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written by Sam Greenspan

A new study found the language people use in one-star Yelp reviews is similar to the language used when discussing genuine traumas. Can we channel that phenomenon into something good?

“I’ll never return to this location again,” Louis P. wrote. “My broccoli had signs of aging, my shrimp came with the batter completely fallen off and my wife ordered a salad without chicken but was given chicken anyway. The server denied there was chicken in there. What a horrible turn of events for a place I loved going to.”

That is Louis P.’s one-star Yelp review of a Chili’s on Staten Island. Apparently, his review of a terrorist attack would have a similar tone.

There’s a certain boilerplate sameness to one-star Yelp reviews. Everything went wrong. The staff was rude, from a condescending woman up front to a rude, absentee waiter to an indifferent manager. The food was awful. The reviewer was shellshocked, horrified, enraged, confused, betrayed and saddened all at once. You can feel the anger radiating through the screen.

According to a new study, that’s not just the common thread of bad restaurant reviews on Yelp. It’s also the way people react to terrorist attacks and other significant horrors and traumas.

Dan Jurafsky, a professor of linguistics and computer science at Stanford University, led a study that analyzed the language people use in negative restaurant reviews. His team broke down more than one million one-star restaurant reviews on Yelp to find linguistic patterns and trends. From Dan:

We thought they would talk about how bad the food was, that it was greasy — but instead, they used very specific language, using 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’.

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

So when they are writing about one-star restaurant reviews, they are reminiscing about a small trauma that happened to them.

My first instinct after reading that was probably similar to your first instinct: Jesus, people, get a grip. That’s valid, and certainly apt. It’s entirely possible that an unexpected consequence of this hyperbole-laden era is a population-wide erosion of genuine perspective.

But maybe this is an opportunity for something else. What if the takeaway isn’t “bad restaurant experiences feel like genuine traumas” but rather “genuine traumas feel like bad restaurant experiences”? Is that a potential conduit to exploring new coping mechanisms for trauma victims? A modern update of “this too shall pass” from a cliche into something tangible? A way to bridge the mental gap toward healing once a person is ready to transition away from grieving?

I don’t know. Perhaps that idea is too steeped in the ol’ theoretical vacuum of optimism. But I feel like there’s something there, something viable, something useful.

It would certainly be easier to test it out on the other end of the scale — the five-star Yelp reviews. The study also found a linguistic pattern in those effusively positive reviews: People made the meal sound like sex. At fancy restaurants, five-star reviews described the food with words like “orgasmic,” “seductive” and “naughty.” At cheaper restaurants, five-star reviews described the food with words like “irresistible” and “craving.”

So maybe, instead of going to a funeral and saying, “I know your grandpa just died, but remember that time Outback served you a soggy Bloomin’ Onion? Channel that!” you could use your post-coital pillow talk time to gauge the quality of your performance on a food-based scale. “Hey sweet thang, would you say that sex was ‘Beef ‘n Cheddar good’?” Now that’s practical!