Americans love choice. It’s as if choice in every way, shape and form represents freedom itself - the very values that this country was formed on. I personally find the level of choice in America intimidating. Not because I don’t value the ability to control my own destiny, but because I don’t feel the need to input into every element of my day to day life. I also don’t feel I should be trusted to do so – I am not a barista, a pizza chef, cocktail bartender, a tailor… so who am I to be making these decisions?
Being a self-confessed coffee snob, I hear people ordering a ‘20oz triple shot, almond milk, extra hot latte with a sugar-free vanilla shot, whipped cream and gingerbread dust on top’ and cringe. See, what you’ve just done is create a 1,500 calorie morning beverage full of bitter, scalded milk, burnt coffee, syrup filled with cancerous artificial sweeteners and turned it into a dessert. The man has a top of the range imported Italian espresso machine, and he’s created the caffeinated version of Dairy Queen – yet the customer feels completely satisfied as they’re walking away with a personalized iteration of their favorite beverage, complete with name on the cup.
A typical conversation to order a salad at lunch goes something like this:
Me: Can I please have the spinach and walnut salad?
Server: What size would you like?
Me: Small please
Server: Would you like to add chicken? It’s $2.00 extra.
Me: Sure, sounds good
Server: We have grilled, country fried or pulled?
Me: Grilled please
Server: Would you like cheese?
Server: I have jack, cheddar, goats, American or blue?
Me: (thinking… what cheese is most appropriate for Spinach?) Jack please
Server: Would you like to add dried cranberries for an extra $1.00?
Me: (thinking… do cranberries go with spinach, walnut and chicken? I mean, I guess…could be fruitily delicious…) Sure
Server: What dressing would you like? We have ranch, balsamic, Caesar, thousand island, honey mustard and blue cheese.
Me: (thinking… what dressing goes with spinach, walnuts, chicken, jack cheese and cranberries??) Balsamic please
Server: Would you like that applied light, medium or heavy?
Me: (thinking… so basically do I want it underdressed, drowning in dressing or dressed correctly? And wait, are we working off the same dressing metrics or were your childhood experiences with dressing different to mine? Are we culturally aligned when it comes to application of condiments??? Better to be safe than sorry….no one likes soggy salad) Light please.
Server: Would you like me to toss the salad for you or leave it as is?
Me: Uhh I’m sorry what now?
Server: Never mind…to go or have here?
Me: To go please
Server: Okay that’s $11.99. Paying by cash, debit or credit?
Me: If ONLY I could pay by credit (more to come on ‘What America taught me about…Credit’) – debit please.
Server: Paper, email or no receipt?
Me: No receipt please.
Rather than this being a complaint, this merely got me thinking – why do Americans love to customize everything? Having lived for years in Paris, obviously another culture very much aligned with embracing personal expression and free will, I have become used to trusting the opinion of the specialist – your chef is the expert, and therefore knows exactly how to prepare your meal. The waiter knows the best drink on the menu, and exactly the best way to make and present it. Your taxi driver has 20 years of experience driving the streets of the Rive Gauche, and doesn’t need your opinion on which route you think is best taken at this time of night. Any ill-informed suggestion from you on how you might like your Cote de Boeuf cooked, or the temperature of your Café Crème is met with a scorned and insulted expression (one of the many things I love about the French).
One reason, I think, is purely cultural. Americans are raised with the belief that anything is possible, and they and only they should determine the best path for them. This iterates itself throughout all aspects of life, but also down to the minutest level of choice. Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book ‘The Paradox of Choice’ looks at how the principles of autonomy and freedom of choice have influenced the American consumer goods market, and how this has psychologically affected the average consumer.
Secondly, I believe it is the current state of the service industry. Whilst, using my previous example, French waiters are rigorously trained to be specialists in the hospitality industry and Chefs are put through years of grueling training at Paris’ top culinary institutes, much of the American hospitality industry is run on job creation and opportunity. The lovely lady making your coffee may only have joined Starbucks two weeks ago. And although she underwent a rigorous group training session at induction and is armed with the manual on The Art of Coffee: 101, she isn’t really a coffee drinker herself – she’s ‘more of a hot chocolate gal’. Your taxi driver may only have landed in Miami a month ago, and is proud as punch at his new role in his new country. The service industry as a whole relies on the ability to embrace opportunity, learn quickly, be operational as fast as possible and puts the responsibility of output largely in the hands of the customer – if you end up with a steak that’s as tough as leather or a cappuccino that takes like an ashtray, you can only possibly have yourself to blame.
Whatever the reasoning, I still find the level of choice stressful, particularly where I myself am still learning what words like ‘Ranch’, ‘Sriracha’ and ‘Pico de Gallo’ actually even mean. But maybe I just need to wo-man up.
Chantel is a Solutions Consultant in our San Francisco office, having worked in the mobility industry her whole career. She is wildly passionate about travelling and living abroad, knowing first hand how personally and professionally life-changing international experience can be.