When the Monocle team at our New York bureau ventures out to eat lunch it’s often a great debate. Do we want Thai food? How about falafel? Or perhaps we’re into some crunchy raw greens tossed with a cashew-based dressing?
I know that sounds very specific but it’s actually an option at a place just around the corner. Having only one of those options would be perfectly OK but having all of them, according to an American consumer, is much better. This becomes our baseline and we assume – even believe – this makes us happy.
For instance, at a salad joint up the street customers queue and wait for their turn to order. But it’s not as simple as actually requesting a type of salad; it’s actually about a series of decisions, the first of which is what type of green we’d like as the base (romaine, rocket, spinach or kale). From here we choose a protein and then you move onto a litany of toppings. And then, as if we haven’t had to make enough decisions, a list of dressings reads like a tome of exotic flavours from around the world: Japanese miso; Italian vinaigrette; Thai peanut.
The whole process of building one’s own salad is quite typical in the US. But as my expat colleagues point out the experience is uniquely American and very daunting the first time anyone participates. But I wonder. Even though we are used to the choice and assume that it enhances our experience, is the fact that we actually have so many options really making our days better or easier?
Renowned American psychologist Barry Schwartz has for years said that the dearth of choice is actually not necessarily a good thing. He has written books about it and argues that variety can actually adversely affect our mental health and cause us to question our decisions based on what we know we could have had. That’s the very basis for his often-used tagline that “more is less”.
Relaxed marijuana laws, recognition of same-sex marriage and even the 50 different states with 50 different cultural and legal systems are proof that this place is about many different ways of doing things. For better or worse Americans expect to be able to choose everything, whether we realise this cripples us or not. One thing is for sure: I can’t imagine rolling it all back and making basic, perfectly ample and nutritious salads the only thing on the menu.
And I definitely wouldn’t want to be the one to tell a New Yorker that kale is no longer an option at the buffet – for the sake of everyone’s mental health.
Tristan McAllister is Monocle’s transport editor.