To begin this post I would like to begin with a quote by Nigel Marsh in which summarizes the negative impact that consumerism has on people: “There are thousands and thousands of people out there leading lives of quiet screaming desperation, where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate to enable them to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.”
When I first heard this quote it really struck me because of how true it actually is and how much we can relate it to our own lives. Think about all the “status” materials out there: Lexus, Mercedes, Michael Kors, Prada, Apple, Samsung, and think about the reason people buy these things. From one point of view, a person buys these materials to “treat” themselves with extravagant things; however, another view could see this as a sign for a person wanting to impress others and the possession is merely a tool in order to impress people. However, to what extent are these desires intrinsic qualities that all humans possess and to what extent are they cultural qualities?
I would like to attempt to answer this question from my own experiences that I have gained through my travels throughout the world. All in all, I have been to thirty countries around the world, which adds up to a total of about fourteen months abroad. Throughout this time period I did not try to be the “tourist,” but I really tried to immerse myself in each culture and understand how they think and compare it to how I was taught to think growing up. I always tried to have the most open mind when viewing the cultures and never criticize their way of life.
So, what does this have to do with this question? Well, throughout each country I noticed similar things that people wanted that were the same across EVERY culture. Among the things, the ones that I found to be the same across every culture were stability, safety, and family. Every culture seemed to value these qualities in their life and these came at the forefront of their life, and I will refer to these as our intrinsic qualities–the qualities we all possess. In addition, each culture valued “beauty,” and embraced it in their own society. However, although all these cultures valued beauty, the thing that separated them was their concept, or idea, of what “beauty” means. Moreover, when I say “beauty” I am referring to possessions that people wanted in the society.
Let me explain this with an example of when I was traveling through Southeast Asia. I traveled in 5 countries and in this region and they all seemed to have the same object that they defined as “beautiful” and was possessed by everyone regardless of their social class–their phones. I was in the country of Myanmar, which is the poorest country in the region, but still families that did not have running water in their houses all possessed smartphones. Their idea of “beauty” lied in this object. This idea of the beauty in phones was seen in the whole region, which shows the cultural relevance of these possessions. Smartphones are not naturally beautiful, but in the eyes of this one culture they were defined as beautiful and everyone wanted one.
This idea of phones was socially constructed because smartphones are not a natural thing. It could be argued that natural things such as gold or flowers are things that people naturally desire, but smartphones differ because they are not natural, so therefore they cannot be intrinsic. This view of deeming smartphones as “beauty” or “necessity” was a socially constructed concept that became the “dominant ideology” of the culture. This ideology was constructed by the corporations, advertising, and media influence that was both intentional and non-intentional. And this ideology established the desire of the people.
To these people, they were not aware of this quality as much as I was because I was the outsider and noticed things that they considered the norm. Now, when I am living my life at home I try to become more aware of my own cultural wants and desires and try to make a more conscious decisions on whether or not I want something because I want it or because someone is telling me I should want it. I try to have a full consciousness on making my decisions when buying things.
My experiences like the one I mentioned above challenged me to to question my own behaviors. When I am buying a non-necessity materials that I desire I always ask myself,
- “Am I buying this because I want it, or are external forces that are so subconscious making me want to buy it?”
- “I am buying this item for myself, or I am buying it for other people?”
- “What or who is creating this desire that makes me want to buy this item?”
It is easy to make decisions unconsciously and have desires that you are not aware of. However, I challenge you, the consumer, to ask yourself these questions when buying something. Don’t allow your culture to control your desires. Be an individual and challenges the norms of the society. There is nothing wrong about having desires, but always make sure these desires exist are because you desire them, not because someone is telling you to desire it.
My challenge to you is to think about what non-necessity items you desire and think about what is driving you to buy that item. For example, are you buying a guitar because you love playing guitar, or are you buying a new phone because you saw an appealing commercial that made you want to buy it? What motives you for your purchase?
Be a smart consumer!!