Friday 5 October 2012


I haven't forgotten about the pancakes, but I've been watching this TED talk talk by Barry Schwartz today,  and it reminded me of an article I read many years ago about a Japanese academic who went to work in the US and was utterly baffled by the number of choices he was constantly being asked to make about even the most minor thing. In Japan, he said, if you were a guest in someone's home, they would offer you a drink, you would accept, and they would bring you a drink. In the US,  however, he would go to his host's house where they would ask him if he wanted a drink. If he agreed, they'd ask him if he wanted tea, or coffee, or juice, or maybe something stronger?  Coffee. White, or black? With sugar or without sugar? Is instant OK, or shall I make a pot of real coffee? Would you prefer a cup or a mug? Would you like a cookie with that? Or not? He felt that the Americans (and of course it's not just the Americans - we're exactly the same in this country) wasted huge amounts of time and energy in making and offering these choices. It's a very zen way of looking at things, but I know what he means.

Our local supermarket has recently been extended. And when I say 'extended', it's about 3 or 4 times as big as it was before. The cashier told me that she keeps finding exhausted pensioners at the tills. They've probably been in there for weeks trying to find the teabags. Honestly, you need a good stock of energy bars before you cross the threshold.

So, bigger and better, or too much choice? I thought I'd have a wee shufty at the breakfast cereal aisle,  with Barry Schwartz's words ringing in my ears, and specifically at the muesli  section of the aisle. When I was a nipper, Alpen was a relatively new product on the British market, all 'Swiss' and 'healthy' with its snowy mountain on the brown box. If you wanted muesli, it was pretty much Alpen or hie thee to a health food store and buy what the unreconstructed referred to as 'rabbit food'. Alpen came in brown (which of course we now recognise as 'piled full of sugar and actually not all that healthy after all'). No blue low sugar variants, no granola, no snack-n-go breakfast replacement bars. So what do we have now? 34 different varieties of muesli is what.  And in their online store there are 49 different mueslis. And that's before you even get to the cornflakes or any of the hundreds of other cereals. If you type in 'breakfast cereals' you get a whopping 199 choices.

I'm really not sure how I feel about it all, in terms of quality of life. While it's lovely to be able to try new things and to be able to find alternatives if what you really want isn't available, I often feel paralysed by indecision, and I'm sure the shopping takes twice as long as it needs to. A simpler approach to life is very appealing. Think how much time we would free up if we weren't agonising over which breakfast cereal to choose, which washing powder/liquid/tab to choose, which kind of seeded bread (rich and roasted? Light and nutty?) to choose.

"Through return to simple living comes control of desires. In control of desires, stillness is attained. In stillness the world is restored."
Lao Tzu 

There now, I bet you weren't counting on Chinese philospophy with your breakfast blog.


  1. You made me laugh with your story about the Japanese man. Going to a restaurant with a group of Japanese is excruciating! No one wants to be the first person to make a choice, so there's lots of dilly-dallying and shilly-shallying. Finally, some brave soul sticks his or her neck out (if it's mixed company, it will be a man who goes first), and makes a choice. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief, and then proceeds to order exactly the same. I kid you not.

    1. Ha! So here we're paralysed by all the choice and there you're paralysed by the need to conform. We humans sure don't have it all figured out, do we?