Friday, August 20, 2010

How Different Cultures View Choice

In the Ted talk 'Sheena Iyengar on the art of choosing,' Iyengar, author of 'The Art of Choosing' and professor at Columbia Business School, presents research on how people from different countries view choice.

As an American, I view choice as a part of life, and measure social status and intelligence by the 'quality' of others' choices.

Think of a man and a woman going out to dinner in America. The man asks for the woman's preference, and when she says "I don't care, you choose," he becomes agitated, pestering her until she makes a choice, so he can honor her choice.

I helped a friend out at her bicycle race recently. She was competing in the Empire State games. She was very insistent that I make her a lemon flavored electrolyte water to carry on her bike.

I compared that to my own experience running 15K and half marathon races. Runners rely on receiving liquids from water stations along the race, and there is little to no choice. In fact, a smart runner will look on the event website to see what will be offered at the race, and start using the same type of drink in her training to acclimate her system.

A rule of thumb for runners is 'nothing new on race day,' which means that the runner must not try anything new - no new foods, drinks, clothing, shoes, sunscreen, etc. in an attempt to prevent an unexpected negative interaction. For me, having limited to no choice on race day is comforting.

How can we learn to see our preference for choice as a cultural behavior? Would learning about the role of choice in other cultures help us to achieve more success in international interactions in the workplace? When setting up a choice for others, are we doing them a disservice by presenting them multiple options, or even by not letting them defer to the experts instead of making their own choice?

Iyengar provides examples of how European, Eastern European and Asian cultures react to choice. She also explains a situation where she discovered that her coworkers did not make a choice based on what should have been the obvious criterion.

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