Linguistics Professor: Bad Reviews = Trauma, and Good Reviews = Sex, Drugs, Love

February 20, 2015

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George Bernard Shaw once said, “There is no sincerer love than the love of food.”

That’s so true. Food is not just a material pleasure; it’s something with which many people have a special relationship. And we’re not just talking about the chefs and restaurant owners we work with on a regular basis. We’re talking about the diners, too – those who experience spectacular joys upon finding the perfect fish taco in Las Vegas, or going through their first-ever meal at Alinea, or taking the first slice of a perfect tres leches cake.

In all corners of the world, the GBS quote we just dropped rings true: food is love.

Even on the Internet you get to see how passionate and devoted and crazy and sometimes brokenhearted or overwhelmed people are about what they eat. Just check out a restaurant review site like Yelp or TripAdvisor and read the reviews. Opinions vary. Ratings rise and fall. Good or bad, food causes a reaction. It moves people to speak.

When it comes to the language of food, there is perhaps no one better to turn to than Dan Jurafsky, a linguist and Stanford University computer science professor who recently analyzed about a million (!) online reviews o Yelp to describe the range of linguistic traits associated with people’s dining experiences.

One-star reviews use the language of trauma 

According to Jurafsky, one-star restaurant reviews show signs of trauma. This means those who have a bad meal on a night out would use the past tense instead of the present (to distance themselves from the event); they’re also using words like “terrible” and “awful” to describe their experiences, along with first-person plural pronouns like “we,” “our,” or “us” to share the pain. Also: there’s very little mention about the actual food.

“It turns out that there’s previous scientific literature showing exactly that characteristic constellation of linguistic features characterizing a particular genre,” said Jurafsky, and that genre is the genre of people writing after they’ve been traumatized.”

He added: “In particular they use the first-person plural, they say this bad thing happened to us as a group and we’re going to get through it together. This idea of getting through suffering collectively is there in these one-star reviews. These are minor traumas.’

It’s kind of scary to think that, after a bad night at your restaurant, customers might talk like they have just gone through divorce or witnessed a terrible car accident. But think of it as human nature. We’re sensitive to personal interaction: if it’s natural to feel like someone punched you in the gut after you read a nasty Yelp review of your establishment, then an awful restaurant visit with bad food and even worse service can also really affect diners.

Linguistics Professor: Bad Reviews = Trauma, and Good Reviews = Sex, Drugs, Love

Some online reviews talk of food as love, sex, drugs 

Here’s the good news. Spoil your customers and they’ll wax poetic in their reviews. They’ll use all kinds of metaphors – not least of which are sexual ones.

According to Jurafsky’s research, food at posh, fancy restaurants tends to lend itself to phrases like “seductive Tiramisu cake,” “naught deep-fried pork belly,” or “orgasmic crème brulee” – dotted with words and phrases reserved usually for sexual pleasure. Menu favorites at cheaper, less luxurious restaurants, meanwhile, are linguistically associated with craving, addiction, and the drug-like sensation of needing a fix. That’s why you’ll catch phrases in reviews like “dirty burgers,” “addictive donuts,” “the fries were like crack,” or “hooked on wings.”

So: posh nosh evokes sexy talk, while guilty culinary pleasures use the language of drugs.

Noted Jurafsky: “Obviously food and sex are linked, they are both oral pleasures, but why do we use these words for expensive foods? Maybe people at these flashy restaurants are on dates and already thinking about sex.”

He added: “(Meanwhile), by talking about these cheap foods as drugs it’s like saying, ‘Well, it’s not really my fault that I ate that. I’m addicted to it. The drug really forced me to do it.’ So it makes us feel a little less guilty for eating these unhealthy foods.”

Interested to find out more about what Yelp reviews say about your business? Sign up for a demo of ReviewTrackers, our review monitoring and reputation management software platform. Listen closely and respond promptly to what customers are saying on sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google, Facebook, and all other major review sites.

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