Was Your Show Like Sex, Drugs or a Punch In The Nose?

I recently read about a study that analyzed the language used in restaurant reviews. They found that negative reviews often used the language of trauma. Positive reviews either used drug addiction terms for cheaper restaurants or sexual/sensual terms for more expensive restaurants.

It got me wondering what sort of terminology do people use when they have a positive or negative experience after an arts or cultural experience. Looking back over some surveys we have, I couldn’t see any patterns. I imagine it is because we have such a small sample size and often people aren’t very verbose with their responses, providing short commentary like “It was great!”

It would be interesting to see what the results might be from a literature review of past arts and culture surveys.

Even without such a study, there are some observations from the restaurant language study that might provide clues for arts and cultural organizations. For instance, people who wrote negative reviews really didn’t talk about the food as often as they commented about the experience. Reviewers used terms like “worst, rude, terrible, horrible, bad, awful, disgusting, attitude and mistake.”

According to the study authors,

“oneā€“star reviews were overwhelmingly focused on narrating experiences of trauma rather than discussing food, both portraying the author as a victim and using first person plural to express solace in community.”

As mentioned earlier, the positive reviews were split in the types of terms they used. Addiction terminology was used for cheaper food that fell into a general category of sweet or starchy comfort type food purchased from a cafe, diner or food truck.

“…addiction, crave/craving, chocoholic, jonesing, binge/binging. It also includes phrases in which drugs are described as a metaphor (drug of choice, like a drug, new drug, favorite drug, etc.) and phrases describing food as the drug crack (including made of crack, food crack, edible crack, etc.).

Reviews would use the first person singular, “I”, showing a personal investment in the opinion.

Most terms used in more expensive sit down restaurants revolved more around sensual aspects of the food:

“erotic, food porn, lust, lusted, lusting, naughty, orgasm*, pornographic, seductive*, sensual*, sex*, sinful, sultry, tempt, temptation, tempting, voluptuous, wine porn.”

Reviews for more expensive restaurants tended to be longer and use more complex words.

In terms of negative reviews for arts and cultural events, we do know that the experience surrounding the event often plays a large factor in whether a person enjoys a performance. So if you are seeing language like that, positive or negative, it is something to pay close attention to. Even if they praise the ease of parking today, you know that might be an area of complaint if road construction impedes it next time around.

I am not sure sexual or addiction terminology in reviews is a dependable criteria for judging a review to be a positive one. However, the type and complexity of words used in a positive may give a hint as to whether your audience views your events as a guilty pleasure or a high value experience.

Or lack of complexity in a response could mean that people simply lack the knowledge and confidence to provide sophisticated commentary.

The language of decadence is used in relation to food 100 times a day for everything from a diet snack to a master chef’s entree on a cooking show. No one will really judge a person for making an inaccurate or uninformed evaluation of a cheap piece of chocolate.

But even if someone has watched every season of American Idol, America’s Got Talent, The Voice, etc, etc, they may not feel qualified to critically evaluate a performance the same way the judges on those shows do. Both the language and the practice of talking about these experiences is infrequent and uncommon for most people.

In fact, it is expected that you immediately express your delight upon eating something you approve of, but that you delay your response until an appropriate time at many performances.

The effusive vocabulary applied to a meal will probably never develop for a performance. Still, a closer reading of the terminology used in surveys, comments and lobby chatter might provide some insight.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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