t, but doesn’t have to be, a lie. And if so, an April Fool’s joke is usually solved later. Such a resolution usually does not happen with “classic” lies.

April Fools’ jokes could also involve hidden objects, manipulated devices or unexpected events, says Gerlach. “These would be deceptions that we would not actually consider to be lies, because the untruth was not said or written. Of course, they are still deceptions,” explains the expert.

Why we lie at all

There are many motives for lying. According to Gerlach, people lie out of politeness, greed or to save face or that of their friends. Ultimately, lies always involve risk. “In the short term we could achieve a goal by lying, but we could also get caught lying and thus lose the trust of others in the long term,” explains the Hamburg professor. In a certain sense, lies are temptations – which, as we know, one can succumb to.

This is also a problem with April Fools’ jokes: “Anyone who exaggerates with April Fools’ jokes and then actually ends up in a difficult situation in which they are dependent on the help of others could not be believed,” warns Gerlach.

Where the custom actually comes from

April Fool’s Day is primarily a Western phenomenon. But it is no longer possible to trace exactly when the custom arose. The saying “send someone to April” has been passed down in Bavaria since 1618, but the term “April Fool’s Day” only became commonplace later, explains Hirschfelder. The German dictionary by the Brothers Grimm from 1854 already knows the “April Fool”, but not the “April Fool’s Day”. The origins of cultural patterns can rarely be pinpointed precisely, says the cultural scientist.

Until the beginning of modern times, calendar dates played no role at all, says Hirschfeld. “Above all, medieval man and ultimately also ancient man acted within the framework of seasons, within the framework of harvest and sowing.” That only changed with the beginning of modern times, explains Hirschfeld, adding: “What was actually done on certain customary dates is largely a black box for us.”