You're a witness to a crime, and you saw the criminal and which way he's going. There's just one problem: you can only offer a uselessly vague description of no help to anyone. For example, the best you can do is that you're almost certain he wasn't wearing a hat. This happens with both civilians and police officers.
Basically, a witness gives a vague and more-or-less useless description, with the only definite clues being ultimately irrelevant (or at least apparently unhelpful).
Truth in Television, when it comes to witness descriptions, especially in cases when it wasn't obvious that the suspect was committing a crime at the time.
May result from watching The Nondescript commit a crime, since they're naturally unmemorable. May lead to Amalgamated Individual where every crime committed by a hatless suspect is attributed to a single person.
- In the Big Finish Doctor Who audio "Day of the Master", when the Eighth Doctor asks his companion Liv to describe which incarnation of the Master she just met, Liv is only able to describe him as "bearded, urbane and a bit sadistic". This is an accurate description of the Master Liv met, who is the War Master, but the Doctor notes that the description could apply to many incarnations of the Master, which thus prevents the Doctor from realizing that this version of the Master is from his relative future.
- Bruce Wayne invokes this trope in Batman: Year One. When creating a disguise (pre-Batsuit), he dresses in generic clothing, and adds a large fake facial scar, noting that "a single identifying mark" is all most people will remember, despite his face being otherwise completely unconcealed.
- In The Blue Lotus, the Fakir warns Tintin to watch out for a dark-haired Asian man with glasses. The story takes place in China.
- In one issue of Groo the Wanderer, Groo asks a passerby whether he has seen the man who was standing next to where Groo was standing a while back.
- Parodied in Red Ears. A woman filing a police report gives an incredibly precise description of her rapist's appearance (muscular, balding, red beard, black glasses, yellow bowtie, striped green-maroon jacket, beige trenchcoat, grey fedora) to the police officer interviewing her, but he doesn't seem to notice that she's talking about his lieutenant.
- Early on in Ultimate Spider-Man, Peter gets captured and unmasked by the Kingpin, with the crime boss planning to send a recording of this to the media. However, Spider-Man escapes and destroys the tapes, and as neither the Kingpin nor his minions bothered to memorize his face, all they can remember is "white male teenager", which isn't exactly helpful in New York City.
- Subverted in the third Valhalla album, when Thor tries to describe his encounter with a mysterious stranger. Loki asks "How many eyes did he have?", and it occurs to Thor that the stranger was, in fact, one-eyed, which means it was probably Odin (who has been missing for a while).
- Youngblood (2017) begins with a character trying to report her missing friend to the police. The problem? They're both superheroes, and she doesn't know his real name or what he looks like without a mask. The best that she can give is his hero name (Man-Up) and the fact that he's tall.
- At one point in Father Goose and the Black Knight, Detectives Finn and Munch wonder if Xander is invoking this by wearing an eye patch and face doodles. Anyone trying to describe him would focus on those two aspects which are easily removed. In reality, Xander is unrelated to the crime they're investigating and while the eye patch is real, the doodling is because he fell asleep on the bus with a group of teenagers.
- In Lost Together, the Musk Dynasty is seeking for the thief who stole a royal heirloom — a readheaded girl. Since Ranko also fits the description, they start chasing after her, to the real thief's dismay as she never meant to involve an innocent in this mess.
- The Swan Princess: The dying king describes Rothbart's transformed form (which is a gigantic bat-man hybrid) who attacked him and took Odette, as "a great animal" that "is not what it seems". This (and Derek's discovery that the king meant a transforming "animal") doesn't really helps them in determining which animal to start looking for and as such leads to hilarity (comic sidekick Bromley trying unsuccessfully to attack various small animals) and drama (Derek trying to kill the transformed Odette, because an animal that "is not what it seems" obviously could disguise itself into something like a swan...).
- Pablo Picasso was robbed, but remembered the criminals and painted their portraits. Police arrested ten handicapped people, eight elderly women, three sewing machines and one washing machine.note
- The Dog's attempt to describe Cousin Cathy in Footrot Flats includes that she only has hair on the top of her head and she walks on her hind legs, because all humans look alike to him. Fortunately, Wal can't understand him anyway.
- One Herman strip featured a man who had been tied up and left lying face-flat on the floor by a burglar. The only thing he can give the police is a very detailed description of the crook's shoes and shoelaces.
- The Hustler, Vanderbilt University's parody newspaper, mocked the description of a criminal as the totally unhelpful "six foot tall black man" by writing an article about the six foot tall black man's long reign of terror, ascribing every crime committed in Nashville since the 1970s to the same six foot tall black man described in police reports.
- Don't Hug Me I'm Scared: In the first episode of the TV series, the main trio's teacher-of-the-week, Briefcase, vanishes into thin air and the puppets ask the nearby factory workers if they've seen him. The Red Guy describes Briefcase as a "strange box person," and when one of the workers mistakenly believes he's referring to the first aid kit, Red Guy replies that the guy he's looking for is "more of a business bag." Yellow Guy does an even worse job describing Briefcase, neglecting to mention that the missing teacher is a sentient briefcase at all; instead, he offers vague descriptors like "He eats breakfast" and "He's one of those ones with one of himself!?" (Referring to how Briefcase carries a smaller, non-sentient briefcase of his own.)
- Dave Chappelle:
- Played with in an early routine. Chapelle pretends to be the witness to a crime ostensibly committed by a black person, and the cop taking the description.
Witness: He was tall. And his hat was on backwards!
Cop: Good! That's good. Hat... was on... backwards... anything else?
Witness: ...he was black.
Cop: Ah! Say no more! Big nose, big lips, dick hangin' out? Give me a minute, I'll draw him from memory. Actually, get the stencils...
- In another bit, he talks about the cops sending an APB for a black man between 6'3" and 5'4" tall, and weighing between 120 and 300 pounds. Find this man!
- Played with in an early routine. Chapelle pretends to be the witness to a crime ostensibly committed by a black person, and the cop taking the description.
- Guess Who is the embodiment of this trope. Players start with a bunch of similar looking people and have to whittle down this list by getting additional information from the other player by asking identifying questions - such as, "Is your person bald?" "Does your person wear glasses?" "Does your person have freckles?"...and, of course: "Is your person wearing a hat?"
- In Mage: The Ascension, the Arcane ability weaponizes this trope. It messes with the victim's recollections so they cannot provide an accurate description (they'll forget some of these: age, hair color, clothing, items carried, even sex). While more costly, it can be more powerful when used on multiple targets, since their descriptions will conflict with each other. Even if someone remembers you well, everyone else will insist that their memories are also accurate. Higher ranks of Arcane will also cause photographs of you to become blurry, and database entries about you to disappear.
- The lesser-known science fiction game Alternity copies this in its psionic power Obscure.
- Some editions of Shadowrun have "Nondescript" as a purchasable quality - you look so generic that any attempt to describe you falls into this trope. Even a facial recognition AI has trouble distinguishing you from the millions of other people in its databanks - at best, it comes up with "a human/elf/dwarf/troll/orc" and gives up.
- Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: Invoked by the Trickster God Ranald. His priests can use a Perception Filter that conceals everything about them except for two details of their choosing; a classic choice is a flamboyant hat that can be discarded afterwards.
- In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon tells Puck to smear the love potion on the eyes of a youth dressed in Athenian garb. Given the play is set in a forest just outside of Athens, it is perhaps not surprising that Puck smears the potion on the eyes of the wrong youth dressed in Athenian garb. Hilarity Ensues.
- Parodied in the opening scenes of Agatha Christie's play The Mousetrap. A radio broadcast gives what seems to be a fairly detailed description of the serial killer on the loose, but that description basically boils down to coat, hat, and scarf, plus they are 'medium build'. As almost every single character happens to be wearing that outerwear when they show up, and is supposed to be cast as 'medium build', this is completely unhelpful.
Cleo: You have a rabbi? What's he like?
Marlene: Eastern European male, aged 50-70, bearded. Why, you've seen him around?
[Cleo is not amused]
Marlene: Hee hee. Because... because that's what a stereotypical rabbi looks like. I'm on fire today!
- In The Order of the Stick, strip 602, Haley tries to describe Durkon to a cleric. She has difficulty distinguishing him from most other dwarves.
- Jenny Nicholson criticizes the show Paranormal Home Inspectors for its psychic invariably describing having trouble breathing on the basis it's a generic manifestation (linked to her overall vague and muddled readings), and listing the myriad deaths that could result in this phenomenon all the way up to "being dead and therefore no longer able to breathe, as in, all ghosts".
- Welcome to Night Vale:
- The Man In The Tan Jacket, who is unremarkable and indescribable to anyone who sees him, outside of noting that he wears a tan jacket and carries a briefcase full of flies. He is "about five or six-foot something, probably with hair and normal human features." Admittedly, this is Night Vale, where "[probably has] normal human features" excludes a fair chunk of residents and visitors.
- Cecil and Kevin's descriptions of each other are basically "this is a guy who looks like me only creepier". Without telling the audience what "looks like me" actually means. The only concrete things we get is that they are neither tall nor short, fat nor thin, and have at least two eyes; Kevin's being completely black.
- This is one of the reasons why witness testimony isn't considered very reliable in court: people just don't pay attention to these kinds of things until they become significant, at which point the criminal is halfway gone and it's too late. Fortunately, a halfway decent cop will, when taking down a report from a victim (or a witness statement later), use questions and techniques to get some crucial details down where possible: gender, age, color, height, build, hair, clothing/jewelry, distinguishing marks, any reason you'd remember him and was he carrying anything. And that's just the first set of things the cop will ask about.
- Even those in the moment are guilty of this, despite oftentimes still being able to see the suspect; a very common problem in the 9-1-1 field is the fact that callers would give what they think is a good description, but miss out in crucial details which end up being too ambiguous to follow through on. Let's say you get mugged by a Caucasian male wearing dark clothing with a dark cap, holding a knife, and whom jumped into a black SUV and sped off. With the assumption that you didn't see anything immediately identifying, such as tattoos, notable facial features or scars, or any specific markings or writing on his clothing, let's go over the facts: A white male in a dark SUV is nothing uncommon in the modern world. A hat can be removed, and a knife can be discarded or hidden. Now? You don't have much to go on. This is why it is crucial to get things that you know can point to a specific person, such as unique facial features, hair color and style, scars, tattoos, pretty much anything that stands out to differ your suspect from Joe Average down the street out for his nightly drive. That being said, such a description as the above is still useful, especially if there's already a cop in the area who might be close enough to see the suspect fleeing—as generic as it is, chances are, a white male in a black SUV wearing dark clothing, actively fleeing from the scene of a crime has a pretty good chance of being the guy they're looking for.
- In the USA, AMBER Alerts are always sent out when certain criteria are met after a child goes missing or is known to have been abducted, and typically when said abduction is in a vehicle. Understandably, sometimes the person they were last seen with has a description like: "Last seen with a 'white' male, 5'9 to 5'11, wearing a beige jacket and blue jeans" - something that is understandably useless, given that that nearly 70% of the USA's (male) population is of pan-European descent and largely of that height (170-). Therefore, it generally boils down to the license plate of the suspected vehicle, which is also included in the AMBER Alert.
- A common demonstration in psych classes is to have someone come in and "steal" something (usually their own backpack or a planted empty one), or come in, fire a blank gun, then flee, and then have students write as detailed of a description as they can of the suspect and the incident, then bring the suspect back in. Many descriptions will either fail to describe the suspect adequately or actually get things wrong.
- A police officer in a Discovery Channel interview once pointed out that even if the information given by psychics were true, it is never the kind of information that is helpful. They usually say things such as a missing person has "left the city." That isn't useful, without some idea where the person has gone. They may say a murder victim was killed by someone who was very angry but the anger was misdirected, or they spend a lot of time claiming to have connected with missing person's emotional state, and say "She is scared, but she knows you are looking for her." That may provide comfort to the family of a missing person, but also provides no end of grief to investigators who need more specific information to narrow down a search area. Not to mention that all of the above comments can pretty much be extrapolated through simple common sense. "Left the city"? Unless they intend to turn themselves in, are planning a spree, or are just downright insane, chances are they're going to find somewhere outside of the locale to avoid heat for a while. "Killed by someone who is angry/had misdirected anger"? Uh...yeah. Barring serial cases, most murders are committed during the heat of the moment, oftentimes when an argument or confrontation goes wrong, and isn't exactly something a detective worth their salt won't figure out within the first few moments of checking a crime scene. As for the last one, again, if someone is lost, for one, yes, most people tend to get scared when lost, especially if they are young, and for two, one of the first things on their mind is that someone must be looking for them, unless they intentionally ran away—which is also something a savvy detective can pick up on with a little investigation.
- Exaggerated when Olof Palme (a Swedish prime minister) was assassinated in 1986 on a public street at night and the police set out to find his killer. Plenty of witnesses were found, but to translate and quote the Swedish Wikipedia article:
By joining the different witnesses' statements, you can find the following: the murderer was a man, between 175-190 cm tall, who was wearing either a black coat or trenchcoat, and moved in a way that some described as clumsy, limping, "rolling", and others thought was smooth, and who was between 30 and 50 years old.
- Other sources (of varying credibility) also state that the witnesses described him as wearing about 20 different kinds of hats (while still hatless, mind you), and having a clean-shaved Perma-Stubble, among other contradictions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his murder remains unsolved.
- It is not uncommon for the best-described aspects of a suspect's appearance to be their clothing, something very easy for most suspects to have altered by the time the report is likely to go out. Some may even purposely invoke this (say, wearing a very attention-drawing, easily-discarded hat) to keep attention away from details that actually matter.
- More than one newspaper has published a police artist's sketch of a suspect wearing a full head ski mask, a blank oval shape with two eye holes.
- Convicted Mob enforcer Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran cited a very good reason why witnesses may give this kind of description, even if a perpetrator is someone they know and recognize; the witnesses know what can happen to someone who gives an accurate description to the police.