The Sneakiest Sneak

December 16, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston
You’ve probably seen this variant of the quarterback sneak – it’s gotten millions of hits on YouTube, and it’s been reported on broadcast TV. If not, take 30 seconds and watch it.

It isn’t really sneaky. In fact, it’s brazen. And it brings us tonight’s word: Definition of the Situation.

It’s Intro Sociology, W. I. Thomas. When you are in a situation, you need to know what’s going on.
You need to know what that situation is - a date or just coffee between friends, a formal class or a relaxed discussion, etc. The definition tells you who you are; it tells you who the others in that situation are (lover, student, friend, etc.). It tells you what you should do. The definition of the situation is all about roles and rules.

Faced with an unfamiliar situation, you look around for a definition, and the usual strategy is to take your cues from others, especially those who seem to know what’s going on – people with competence or authority in that situation. That dependence on the definitions of strangers has been the basis of many Candid Camera stunts and social psychology experiments, where the strangers are acting not with kindness but with deception and manipulation.

In this middle-school football play, the quarterback and center do something unusual for someone in those roles. They don’t violate the official rulebook, but their behavior is outside the norms of the game everyone knows. What’s going on? Has the play begun? The defense looks around to the others for their cue as to what to do. They see the offensive line motionless in their stances, seemingly waiting for the play to start. They see their own teammates too looking uncertain rather than trying to make a tackle. So nobody defines the play as having started. But it has. Only when the quarterback, having walked past eight definitionless* players, starts running do they arrive at an accurate definition, and by then, it’s too late. Touchdown.

UPDATE: Although W.I. Thomas coined the term definition of the situation, what the video dramatizes is really closer to Goffman’s use of the term

it will be in his interests to control the conduct of the others, especially their responsive treatment of him. This control is achieved largely by influencing the definition of the situation which the others come to formulate, and he can influence this definition by expressing himself in such a way as to give them the kind of impression that will lead them to act voluntarily in accordance with his own plan.
from the opening section of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
* Someone does offer a definition – the coach of the team on offense This play immediately followed a 5-yard offsides penalty on the defense. Now the coach of the team in white yells at his quarterback that it should have been a 10-yard penalty and he should walk off another five yards. The quarterback starts to do so, and none of the defense remembers at first that only referees, not quarterbacks, can respot the ball for a penalty.

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