Online Food Reviews Say As Much About the Author As the Restaurant

These brief write-ups are surprisingly personal

Photo: Michael Dorausch

Those of us who chose to get online and review a particularly satisfying or disappointing meal might be revealing more of ourselves than we'd expect. From the language we use to describe the pasta to the approach we take in explaining a distressing experience with a server or hostess, online restaurant reviews can say almost as much about the reviewer as they do about the restaurant in question, according to a new study. And sometimes, those inadvertent revelations can be quite personal.

Researchers from Stanford University used software to comb through around 900,000 Yelp reviews of 6,500 restaurants in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The software classified the reviews' linguistic characteristics, including word choice, sentence structure and length and tone. 

Overall, the positive reviews, the researchers say, bring out a "more buoyant or fun-loving self in search of pleasure." When reviewers described an upscale establishment positively, they tended to draw parallels to a sexual experience, relying on words such as "orgasmic" and "sexy." They also tended to use bigger words and more complex sentences—"language of higher socioeconomic classes," Stanford explains. This conveys an air of sophistication, not just in reflection of the restaurant but also of the reviewer—the kind of person who fits in at such a respectable establishment.

People giving positive reviews for lower-tier or less formal establishments approached those descriptions a bit differently. Many reviewers, especially women, adopted a drug-centric outlook, describing "addictive" food such as the "crack" chicken or pie, for example. The study found that the foods that most often inspired drug-related lingo included pizza, hamburgers and desserts—those that, like drugs, are not healthy for us.

Rather than dwell on bad food, on the other hand, the negative reviews tended to get personal. They were most often inspired by unpleasant run-ins with the people working in the restaurants, including rude waiters, unhelpful staff or long wait times for service. The language the reviewers adopted for describing these encounters, Stanford reports, "resembled the language of people who have been traumatized by tragedies or the deaths of loved ones." In other words, the researchers explain, bad encounters with staff is taken very personally, internalized "straight to your sense of self." To help cope with that traumatizing experience, the team continues, people turn to Yelp to vent. 

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