In the 1970 movie, Five Easy Pieces, Jack Nicholson's character
enters a diner and asks for wheat toast, which isn't on the
Nicholson proceeds to order a chicken salad sandwich,
without the butter, the lettuce, the mayonnaise, and the
A similar, though not quite so
dramatic, incident happened to me a couple of months ago. My wife, I, and a friend were enjoying an upscale
riverside luncheon buffet in Bangkok at an international
brand name hotel, far from Nicholson's Denny's off
Interstate 5 in Eugene, Oregon. The buffet included unlimited coffee, but when I
asked for an iced coffee, I was informed iced coffees
weren't included. Nicholson's waitress tried to kick him out of the
restaurant for being smart and sarcastic.
I didn't get
imperious. I asked a
different server for a hot coffee and a glass of ice, and
when he was out of eyeshot, mixed them together myself.
There are other tales of the same
colleague of my wife's was in Singapore and visited a juice
stand. All the
various types of fruits are on display, you select the
varieties you want, and the attendant inserts them into a
colleague didn't want juice though. He wanted a fruit salad. The way it normally works, the more an item is
processed, the more value is added and the higher its price. A fruit salad is costlier than the individual pieces
of fruit, and a juice is costlier than a fruit salad. The colleague offered to pay the higher cost of a
juice but receive a fruit salad instead. He was refused. The juice stand employee said his booth was only
licensed to sell juices.
I'd like to believe that if most of us
were working at the Denny's Nicholson stopped at in 1970,
and we were already serving toasted sandwiches, we would
come to some arrangement with the customer and estimate what
the markup on two pieces of bread would be and provide the
customer with what he asked for. If we were the server in the high end hotel,
already serving free hot coffees and free ice, we wouldn't
think twice about giving the patron an iced coffee. If we worked in the juice booth in Singapore, despite
the nation's strict licensing laws, we'd probably honor the
patron's request for a fruit salad since such requests would
be so rare as not jeopardize the stand's status as a legally
licensed juice stall.
So if we'd like to think that most of
us are accommodating, why didn't Nicholson get his toast for
the cost of a chicken salad sandwich, my wife's colleague
his fruit salad for the higher cost of a juice, and I my iced coffee with the ice pre-immersed?
The simple answer is rules. Dumb rules, but rules all the same.
Nicholson's waitress pointed out a
notation on the menu which read "no substitutions allowed." This is usually enforced strictly when the restaurant
offers a special. Substituting something else could alter the
restaurant's cost by a higher percentage than the restaurant
wishes to bear.
Substitution prohibition is also employed to keep things
simple. When a
restaurant produces an extremely popular item, say, an
omelette with hash browns and strips of crispy bacon,
the turnaround is
faster with less room for error when every plate has to be
served the same way.
Nicholson did ask for a substitution. He wanted tomatoes instead of potatoes on the side. If the cost of tomatoes in Oregon in 1970 were much
higher than potatoes, you can understand the restaurant's
actual difference in cost between a diner portion of
potatoes and tomatoes in 1970 was marginal, no more than 7
or 8 cents in 1970 money, but if you open the door to one
substitution, where do you stop, right? Nicholson's request for toast, however, was not a
substitution. Toasted bread is a constituent ingredient in a
chicken salad sandwich. He was still ordering the chicken salad sandwich and
willing to pay its full cost, but telling them to omit
everything but the bread. If you were a restaurateur with patrons offering to
pay full price to receive just a fraction of a dish's
ingredients prepared in a fraction the time, who are you to
argue with higher profit margins?
After I finagled my own iced coffee by
ordering the coffee and ice separately, I asked my
companions why they thought iced coffees weren't ‘allowed'
at the luncheon buffet. My friend suggested the open door theory I cited
above, that if you permitted one type of iced coffee
beverage, where did it end? People could then ask for caramel macchiatos and
frappes and other such exotic beverages that take more time
and cost more to prepare. His explanation sounded reasonable at first but just
doesn't hold up under scrutiny. I've been to other buffets which did serve
iced coffees and also lemonades and iced teas. This had not opened the door for customers to demand
more complicated selections. You got your iced beverage, simply prepared, with a
side order of simple syrup to sweeten as you liked.
No. It was rules again, and no one wants to be on the
hook for breaking them. Nicholson gave his waitress an out. "Give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich," he
barks, "And you haven't broken any rules." I find it difficult to believe any international
five-star hotel would go out of its way to forbid iced
coffees at a buffet. At
my buffet, hot coffee and tea were included. The server just could not discern that the iced
versions are essentially the same core offering with ice
cubes dropped in. Seems difficult to believe when on coffee shop menus
everywhere, a coffee variation is listed as a single item
but with a column of prices that differentiate by size and
whether the coffee is served hot or iced.
In a police state like Singapore, where
not flushing a public toilet can result in a public caning
and selling non-medicated chewing gum is against the law, it
should not be a real shock that a
follow-the-rules-at-all-cost juice stall worker wouldn't
dare sell a patron raw fruit for the higher price. But are most of us really all that different?
There's an old tale about how a new bride models her
mother's behavior when it comes to cooking a roast by always
cutting off the ends before putting the meat in the oven. Her husband asks her why she does that when the ends
are the best part. When the mother is queried, she points to her own
the grandmother is interrogated – and her answer? "Because, otherwise, the roast wouldn't fit in the
small ovens we had back then!"
We do things the way we do them because
this is the way we are shown. Few of us ever question if this way is the optimal
one. The way we
were taught, we reason, is the right way because someone
with supposedly more authority or experience showed us how
to do it. Or
pronounced a rule into a law that we in the collective
accept as legitimate.
You need only go to a site like DumbLaws.com to
read about some of the most idiotic rules governments have
made legally enforceable. Some of the laws may have made some sense at the time
they were promulgated and now no longer do; others never made sense to begin with but were
accepted nonetheless because authorities are expected to
Back when I was in college and attended
lectures, I noticed that nearly all the students dutifully
wrote down every single word the professor said or etched
onto the blackboard. After a couple of classes, I got a feel for how much
of the professor's content was borrowed from our required
text book reading. Usually, this figure was over 95%, so I couldn't
figure out why everyone bothered to frantically write
everything down. I
know now. People
wrote it all down because they were told to, not
specifically by the professor, but by their parents and all
the teachers they'd had in the more than decade of schooling
up to that point.
Few people ever ask WHY you write it down. Today, there is research to suggest that writing
things down aids in the learning process and that writing by
hand is superior to typing your lecture notes directly into
a laptop or tablet. I
doubt many of my college peers knew that back then, and if
they did, why it was such a necessity to hectically copy the
professor's words into their notebooks on the spot rather
than doing so directly from the textbook in the comfort of
the library or their dormitory rooms.
If you can spot the rationale behind a
rule then that obviates the need to print a list of things
which can and cannot be done or provided. At my luncheon buffet, the general rule could have
been "Cold beverages are not included in the buffet." As iced coffees fall under that banner, they would
not be offered.
But that presumes rules must have some rationale, which is
probably presuming way too much.
A New York State
couple, for instance, cannot end their marriage for
irreconcilable differences unless they both agree to it. Recently, I purchased some 5-gallon water jug
vouchers from a water delivery company. A coupon book of twelve amounts to $2.23/bottle. If you decide to buy less coupons up front, just 10,
you pay slightly less -- $2.17/bottle.
Buy less, pay less per unit. An interesting concept which completely destroys the
concept of wholesale.
The U.S. Federal Tax Code is a huge
collection of rules not filled with a commensurate amount of
would think – and incorrectly – that any tax code would be
brief and simple, that anyone with a sixth grade education
could make sense of it. Wishing does not make it so. The U.S. code grew from 16,500 pages in 1969, itself
a formidable amount, to almost 74,000 pages in 2013.
The tax code is intentionally not
simple, though it is sensible in a way that Nicholson's
diner and my 5-star luncheon buffet were not.
The tax code expands faster than a sumo wrestler's
waist line in order to accommodate esoteric loopholes which
may only apply to a dozen people in the entire nation. These additional pages are added by legislators
lobbied by people working directly for the elite few for
whom that loophole applies.
There is a well known adage that rules
are made for the many, not for the few. That almost certainly wouldn't apply to the U.S. tax
code. And yet if
it is true most of the time, why is that the rules don't
seem to be logical for the many for whom these rules apply?
Likely because we're a rule abiding
society at heart. The many like having their boundaries drawn for them,
even if those boundaries don't always make sense. A rule is considered some sacred stamp we attribute
sensibility to merely because it's official.
We're conditioned to believe that the rule is there
for our benefit, even if we don't know why.
On the other hand, if the majority of us were
skeptical of authority, the only rules we'd be willing to
accept are the ones that ALWAYS made sense.
Ever since I've lived in Thailand, I
stopped incessantly dissecting the why's of different rules
because there were just too many that would never make any
sense to me.
Before I got married, my (future) wife and I had to pay to
have affidavits from our embassies and other documents
translated into Thai. That made perfect sense.
Thai is the official
language of Thailand and all government offices require
documentation in Thai.
Later, when I took my Thai marriage license to a
Thai Embassy in Korea for the purpose of securing a long
term resident visa, I had to have this marriage license
translated into English!
There are rules like not being able to go out in
public without underwear or drive a car without a shirt on,
but given the hot and humid weather here, maybe this is
Henry David Thoreau, the American poet
and philosopher, said that "any fool can make a rule and any
fool will mind it," and he's right. It's in our DNA to try to shape circumstances the way
we see fit and encode them in a rulebook others must follow. Does this mean most rules are stupid or that stupid
people just make up most of the rules?
I won't waste my energy thinking about it as long as
I'm served a free iced coffee with my lunch.