The Culture of Choice

Choosing is an art, and it is shaped by our culture much more than we realize. When researching the way Americans choose, as compared to the way people from other nations choose, the contrasts are quite revealing! Here is a short list of How we Like to Choose (as Americans). The contrast with other preferences shows us how easy it will be to experience misunderstanding when functioning in multicultural contexts. I highly recommend the Ted Global 2010 presentation by Sheena Iyengar (see below), but here’s the short list of decision-making preferences, from the American cultural point of view:

  1. It is best to make your OWN, individual choices
  2. More options = better choices
  3. You must NEVER say “no” to choice!

It’s time to take a critical look at these assumptions, and to ask some fresh questions about them.

Choosing, and the Culture of Choicesheena iyengar the culture of choice

The entire “American Dream” is built on the assumption that limitless freedom to choose, and limitless options to choose from, promises enduring success and fulfillment. But when you look at that “American Dream” a bit more closely, you’ll begin to see the holes; holes that people from different cultures tend to see much more readily (even if it’s tough for them to define exactly what ‘holes’ they are seeing). Sheena Iyengar does a fantastic job of helping Americans actually understand (at least partially) the reasonableness of OTHER WAYS OF SEEING. But remember, you don’t usually have a Sheena walking around with you, explaining the world to you. Unless we are, as a matter of discipline, being intentionally cross-culturally aware, we can be almost CERTAIN that we will misinterpret what’s going on around us. We are pretty much FORCED (when just going “on our gut”) to read the behaviors around us through the lenses that we’ve inherited from our own cultural pressures. We’re naturally (innocently?) unaware of these lenses, and think we’re just “being objective”. But we rarely are!

If you’ve got 20 minutes, enjoy this excellent presentation by Sheena Iyengar (over 2 million people have found it worth watching!).