You say broo-sheh-tah. I say broo-ske-tah. Should we just call the whole meal off?
Dining out gives people a night off from cooking and clean-up duty, but it can also serve up a buffet of pronunciation pitfalls.
The Wall Street Journal recently revealed that, after years of testing, Olive Garden’s gnocchi sales finally took off after the dish was further described on the menu as “traditional Italian dumplings.”
In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, a study titled “The name-pronunciation effect: Why people like Mr. Smith more than Mr. Colquhoun” further proved people are more likely to favor easy-to-pronounce names than difficult-to-pronounce ones. In the case of Olive Garden, traditional Italian dumplings (Mr. Smith) won the popularity contest against gnocchi (Mr. Colquhoun), and added an extra comfort level for diners.
A similar study by Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz at the University of Michigan concluded that “fluently processed stimuli are judged as more familiar and elicit a more positive affective response than disfluently processed stimuli.” That is, if something – for instance, an ingredient – is difficult to pronounce, the consumer automatically assumes it's more harmful if it sounds unfamiliar.
Tongue-twisting dishes are not only risky, they can bring up deeper social and class anxieties. “There is a class-raising association with knowing other languages,” says Margaret King, a cultural analyst and director of a Philadelphia think tank that studies how consumers determine value in products.
“It could be a form of speech anxiety. When one is anxious about public speaking, it is more often than not a symptom of the ego and a fear of making a mistake or being embarrassed in front of people they do not know,” says Lyndsey Elliott, an Orange County, California-based psychologist.
She continued, “In the same vein, when someone is at a dinner on a date, with co-workers, and/or in mixed company, a similar effect of anxiety can take place. ‘People will think I am dumb’ or ‘I want to make a good impression’. People tend to play it safe in social situations where there could be any risk of looking anything but their very best."
All this anxiety has the potential to boil over when the waiter is standing there, order pad in hand. But professionals, both in and outside the restaurant industry, are eager to soothe diners’ pronunciation fears and even empower them to make more delicious decisions.
“It’s a sign of sophistication to admit your ignorance. Sophisticated people don’t get caught up in this or judge themselves or get caught up in dealing with people who do,” says King.
When you order the jota, for example, order with conviction.
Jota (pronounced yota) is one of executive chef Carmen Quagliata’s northern Italian specialties at the lauded Union Square Café in New York City. He says he tries to counteract any unfamiliarity with the Italian phrasing by also including an English description or story about where the dish originated from.
“I don’t think that much about how comfortable someone is going to be. I do think about if this is the best way to market this dish that I’m dying for people to have,” Quagliata says.
And even if the diner butchers the pronunciation, the restaurant’s waitstaff is instructed to never correct them. After all, they themselves had to learn the phonetic pronunciation of all the dishes before service.
“It’s only a teaching moment if they invite it; otherwise, it’s just pure enjoyment,” says John Ragan, the wine director for Union Square Hospitality Group, the parent company of Union Square Café.
When it comes to wine, Ragan advises his staff to connect the dots during their own wine education. When a person understands why a grape is pronounced a particular way because it’s from a certain region of Spain, for example, they can infer even more information that the wine list may not convey. If the guest seems receptive, they can even share this knowledge.
“Understanding the culture is understanding the language,” Ragan says.
Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology & Viticulture Institute in Ontario, Canada, concluded that consumers not only liked the taste of a wine better when it was associated with a difficult-to-process name, they also would pay more - an average of $2 more in fact - for the more linguistically challenging winemaker.
“I would say that because consumers have an intuitive theory that that which is rare, is more valuable, they will tend to prefer the wines with more difficult to pronounce names,” says Antonia Mantonakis, an Associate Professor at Brock University involved in the study.
King agrees that the inverse for wine makes sense, because there is a common perception of wine as being more refined.
Whether it’s food or wine, don’t sweat it; point to it if you’re too intimidated and let the waiter deal with it, King says. “They’re there to help you, not make you feel on trial.”
“If you don’t know what something means or how it is pronounced, you are not alone. I liken it to ‘there is no such thing as a stupid question.’ Usually someone else wants to know the answer as well, so why not take the lead and initiative and just ask?” Elliott says.
In the age of instant information, Elliott says diners can familiarize themselves with the online menu ahead of time in order to know how things are prepared and decrease angst around choices that they may regret later.
“People may shy away from fancy names because they don't want to be disappointed, end up hungry or seem exposed or silly for ordering something they shouldn't have to begin with,” Elliott says.
And if nothing else, the more risks taken, the better as far as King is concerned.
“You’re not going to be judged on your Burmese pronunciation the way you will be judged on your French and Italian. The expectation of expertise isn’t there.”
Five Tips for Anxious Orderers
1. Research the restaurant ahead of time; online menus are your friend. Especially if you're dining out with a date or business partner, you don’t want to be stuck for 30 minutes trying to decipher the menu when you could be engaging in conversation.
2. Still wary? Listen to online pronunciation guides, or if you have a smartphone, there are food translator apps available.
3. Let the server take charge. Order last and say, "I love how you say the dishes, I want to make sure I'm saying this right…” or say, “I'm really interested in this beef preparation, can you tell me more about it?" Usually, this will lead the server to repeat the full name of the dish.
4. Take risks. Bradford Thompson, a menu design instructor at the French Culinary Institute, says people should be more willing to take a chance with an appetizer than an entrée. With a bad appetizer, you can still recover; whereas a bad entrée can put a damper on the entire meal.
5. Have confidence. Don't be afraid to mess up. It's not what you say, it's how you say it. There’s always room for interpretation, especially for a non-native speaker.
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