Some people are more comfortable ordering “Khao Pad Sapparod” when it’s called “Pineapple Fried Rice.”
Diners who are averse to uncertainty, also known as having a “need for cognitive closure,” don’t like restaurant menus to have the authentic names of their meals. Instead, they prefer the English-language version, according to a study by Stephanie Liu, an assistant professor of hospitality management and consumer sciences at the College of Education and Human Ecology at Ohio State University.
“They don’t like ambiguity or information that is difficult to process. That’s why authentic names are less appealing,” she said. “They still get the same foods — it’s just the labels.” Liu and her colleagues studied 171 American adults, measuring their need for cognitive closure in an online survey by asking questions such as if the person would become irritated if she couldn’t find the solution to a problem immediately. Researchers then presented the participants with two types of menus: one with the items named in the authentic language, and one with the English version, but both with descriptions in English. They were asked to rate their attitudes toward the menu and restaurant, and how they felt about the decision they made from the menu. Diners who had a greater “need for cognitive closure” were more likely to prefer the anglicized versions.
Customers who are put off by a menu’s exotic entree names often end up disliking the entire restaurant, Liu said. “Your attitude toward the menu is related to your attitude toward the restaurant,” she said. “The menu is an advertisement.” The need for cognitive closure is a powerful one, and affects diners’ menu preferences even at drive-throughs and fast food restaurants, where they feel they are pressured by time to make a decision. Let’s cut out the part about background noise.
Another study of foreign languages on menus from a student at the Auckland University of Technology found having the authentic language on a menu increased the customers’ perception of the authenticity of the restaurant and its food — which could increase customers’ expectations of the meals they’ll receive. It even went so far as to suggest that Chinese script influences non-Chinese diners’ perceptions of the restaurant’s brand personality, food authenticity and target marketing. Restaurants tend to use untranslated menu item names to impress their clientele, even if they know that customers may not speak the language, according to a Duke University study called “America’s National Dish: The Style of Restaurant Menus.”
But the preference for easy-to-understand menu names could be on the wane. Younger restaurant-goers are more likely to embrace foreign languages on their menus, said Darren Seifer, a food analyst at market information organization NPD Group. “In foreign cuisines, we see a greater willingness amongst millennials, and a lot of that stems from the fact that they grew up with the internet in their pockets,” he said. It’s also more common today to be curious about different cuisines, and try new things. For example, the concept of eating raw fish, like sushi and sashimi, was unheard of in the 40s and 50s, whereas now it’s seen everywhere, he said.
Customers can become more comfortable with authentic names by learning how to pronounce them or what they mean, Seifer added. That means asking the wait staff how to say the name of the menu item they want, or having restaurants do a better job of educating their clientele. The name of the well-known Mexican fast-food chain Chipotle, for example, is still often pronounced wrong, he added. (It’s pronounced che-pote-lay). “That’s just what it is,” he said. “They’re uncomfortable with a language they don’t understand.”