One of the things most expats in the USA quickly notice is the ubiquity of choice: whether it’s types of breakfast cereal, what options to add to your new car, or the size of a restaurant menu, America is all about Choice.
Take the typical restaurant order:
“Do you want soup or salad with that?”
“Just the salad please,” you say, thinking it’s the end of the discussion. But no, there’s more!
“What kind of dressing? You want the regular or the reduced fat? On the top or on the side?”
You have to fight your way through a small blizzard of choices just to order something to eat.
Too Much Cereal
Like a lot of expats, my own first encounter was in a suburban supermarket — the cereal aisle, to be precise. I’d been in the States just a few days and my friend’s mother took me to a local supermarket to pick up food supplies for my dorm room. I rounded the corner of one of the aisles and my steps slowed as it dawned on me that the entire aisle, on both sides, was nothing but cold cereals. The sheer range of choices, all with neon-colored boxes and bizarre names, was overwhelming. I froze. How was I supposed to pick one thing to eat for breakfast every day when there were so many choices?
Eventually I realized that a lot of this choice is an illusion. Look closer at those cereal boxes and you see that they’re pretty much all variations on the same few ingredients (overly-processed wheat and/or overly-processed corn, slathered with corn syrup).
Choice = Abundance = Freedom?
Americans seem to equate choice with abundance; and certainly one of the markers of poverty in this country is how quickly a person’s choices get limited, not just on what they can afford but down to the range of foodstuffs in the local shops. That mile-long cereal aisle is very much a product of suburban affluence.
At the extreme, Americans can seem oblivious to the fact that this constant demand for more choices leads to an excess of consumption with some pretty dire economic and ecological consequences for the rest of the planet. America is not alone in this, of course, but it’s more overt here. ‘Gas guzzler’ SUVs (petrol-hogging four-wheel drives) are still everywhere; telling Americans that they need to curtail consumption for the sake of the greater good is never going to resonate.
At its best, the American obsession with choice is part of the ethos of individualism and is bound up with the belief that everyone has a right to demand better; Americans don’t like to “settle” for what happens to be on offer, they look for more. But this also means that no politician or advertising exec can risk being portrayed as limiting choices; saying something like “if you forgo that product/lifestyle everyone will be better off” is the surest way to doom a policy proposal or new marketing idea.
And the choice obsession can sure throw up some bizarre consequences. Remember the 17 candidates initially running for the Republican ticket in this year’s presidential race? All that choice, and look who we ended up with.