Monday, September 29, 2014

Rant: Sex, Drugs & Restaurant Reviews

When you describe a restaurant experience to someone, do you use the language of drug use or sex? That choice speaks volumes about the type of food you ate, as well as the the size of your check.

I've been immersed in a fascinating new book, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky. The book explains and expounds upon various food-related words, as well as examining the role of words in everything from menus to restaurant reviews. It is part history and science, psychology and etymology. If you love food, it is an excellent read, one which will intrigue and interest you, as well as make you think of food in different ways. I highly recommend this book and I'll likely be writing, in the near future, about a few other things I learned from it.

In one of the chapters, Sex, Drugs and Sushi Rolls, Jurafsky explores some of the language used in restaurant reviews. In general, it was found that positive restaurant reviews were more likely to use sexual metaphors, though sexual metaphors were most commonly used when describing expensive restaurants. It seems that when people spend a lot of money at dinner, they desire a special experience, one which is as good as great sex. Which restaurant experience was the last one you would describe as orgasmic?

There are twp types of food which are most associated with sexual metaphor: sushi and dessert. With sushi, a number of restaurants create Maki rolls with sex-related names, while the texture of raw fish can also bring sexual metaphor to the forefront. With dessert, the texture is also very important, leading to the use of words that carry sexual overtones, such as sticky, silky, and gooey. Good desserts are often described as seductive and orgasmic.

As an aside, the presence of a good dessert at a restaurant can lead to a higher rating for that restaurant, at least when Yelp was analyzed. In a study, reviews that failed to mention dessert gave a lower average rating than reviews that mentioned it. In addition, the more the review discussed the dessert, the higher the rating. Restaurants need to pay attention to the important of dessert to many of their customers. Dessert cannot just be an afterthought.

In restaurant reviews of less expensive restaurants, sexual metaphors are much less common and instead you will find more of the language of drug use. I'm referring to snack foods and bar foods, burgers and fried chicken, cupcakes and fried twinkies. In describing such foods, people may state they crave the foods, are addicted to them, or need a fix. No longer is the meal equated to a sexual experience, but instead it is equated more to a shot of heroin or a vial of crack. Are such foods your drug of choice?

Why is this so? Jurafsky states they these foods are guilty pleasures, foods we know are not the best for our health but which we want anyways. That is similar reasoning you would hear from a drug addict. In addition, we try to cast the blame on the food itself, claiming we are not at fault, that we are helpless against the allure of the food. Interestingly, women are more likely to use such drug metaphors when describing food, possibly because they are under more societal pressure to eat well.

If you write restaurant reviews, check your old reviews and see if all of this is true for you. If you share your restaurant experiences with others, even just verbally, try to recall if this applies to what you have said about restaurants. If you read restaurant reviews, see if the writer uses drug or sex metaphors, and if they conform to what the studies have found.

1 comment:

Frederick Wright said...

Language such as that is quite useful to help filter out childish reviewers with extremely limited perspectives on food. And likely sex.