By TERRY STAWAR
Last week, my wife Diane and I attended a seminar to earn continuing education credits for our counseling licenses. The woman who was handling the administrative aspects of the workshop was handing out parking validation tickets.
Diane was talking to some people away from the place where we were sitting and the woman seemed reluctant to give her one of the passes. Diane pointed back to our seats and the woman then seemed to realize who she was and said, “Oh, Salt and Pepper.”
As soon as she said it, the woman appeared embarrassed. She gave Diane the pass and quickly moved on to others in the room. It was sort of like the classic sitcom bit, “Did I Just Say That Out Loud?” The woman had obviously been using the phrase “Salt and Pepper” as a mnemonic aid to remember us, and had inadvertently disclosed her inner monologue.
At the time, I thought of this comment as a sort of Freudian slip or what psychoanalysts call a “parapraxis.” In his book “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life,” Sigmund Freud defines parapraxes as unintentional acts resulting from unconscious attitudes or thoughts.
In this context, “Salt and Pepper” didn’t refer to the 1968 Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. movie, or “Salt-n-Pepa,” the New York hip hop group. “Salt and Pepper” has an obvious association with aging, usually referring to hair that is graying.
Because we were probably the only married couple there, I believe this woman thought of us as a matched set and was making reference to what remains of my white hair, as opposed to Diane’s darker hair. Even friends seemed a little offended for us.
I wasn’t really all that surprised. The young woman, who made the remark, showed the conceit of youth and the overconfidence often seen at these seminars.
The edgy BBC comedy show “Little Britain” featured a skit which captured the “Salt and Pepper” phenomena. In a recurrent segment, David Williams (in drag) portrayed Linda Flint, an ultraliberal college guidance counselor. The skit always began with a student, in Linda’s office, who has some problem. Each time Linda would call a man named Martin (unseen by the audience) on the phone to resolve the issue and she’d describe the student.
She began with a complimentary description, but when that doesn’t work, she resorted to highly insulting ones that mocked the student’s culture, handicap, appearance or other personal feature. For example, she referred to a boy missing half his arm as “Handy Andy.” The skit played upon the students’ discomfiture and satirizes the underlying prejudices of even the most avid self-professed liberal. It also showed how close to the surface our bigoted thinking often is, despite the fact that most people usually suppress it. In this skit, the character defies social convention by saying what she is thinking out loud.
“Salt and Pepper” is a more subtle version of the Linda Flint phenomena. It is close to what Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Mary Rowe once called a “micro-inequity,” which she defined as “small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove ...”
She said such events are “covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator” and “occur wherever people are perceived to be different.” Whether it is racist, sexist or ageist, micro-inequities lead to “micro-discrimination,” which according to Row, has serious, cumulative, harmful effects.
One rather strange place where hidden “Salt and Pepper” discrimination is sometimes revealed is in receipts, particularly those at restaurants, where employees often write down short inappropriate descriptions to remember their customers. Many of these descriptions are racist, sexist, ageist or incredibly rude.
For example, three California women who ate at a local sports bar were angry and upset after the words “fat girls” was actually printed on their bill. The bartender had typed in the phrase to keep track of their tab, according to ABC News.
I can also remember the pizza I once got delivered to my table, with the phrase “old guy in a blue shirt” scribbled across the back of my receipt. Such occurrences seem to becoming quite commonplace.
Besides the ageism, inherent in “Salt and Pepper,” it’s also objectionable because it expresses thinly veiled contempt. Being part of a “Salt and Pepper” set defines me as belonging to a couple, which is an important aspect of my identity, but it also can be intended as a putdown that robs you of your individuality.
Some researchers have suggested that after being together for a long time, couples began to not only think and talk alike, but actually look alike. University of Michigan psychologist Robert Zajonc investigated this issue by analyzing photographs taken of couples when they were newlyweds and 25 years later.
He found that couples had grown to look more like each other over time. The resemblances were usually subtle, but they were distinctive enough that judges were much better at matching partners when the couples were older. The couples most likely to increase in physical similarity tended to be the happiest ones.
Zajonc believes that older couples may start looking alike because we unconsciously mimic each other’s facial expressions. According to psychologist Paul Ekman, an expert in emotional expression, folks who share the same emotional outlook may hold the facial muscles that express those feelings in habitual tense readiness. Over time, that tension alters wrinkle patterns, changes muscle and bone size and reconfigures facial contours. Besides silent empathy, diet, climate, and physical environment may also be factors that promote similarities.
Self-selection factors are also involved. Theodore Newcomb, a University of Michigan social psychologist, conducted early studies with college student that showed that people tend to be attracted to others who share similar beliefs, backgrounds and attitudes. In a recent study of twins, J. Philippe at the University of Western Ontario found that participants picked partners with similar genetic characteristics. The spouses of identical twins were more alike genetically than the spouses of nonidentical twins. Rushton and his colleagues concluded that, “… people are genetically inclined to choose as social partners those who resemble themselves at a genetic level.
USA Today reporter Sharon Jayson talked to several married couples who had been told that they resemble each other. They told her that friends had often remarked that they make a cute couple, looked like brother and sister, should get together, would look really good together and would have cute kids.
Other research has shown that people rate digitally morphed photos that secretly include their own faces as being significantly more attractive than those photos that don’t. Some dating websites have even started using facial-recognition software to match clients by their physical appearances.
I would like to think that there is more than a little sour grapes in the “Salt and Pepper” appellation, especially from folks who don’t have and perhaps are unlikely to have a long-term relationship. All and all, however, I think I’d prefer being called “Ebony and Ivory.”
— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at email@example.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com