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For Yelp Reviewers, Bad Restaurant Service Is Like 9/11

Was your most recent brunch experience like living through an RPG attack? Apparently you're not alone. A Stanford professor has found that Yelp reviewers tend use the language of trauma when they describe a particularly bad meal.

Only once in my entire adult life have I refused to leave a tip at a restaurant.

Yes, I may be overly forgiving. A timid customer, even. But when a server at a busy Brooklyn brunch spot so carelessly flung my dining companion's croque monsieur that it slid straight off the table and into his lap—and, not even pausing for a beat, then turned and walked away without so much as a flinch of recognition at what she'd done—my resolve was broken. I flagged her down a few minutes later, and simply gestured with a shrug to the cheese-stained person sitting across from me; she rolled her eyes and brought over a fistful of napkins. We paid in full, no gratuity—but I still felt bad for the bussers.


This experience was so memorable that I recounted it just yesterday, at a far less busy Brooklyn brunch spot where my table seemed trapped in some kind of absurd Ionesco play. After we'd waited a full half-hour simply to see the menu in a half-full restaurant, our server gave us some terrible news. "The kitchen isn't speaking to me," he said with a shake of his head, ostensibly expecting us to reply, "There, there—we'll get through this together." Nearly an hour later, when we gently inquired about the status of a side order of bacon, he sucked in a short breath through his teeth and said, "I'll try, but I can't promise anything." He reassured us that he was on our side, though: "Don't worry. If it doesn't come out, I won't charge you." A hero of our time, that one.

As frustrating as these experiences can be, complaining about a less-than-stellar brunch is just about the epitome of first-world problems. But that fact is lost on the average Yelper, who is apparently far more inclined to hyperbole than me.

While I was busy not being served bacon this weekend (they also ran out of Bloody Marys at 2 PM—what?), Stanford professor Dan Jurafsky was presenting an analysis of nearly 900,000 Yelp reviews at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in San Jose, California. According to Jurafsky, a linguist and computer scientist, the language that Yelpers use in their one-star restaurant reviews suggests that they've experienced a level of trauma similar to that of living through a terrorist attack.


Eggs Benedict: never forget?

"We thought they would talk about how bad the food was, that it was greasy. But instead they used very specific language, using the past tense rather than the present tense, and talking about other people a lot, as well as using lots of negative words like 'awful' and 'terrible,'" said Jurafsky, who recently made headlines for his lexical dissection of menus in his book The Language of Food.

"It turns out that there is previous scientific literature showing that these are the same characteristics used by people writing after they have been traumatised, such as people writing after 9/11 or students writing after a campus tragedy."

Yes, this is exactly why chefs hate Yelp.

"One–star reviews are trauma narratives that help cope with face threats by portraying the author as a victim and seeking solace in community," Jurafsky and his co-authors wrote in their paper "Narrative framing of consumer sentiment in online restaurant reviews." (Positive ratings, in case you were wondering, tend to feature the language of drug addiction, and particularly that of freebasing: "made of crack," "food crack," "edible crack," and so on.)

Those reviewers tend to use the first-person plural to describe their experiences, "writing as if it happened to 'us,' as a group, as if 'we'll get through it together,' and suffer collectively," Jurafsky explained at the conference yesterday. "If you look at the reviews, sure enough it was all 'someone was mean to me', the waiter or waitress was rude," he added. It's all about personal interactions," he added.

Apparently, even I'm not immune to that. Eggs Benedict: never forget?