Aargh] All I want is a cup of tea: As ever-increasing numbers of New Yorkers fall prey to 'option paralysis', Jonathan Glancey worries that too much choice leads to no choice at all

Click to follow
The Independent Online
I walked into a roadside diner at the intersection of routes 287 and 78, New Jersey, some 50 miles west of New York City a fortnight ago. I had been working outside in sub-zero temperatures all morning. I was hungry. 'Hi]' says the waitress. 'I'm Jo. Would you like smoking or no-smoking accommodation?' Erm, no smoking. 'Window seat or inside?' Uh, window.

I choose a cheeseburger from a menu the size of the Magna Carta. 'How would like your burger? Well done, medium or rare?' Medium. 'Would you like it in a sesame bun or slimmer's style without?' In a bun. 'You can have an accompaniment of french fries or baked potato.' Chips. 'Excuse me?' All right, french fries. 'OK, today's side salads are green, mixed or tomato and onion.' Green. 'Would you like vinaigrette, blue cheese or mayonnaise dressing?' Vinaigrette. 'OK, I guess you're all set now.' Thank you.' You're welcome.

Oh, I would like a coffee, too. 'We have regular, regular decaff, espresso, espresso decaff, cappuccino and decaff cappuccino,' says Jo. Erm, um. I decide to skip coffee and also to avoid a second course in case the weight of decision-making outweighs that of the food.

Later on in the day, I watch in awe as a man tries to buy a plain white cotton shirt at Brooks Brothers on Madison Avenue. 'Button down or classic?' asks the assistant. Classic. 'Cutaway or standard collar?' Standard. 'Regular cotton or broadcloth?' Erm, just cotton, I guess. 'With 32- inch or 33-inch sleeve?' It goes on. Please, I see the man thinking, just give me a shirt, anything that will cover my chest without embarrassment.

In the hotel, a little later, I lie in bed with 'flu. I am not having a nice day; everyone has been telling me to have one, but I exercise my right to choose not to. I cannot face reading the slimmest of novels, let alone one of the interminably uninteresting sections of the Sunday edition of the New York Times. I flick through all 33 channels on the television, 33 choices of undiluted trash save for PBS and Bugs Bunny. The most interesting programme is a documentary on a day in the life of the New York Public Library.

I switch off the TV and call room service for a cup of tea. 'Is that a regular or large pot, sir?' Regular. 'Herbal, Earl Grey or English Breakfast?' Typhoo. 'Excuse me?' Regular. 'Milk or lemon?' Milk. 'We have a choice of white sugar, organic sugar or low-calorie sweetener'. Organic sugar? 'You want organic sugar?' No, no sugar. 'Hold the sugar?' Do what you want with the bloody sugar (sotto voce), just bring me a cup of tea (aloud). 'I'm sorry, sir, I didn't quite catch the last part of your request.' Forget it. 'You don't want the tea?'

Actually, I feel like having a dry martini, but I cannot face the superfluity of options that ordering it would entail: gin or vodka, straight-up or on the rocks, twist or olive, decaff or . . .

New Yorkers have a phrase that sums up this superflux of consumer choice. They call it 'option paralysis'. This is both apt and funny. Nowhere in the world are you so assailed by people wanting to please you so much by offering you a choice of things so great that in the end you grind to a mental halt, unable to decide between one salad dressing and another. And nowhere else would such a condition deserve a name that sounds like a psychiatric illness.

In a city where psychoanalysis is a recreational pursuit as well as an apparently essential release for those with the slightest tendency to neurosis, there must be several couchloads of budding Freuds advising anxious consumers on how to cope with 'option paralysis' at dollars 100 a time.

Perhaps New York offers so many choices to its citizens because its citizens have their roots in countless different cultures. Perhaps it is simply the most democratic city in the world.

In Britain we are unlikely to reach a state of total 'option paralysis'. We are more phlegmatic and we are certainly more sceptical than Americans about the nature of consumer choice. The current political fad might be for options, charters, franchises and privatisation - all supposedly designed to increase our power of choice - yet we know that our power to choose, as consumers, has far more to do with our level of income than with government measures to offer us a cornucopia of red, pink and zebra-striped buses and an infinite variety of burgers, private pension and health-care schemes. The only real choice we have is between good and bad schools, trains, pensions, buses, shirts and burgers.

Perhaps we are less discriminating than New Yorkers. As long as a cup of tea is hot, brown and tastes more or less how we imagine tea to taste, we are happy to sit in a cafe, order in five seconds and use the rest of the time to chat. Egg and chips is a given, whereas in New York the same order means yet another more decision-making: sunny- side up, over-easy, Adam-and-Eve-on-a-raft . . .

The idea of being able to make infinite choices is a nice conceit, but in the end too much choice is no choice at all. How reassuring it is to walk into a well established shoe shop and buy a pair of Oxfords that have been made exactly the same way since the 1880s (no choice of leather or laces); to order sausage and mash in the Quality Chop House with a bottle of house claret, no questions asked. How wonderful it would be if London's buses were all red again and were part of a given, intelligently run and fully integrated public transport network. How sad if BBC Television is splintered into a dozen under-financed channels, each pumping out programmes designed to catch the attention of option-crazy viewers for a a nano-second before they switch stations.

Meanwhile, as we decide on what degree of choice we want in Britain, in New Jersey there are people slowly going mad over that Magna Carta menu. 'Is that a calorie-free or decaff chicken- fried steak?' Have a nice day.

Looking for credit card or current account deals? Search here

Comments