Both the the US and British versions of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares contain all kinds of interesting examples of nonverbal communication, but especially fascinating are the nonverbal cues Ramsay uses when giving criticism and how this effects how people respond to him. It’s not surprising that the way a critique is delivered has a profound effect on how it is received, but something I’ve noticed from watching Gordon Ramsay in action is that the actual words may not matter as much as the way that they’re spoken. There is also an interesting cultural component to this as well, with marked differences between the US and the UK versions of this show. I’ll give a brief synopsis of the premise of them both, and then I’ll explain what I mean.
In each episode, internationally acclaimed chef Gordon Ramsay visits a failing restaurant to diagnose whatever problems they may be having and to help them fix those problems. The problems can range from incompetent management, to a dirty kitchen, to inefficient serving practices, and many of the restaurants suffer from a combination of these. However, at nearly every one of the restaurants, there is at least one person who is very resistant to change, often because they feel as if they are being personally attacked. At this point, Ramsay has to get this person on board, or in extreme cases, get rid of them, before the restaurant can make any progress. This is where the US and UK versions of the show tend to diverge. In both, Ramsay uses all kinds of colorful language to draw attention to the problems with the restaurant, but in the United States, he combines this with yelling, gesturing emphatically, and getting physically close to the person he’s admonishing. In Britain, he actually seems to use even more expletives, but his tone of voice is usually quite calm and polite, and he stands back at more of a distance and uses fewer and less bombastic gestures. Basically, if you were to turn the sound off and just watch what’s going on, the American show would lead you to believe Ramsay is taking part in a violent and highly personal argument, but on the British show, his body language looks very similar to that of your average history professor giving a lecture.
What’s interesting, though, is that people generally responded to Ramsay in keeping with the way in which he originally spoke to them. This means that the British version of the show is usually fairly reserved and understated, with big, explosive arguments being the exception rather than the rule. The American version is almost the exact opposite, with multiple shouting matches in every episode, some of which nearly come to blows. One can extrapolate from our discussion of the emotional contagion effect that criticizing someone angrily is likely going to make them angry, whereas someone who is criticized calmly is more likely to remain calm themselves. They may not like what is being said, in the latter case, but it’s probably not going to erupt into something much nastier.
The next question, though, is why does Gordon Ramsay feel the need to shout at Americans but not at his fellow countrymen? It’s true that we tend to mimic the nonverbal patterns of those we’re talking to, but in most cases, it’s Gordon Ramsay himself who begins the spiral of aggression. To me, it looks like Ramsay is trying to conform to what he perceives as American nonverbal patterns, but he’s getting it horribly wrong. I suppose to the British, who are generally more reserved, Americans must seem excessively confrontational. However, if American television is where Ramsay has gotten this impression of us, one can hardly blame him. Reality shows without someone making a big, emotional scene just don’t make “good TV” over here. What’s bizarre, though, is that even though we seem to have a taste for this kind of spectacle as a culture, it’s not really representative of how we generally communicate. We might be more direct, even extremely emphatic, but I’d like to think most of us stop just short of being unnecessarily rude. The average American, at least as far as I’ve seen, having lived here all my life, does not try to gain the compliance of others by getting in their face and screaming expletives at them. Certainly, people sometimes do this, but they’re anomalies, and we all look at them like there’s something very wrong with them. If Ramsay knew this, and spoke to American restaurateurs the way normal people really communicate over here, things would have gone just as smoothly as they did in his homeland. Whether or not such a show would be successful on American television is another matter.
Hall, Christine (Producer). (2004). Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares [Television series]. London: Channel Four Televison Corporation.
Smith, Arthur (Producer). (2007). Kitchen Nightmares [Television series]. Los Angeles: Granada Entertainment USA.