Back in high school I had a close friend who lived in a small town in Pennsylvania. One day he told me that his neighbors were all really excited because there was about to be a new hotspot in town- a Starbucks. To someone who lived in a county with more Starbucks locations than I ever imagined were necessary, the opening of a Starbucks didn’t sound incredibly exhilarating. But for my friend’s small town it was a first, and it marked more than just coffee: it was a taste of mainstream American society, inclusion in a brand culture, and affirmation that their town was worth investing in.
A year later I’d study the idea of cultural defaults in one of my university courses. Cultural defaults refer to the automatic thoughts and beliefs we have based on our background. For example, to me, Starbucks was no biggie because I saw them multiple times per day. But for people who had never lived near one, their default would be different and they would have a very different reaction- positive or negative, of course, depending on their point of view on chain retail. Cultural defaults can affect pretty much everything you think about, from the types of food you consider ‘normal’ to how you behave in a business meeting to how you perceive various occupations. And in the case of brands, the amount of prestige that the service or product has really depends on who you are asking. E.g. Coach is luxury to some, but plain ‘ol cheap to someone like Britney Spears.
Which brings me to a recent happening in the world of food criticism. Marilyn Hagerty of the Grand Forks Herald flew into the spotlight a couple weeks ago for a food review of Olive Garden that somehow went ridiculously viral. Her review is simple, straightforward, and heavy on descriptions of ambiance rather than descriptions of food. In her article she talks about how excited people were for the restaurant’s opening, and how the restaurant is very beautiful inside. All in all, not a particularly thrilling column. But it has caught national attention for a couple of reasons. 1, it’s good natured and earnest in a way that very little seems to be. 2, she’s writing about the Olive Garden like it’s an exciting place- and c’mon, we all know it isn’t exactly a fancy schmancy restaurant!
But that’s where I ask you to think about your cultural defaults. You see, a lot of people are mocking the article because she reviews Olive Garden like it’s a big deal. And to a lot of people, the Olive Garden is a joke. But they’re forgetting to jump outside of their defaults: they’re forgetting that a lot of America lives in places where Olive Gardens are few and far between. Or they’re the most fancy place around. Or they’re the only Italian restaurant nearby. Etc. People who mock Marilyn for reviewing the restaurant aren’t thinking about the fact that her town isn’t teeming with trendy bars or foodie havens. And she’s reviewing the restaurant for a crowd of people who probably DO care about the Olive Garden. It’s not that Marilyn isn’t sophisticated enough to realize that Olive Garden is not fine dining- it’s that it doesn’t matter if it is.
It’s pretty crazy to see how much press the review has garnered Ms. Hagerty. Media appearances, a paid trip to NYC, you can even buy a Marilyn t-shirt from her newspaper’s site. But the best part of all? She only learned the phrase “go viral” when it happened to her. Brilliant.