Sheena Iyengar, in her fascinating book on choice – The Art of Choosing, shares numerous stories demonstrating the cultural psychological differences between individualistic societies (like the US) and collective societies (like Japan). The story below is particularly revealing.
In 1995, I spent several months in Kyoto, Japan, living with a local family while I did research for my PhD dissertation with Shinobu Kitayama, one of the founders of the field of cultural social psychology. I knew I would experience cultural differences, even misunderstandings, but they often popped up where I least expected them. The most surprising might have been when I ordered green tea with sugar at a restaurant. After a pause, the waiter politely explained that one does not drink green tea with sugar. I responded that yes, I was aware of this custom, but I liked my tea sweet. My request was met with an even more courteous version of the same explanation: One does not drink green tea with sugar. While I understood, I told him, that the Japanese do not put sugar in their green tea, I would still like to put some in my green tea. Thus thwarted, the waiter took up the issue with the manager, and the two of them began a lengthy conversation. Finally, the manager came over to me and said, “I am very sorry. We do not have sugar.” Since I couldn’t have the green tea as I liked it, I changed my order to a cup of coffee, which the waiter soon brought over. Resting on the saucer were two packets of sugar.
My failed campaign for a cup of sweet green tea makes for an amusing story, but it also serves as shorthand for how views on choice vary by culture. From the American perspective, when a paying customer makes a reasonable request based on her personal preferences, she has every right to have those preferences met. From the perspective of the Japanese, however, the way I liked my tea was terribly inappropriate according to accepted cultural standards, and the waitstaff was simply trying to prevent me from making such an awful faux pas.
This story reminded me of a Jay Leno episode. Leno goes to a Cajun restaurant in New Orleans and orders his food. Once his food reaches his table, he commits the cardinal sin of asking for ketchup. When the outraged waiter replied in the negative, (an excessively bulked up looking) Leno promptly pulls out a large ketchup bottle from his outsized coat pocket and proceeds to smother his food with ketchup… with the aghast waiter looking on.