By David King
David King, news editor of the daily newspaper The Australian in Sydney, is visiting the United States as a fellow with the World Press Institute.
I've started to feel intimidated when I order a coffee or a sandwich in the United States. Let me share a recent example from a well-known coffee franchise in Chicago. It went roughly like this:
Me: "Could I have a coffee, please?"
Lady: "What size would you like? Tall, grande or venti?"
Me: (Already on the back foot) "The smallest one, please."
Lady: "OK, tall. And what blend would you like? Blonde, medium or bold?"
Me: (Now on the defensive) "I don't know."
Lady: "What blend would you like, sir? Blonde, medium or bold?"
Me: "Blonde." (I am anything but bold).
I have chosen a tall blonde — one of nine possible options available to me in terms of brewed coffee. Then we move to milk — five more options. Whole milk, 2 percent, skim, half-and-half or black. We start to reach the limits of my mathematical ability, here, but on a back-of-the-envelope calculation the possible combinations of cup, coffee and milk (or no milk) come to about 57 choices. And this is just a tiny fraction of the menu — I've gone nowhere near frappucinos, pumpkin spice lattes or the salted caramel mocha.
Things get more complicated when I order a sandwich. I went to a busy place in New York, with a long but fast-moving line. The girls in front of me were incredibly deft with their orders in the face of an enormous menu.
One: "I want a pastrami sandwich on wheat, with low-fat ranch and extra pickles please."
The next: "Can I have a tuna on rye with low-fat mayonnaise to go?"
Then my turn.
Man: "Sir? Sir, can I help you?"
Me: "I'll take the soup."
I had become pretty convinced that I had the problem with the choices, that I was somehow too unsophisticated or too intellectually lazy to make what should be an easy decision. But two recent events have persuaded me that we're all silently struggling with this overload of options. One was watching a colleague try to order a burrito in Los Angeles. Here's how I remember it:
Man: "What kind of tortilla would you like?"
Colleague: "What kind do you have?"
Man: "Spinach, cayenne pepper, wheat or flour."
Man: "What kind of tortilla would you like, Sir?"
Colleague: "I don't know. Could you choose, please?"
The other was an encounter with a Coke "freestyle" machine in Atlanta. This bad boy urges you to "drink something different" and then gives you 106 distinct flavors to choose from. Here's how it works.
There's a big touch-screen with 22 circles on it. Each circle represents a drink — Fanta, Sprite, Pibb (whatever that is), Dasani (whatever that is), Coke Zero, Powerade Zero, etc. Touch one of these drink circles and you get eight more options on the screen — using Sprite as an example, you would get Sprite, Sprite orange, Sprite cherry, Sprite vanilla, Sprite strawberry, Sprite raspberry, Sprite grape, Sprite peach. It's basically the same deal with all the drinks on the main screen.
I went back to the machine three times before I finally selected a Fanta lime. It turned out to be a poor choice. So I mixed in some Sprite grape. That made things worse.
I spoke to the lady at the counter about it and the perils of so many choices. She offered only this: "Some people just freeze."
I read a big article about President Barack Obama in this month's Vanity Fair. He wears only blue and gray suits and is trying to cut the small decisions out of his life — he mentioned research that suggested the act of making one decision degrades your ability to make further decisions. He obviously wants to use his decision points on the "big decisions."
Now, we're not all Barack Obama, but surely we've got more important things to think about than new ways to mix Coca-Cola and grape juice or the exact fat level of the splash of milk we have in our coffee.
Let's make life simpler and reduce the inane choices. Maybe then we'd have more time to think about important things.