Scripts– Hardwired to Order Sandwiches in Your Sleep

Welcome. This blog will start off with a series of articles related to one of the most iconic American foods– sandwiches. Although sandwiches have existed since the start of time, they were not officially given the name until 1726 (1). This is one of those semi-true but absolutely juicy tales that abounds in the history of food. Sandwiches were named after John Montague, earl of Sandwich, a hardcore gambler who had to use his right hand to play his cards and his left hand to eat. He would therefore request bread, cheese and meat together in what we now know as a sandwich.

Though fascinating, the post will not touch upon the origins of the sandwich. Instead, I will bring attention to the process of ordering a sandwich at a deli and the important psychological factors involved. I first moved to the United States four years ago from Taiwan. People always ask if I experienced culture shock, and this is the first incident that comes to mind.

Delis were new to me. Being a cosmopolitan city, Taipei had western style bakeries that sold sandwiches but always prepackaged (with some interesting ingredients which I will touch upon in a later post about sandwiches in the East). The prospect of ordering a sandwhich was horrifying to me, because Delis either have no menus showing the ingredients available or they do not address the sandwich creation process itself (take a look at Subway’s menu). Do I order my veggies first? What dressings are available?

Two problems were at hand from a psychological standpoint:

1)      Lack of knowledge in the sequence of the ordering process (you order your bread first, cheese and meats, veggies and then dressing in many cases)

2)      Lack of knowledge in the categories of foods that make up a sandwich (breads, meats, cheeses, veggies, dressing)

I avoided ordering sandwiches for a month and then decided to venture out of my comfort zone to order what the person in front of me ordered for another two months. There is a social anxiety that comes with being unable to fulfill a prescribed role in a situation where others can do so easily. Surprisingly, one of these roles is being the sandwich orderer. Asking “what breads are available?” and “what dressings are available?” are taboo questions at the deli. These questions are usually met with the awkward pause as the person behind the counter contemplates whether it is worth reciting the whole list of ingredients to you for every single category. While this is an anecdote from my personal life, it has been largely documented psychological literature that when people do not successfully prescribe to social norms and, in this case, “scripts”, negative social consequences like stigma and feelings of anxiety can arise.

The act of ordering a sandwich is what psychologists call a “behavioral script.” It is a socially learned sequence of behaviors and actions in a certain setting that becomes automatic to you. As an American going to your local Subway, you order your bread, meat, cheese, veggies and dressing without a second thought. You have learned through your culture to execute this script flawlessly, which involves all this:

Quite overwhelming! You are able to keep this in your head due to a lifetime of repetition and seeing others do the same.

Purchasing and eating certain foods in other cultures have their own scripts. Therefore, I sincerely believe that it is not only important when teaching foreign languages to focus on the linguistic aspects but also to expose students to various scripts that natives take for granted. This will allow foreign speakers to integrate better into new countries. A future post will lay out the script for the next time you are at a Taiwanese potsticker joint!

Picture courtesy of Tasted Menu Boston www.tastedmenu.com

Diagram created by Mark Lock

(1) taken from documentary http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmnsUeCXAZw

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