I’m a regular customer at Starbucks. Several times a week, I walk into one, order a drink, wait for it, say thank you, and walk out. I’m sure many of you do the same thing pretty often, if not every day, without even thinking about it.
But I once failed miserably at this banal procedure. It was my first year in the US and I had just arrived from Japan, so many things were still new to me. But Starbucks was definitely not new. I had spent so many hours there studying as an undergraduate student in Japan that it felt like my habitat, even though I was now in Boston. I walked into one store and everything looked familiar – the menu, employees’ uniform, and interior.
“What would you like, ma’am?” It was my turn to order. “Café misto, please?” I answered (or something of the sort). Then the employee – a nice young woman – said something that I had never heard before: “holetoopercetskimhaffanhafforsoy.”
OK, that’s how it sounded to my unprepared ears, but she was in reality asking me: “whole, 2%, skim, half&half, or soy.” After some back-and-forth, I figured out that she was asking me to choose what kind of milk I wanted them to use to make my drink – a choice I had never been given or heard of in Japan. By this point, the nice young lady who was dealing with me was visibly frustrated. She probably thought I was having a hard time understanding English. Instead, I was having a hard time trying to understand why on earth choosing the kind of milk matters at all. I was having a hard time because they had violated the ritual I thought I knew so well – and in that ritual, milk was a non-question. Anyway, I eventually said what I honestly thought:
“Um, can you just pick one for me? I honestly don’t care what kind of milk it is.”
And the young woman looked at me as if I were an alien. Now it seemed I had violated her ritual as well. In that ritual, I imagine, no matter how little you care about the thing, you still pick something. It’s on you. The choice is on you. I don’t remember what happened next. All I remember is my thought as I walked out of the place: It’s just milk!
But of course it’s not just about milk (although if you think that way, great!). It’s about how many of our daily little rituals are predicated on tacit assumptions about how the world functions, which in turn reflect cultural, ideological, and political orders that shape our lives. In forsaking the small right – and in fact the obligation – to choose (but never outside of the neat options they created and bind us to), I think I violated one of the most cherished ideals in the US, which is the myth of personal choice. By “myth,” I don’t mean a fake story but a shared narrative that becomes so valuable to a group of people that an alternative reality becomes difficult to conceive. You think I’m stretching it too far? Here, listen to Barry Schwartz, professor of social theory and author of The Paradox of Choice: “In terms of fetishizing the idea of choice, the U.S. is the absolute pinnacle… We want to be able to choose everything that matters, as well as the things that don’t.”
Have you ever said “um, skim milk, please,” when you actually didn’t care that much about the choice? Well, independent of your internal state (i.e. even if you actually didn’t care), you performed a little ritual there, which in turn reinforced what sociologist Erving Goffman called the “ritual order” – the social hierarchy, structure, and ideology that we constantly and often unconsciously reaffirm by daily interaction rituals.
From consumerism to politics to romance, the idea of choice plays a powerful role in how people navigate the social terrains in this country. You choose the right product/candidate/partner because it/he/she is for you! In reality, most of the products you are interested in may be coming from the same region in China. In reality, no matter how much “freedom of choice” there may be, people tend to marry within their own class/ethnic/racial groups. But the idea and ideal of choice remain an important driving force in US culture, and you can see people exercise it in many rituals, big and small. Think of election day. And think of the type of milk you pick at Starbucks.
You think I’m wrong? Next time you are asked to choose – kinds of dressing, cheese, milk, anything – say, “I actually don’t care. Can you pick one for me?” Trust me, you don’t want to be looked at like you are an alien after a while. And you are being an alien, because you apparently don’t know the ritual.