Choice: The Cultural Keystone?

Choice- The CulturalOne of the many ways that people around the world differ from one another is attitudes about choice. While some cultures believe that independent choice is the ideal, others prefer to delegate important choices to specific people or interpret events as a sign of fate or luck. In The Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar suggests that cultural narratives around choice–whether it is good to have it or not, how much people want, and what one should do with it–can help promote understanding in others. She writes,

We cannot live solely by our own stories or assume that the stories that we live by are the only ones that exist. Since other stories are often told in other languages, we must strive for a metaphorical multilingualism, if not for a literal one.

Given my love for understanding how other cultures operate, this point intrigues me. The larger point, that behaviors and experience are contextually bound and must be understood in context, is absolutely dead-on. But is choice the key to unlocking those contexts?

It’s probably one lens among many that can help make sense of how different people approach the world. Like any cultural dimension, it will be most striking when comparing two cultures with very different attitudes on the subject.

Of course it’s also possible to evaluate many cultural differences as a matter of choice. Take for example two contrasting metaphors:

United States: The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Japan: The nail that stands out gets pounded down.

Even though these metaphors are most obviously about going along with others and remaining unobtrusive, you could also read them as pertaining to choice. The American metaphor suggests a choice to act out or not, while the Japanese metaphor, while not removing choice entirely, does suggest that there’s no really viable option except being a good soldier.

Whether or not choice is the keystone to better understanding cultures outside of your own, Iyengar’s larger point about the different narratives that shape our outlook and experience is well-taken. Understanding other people means understanding how they see the world, and the more different it is from our own view, the more challenging (but potentially more interesting!) it can be.