Study Examines Attitudes About Non-English Speakers

UH Hilton College Research Starts with Cooking in Silence

Student cooks chop peppers, season chicken and prepare a pesto sauce as they maneuver through a dinner menu. The kitchen is bustling as they reach for utensils, ingredients, pots and pans, but one thing is missing-the talking. It's a study at the University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management called "Empathy in the Kitchen," which calls for the entrees to be created in silence. The study measures attitudes about non-English-speaking individuals and examines ways to change those attitudes.


"As future kitchen managers, it's very likely that many kitchen workers will not speak English as a first language," said Jay Neal, assistant professor and researcher at the college. "If a worker without English is underutilized because he cannot communicate with managers, and vice versa, he may feel alienated and, eventually, leave. We hope this exercise gives these future manager tools to communicate despite language barriers."

Ninety-six students in a Food Service Production and Operations class participated in the study, which began with a survey that measured their attitudes toward non-English speakers. The survey was a modified version of social psychologist J.C. McConahay's modern racism scale and Jim Sidanius' and Felicia Pratto's social dominance orientation scale. When the silent cooking exercise was completed, the students were surveyed again. Preliminary data found negative attitudes toward non-English-speaking individuals decreased once participants received empathy training in the form of silent cooking activity. Furthermore, participants believed in more equality for the non-English speaker after training.

"The kitchen managers stated that they now realized how frustrating, lonely and stressful it is to work in an environment where you cannot communicate," Mary Dawson, assistant professor at the college said. "Our results suggest that empathy training can positively affect individual attitudes toward non-English speakers."

The silent cooking activity proved daunting for some. Student kitchen managers were given a recipe in English. Their teammates were given the same recipe written in a foreign language. Managers were told to direct the team using only gestures, no words.

"Non-English-speaking individuals working in restaurants and hotels is a modern day reality," said assistant professor Juan Madera. "Companies that face this challenging issue through training or other forms of diversity management put themselves in a better position to compete in a global market than those that simply ignore this issue."

Turnover in the workplace increased in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, with the hospitality and leisure sector up 52 percent. That means money.

"The industry spent between $4,100 and $11,600 per occurrence, which includes administration time, advertising, relocation, training, etc.," Dawson said. "Turnover cost in the hospitality industry is even more critical when employees have close relationships with customers. Losing such employees not only involves the replacement costs, but it potentially involves the loss of business."

Dawson and her colleagues are hopeful the exercise can be folded into the current curriculum at the college and offered to industry leaders as a team building and training exercise.

Their research will be presented at the Hospitality Industry Diversity Institute Conference June 4-5 at the college.

For more information on the UH Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, visit