Following is the full text and summary of Sheena Iyengar’s talk titled “The art of choosing” at TEDGlobal conference.
Today, I’m going to take you around the world in 18 minutes.
My base of operations is in the U.S., but let’s start at the other end of the map, in Kyoto, Japan, where I was living with a Japanese family while I was doing part of my dissertational research 15 years ago.
I knew even then that I would encounter cultural differences and misunderstandings, but they popped up when I least expected it.
On my first day, I went to a restaurant, and I ordered a cup of green tea with sugar.
After a pause, the waiter said, “One does not put sugar in green tea.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m aware of this custom. But I really like my tea sweet.”
In response, he gave me an even more courteous version of the same explanation.
“One does not put sugar in green tea.”
“I understand,” I said, “that the Japanese do not put sugar in their green tea, but I’d like to put some sugar in my green tea.”
Surprised by my insistence, the waiter took up the issue with the manager. Pretty soon, a lengthy discussion ensued, and finally the manager came over to me and said, “I am very sorry. We do not have sugar.”
Well, since I couldn’t have my tea the way I wanted it, I ordered a cup of coffee, which the waiter brought over promptly. Resting on the saucer were two packets of sugar.
My failure to procure myself a cup of sweet, green tea was not due to a simple misunderstanding. This was due to a fundamental difference in our ideas about choice.