Skip to main content

Pass the Pepper and Salt, Please.

I have been teaching mathematics in an Australian High School since 1982, and I am a contributing author to mathematics text books.


We are a regimented, obedient species; of that there is no doubt. We yearn to be free from the trammels of decision making, where each day drifts into the next without fuss. There is no desire to express interest in anything that will rupture the fabric of our pedestrian way of life.

We may dream of exotic adventures that make us stand out from the crowd, but they are merely a form of escapism and pleasant diversions from reality. The truth is that conformity is the lifeblood of our comfort zone. It provides a “strength in numbers” rationale that allows us to defer our thinking to the collective “wisdom” of the masses.

Admittedly, our society requires norms to function efficiently. Take traffic lights. They are grudgingly obeyed, but we can all admit to anthropomorphism by asking them:

“Why are you Red in the face for so @#!%$ long?”

“You’re Yellow because you’re yellow. You’re taking too #$@%& long!”

“You’re not green to the job, so stay Green until my car is over the #@$%* intersection!”.

This proves particularly effective with the gesticulation of your middle finger fully extended to the vertical.

However, even when common sense dictates that something is amiss, we accept that traffic lights are never wrong. Here are two situations where our brain will surrender its thought processes to electrons flowing through copper wire that light up red, yellow and green plastic.

1. You wait at an intersection for the red arrow to turn green in order to complete your turn. Cycle after cycle passes, but the arrow remains red. There is no car in front or behind you suffering the same dilemma, whose actions you can imitate. So what do you do? The logical approach would be to either carefully complete the turn or proceed straight and make the turn at the next opportunity. But we organic beings are bereft of initiative. Rationalising that there must be a valid reason why the green is not showing, you use a mobile phone to inform the police and the traffic signal management office of the situation. After enduring their uninterrupted laughing for 10 cycles of the traffic signal, you reluctantly drive across the intersection, all the while feeling like a heretic within the motoring fraternity.


2. It is 3 am on a deserted road. Driving safely at the permitted 70 km/hour, you encounter flashing traffic lights illuminating a sign: “Men at work. Reduce speed to 40 km/hour”.

There is not a hint of workers. Each of them arrived at home, kissed the wife, played with the kids and the dog, taken out the trash, had a good dinner, watched the wrestling, had a shower and tucked the kids in bed. As their head falls on the pillow, they embrace happy thoughts of how many motorists are crawling along at 40 km/hour, and they contemplate what mischievous devilry to concoct tomorrow.

Anyhow, you instinctively slow your speed according to the directive. Is it that you suspect a police car is lurking nearby, ready to pounce? Perhaps in part, but compliance stems from an innate need to co-operate, to get a “pat on the head” for doing the right thing.


Just like the myth of lemmings blindly following each other over the cliff, rather than trying to swim against the current, we are content to maintain the status quo.

If you see every patron in a restaurant eat spaghetti with their fingers, would you do the same? Probably you will, because peer pressure is a powerful factor in conformity.

But this does not have to be the case.

Consider salt and pepper, Jack and Jill, bread and butter, up and down, and black and blue. We would not consider saying “pepper and salt” and “blue and black” in polite society, any more than we would contemplate celebrating a birthday without singing “Happy birthday to you ..”.

But perhaps we should.


Related Articles