Nicole and I were having dinner together at EVK on campus here at USC. While we were talking, she knocked over a saltshaker. Automatically, without breaking speech, she took a pinch of salt and threw it over her left shoulder. This is an example of a conversion superstition. She brought bad luck upon herself by knocking over the saltshaker. However, she countered this bad luck by throwing some of the salt that spilled on the table over her left shoulder. According to the superstitions stipulations, she ridded herself of bad luck by performing this action.
She learned this superstition from a friend in a similar situation. Her friend knocked over a saltshaker during lunch at a restaurant. When her friend countered by bad luck/bad spirits by throwing the salt over her left shoulder, Nicole asked her what she was doing.
Nicole says she has only seen this superstition performed by people who knock over saltshakers. She herself only does it when she knocks over a saltshaker. She would never throw a pinch of salt over her left shoulder for nothing. She said that the pinch of salt had to be specifically thrown over ones left shoulder.
Superstitions are about regaining control over something they feel they have no power over. Nicole feels as if she has no power over bad spirits or bad luck, so to protect her against it, she follows superstitions such as throwing salt over her shoulder. Superstitions are largely psychological. People, including Nicole, feel there is no harm in throwing salt over ones shoulder, so why not do it? It soothes peoples fears when they perform superstitions; it makes them feel better. It makes them feel like they are keeping bad luck and bad spirits at bay.
This conversion superstition is deeply cultural. I also follow this superstition because I have grown up around people who do it. Other cultures around the world might not perform this superstition. In fact, some cultures might find it wasteful that we throw salt around. For instance, I know that in the desert, salt is very, very valuable. People who live in the desert might find it completely offensive that we throw salt. In America, we tend to waste food a lot; a pinch of salt seems like absolutely nothing to us because we are not hurting for food to eat.
I think it is interesting that there are books out there telling one to let go of superstitions. According to page 90 of Intuition for Starters: How to Know and Trust Your Inner Guidance, one should let go of reading too deeply into outward signs. It just kind of made me laugh that the saltshaker superstition was listed as one of the frivolous superstitions to let go of. While people may say that they think it is just a stupid superstition, they still tend to follow it.
Annotation: Walters, J. Donald, and Devi Novak. Intuition for Starters: How to Know and Trust Your Inner Guidance. Nevada City, CA: Crystal Clarity, 2002.