ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

Who Writes the Messages in Fortune Cookies?

ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

By Karina Martinez-Carter

People often take fortune cookie messages to heart. They crack open the yellow crescent moon cookies that conclude their Chinese restaurant meal, and eagerly hunt for predictions, revelations, and deeper meaning. Many save their favorites, carrying them around in a wallet.

But these often-odd messages are not axioms from the beyond. The epigrams originate in a handful of factories that each churn out upward of 4 million little slips of wisdom a day.

Wonton Food, Inc. is the world's largest manufacturer of fortune cookies and fortune cookie messages. It was established in 1973 and is based in the New York City area, with an additional factory in Houston. Wonton Food ships between 4.5 million and 5 million cookies per day to restaurants and chains throughout the U.S. and to Canada, Latin America, and Europe.

Yang's Fortunes, Inc., founded in 1996 and based in San Francisco, just handles printing, cutting, and packaging fortunes to send off to clients baking them into cookies. Yang's churns out about 4 million fortunes per day.

Fortune cookies are conspicuously absent from restaurants in China. But in the Westernized version of Chinese dining, the treats are expected at the end of every Chinese restaurant meal, or included in a take-out order. The founders of Wonton Food and Yang's Fortunes both started off focused on other Chinese cuisine products. But each recognized the growing demand for fortune cookies and their baked-in aphorisms, and capitalized on it.

In 2005, The New Yorker profiled Donald Lau, who at the time was vice president of Wonton Food, Inc. and the person writing the fortunes. Lau scribbled off fortunes in between his other duties, gleaning inspiration from wherever he could find it — like signs in the subway, as The New Yorker recounts. Since then, the company has brought on freelance writers to supplement Lau's output of adages.

Lisa Yang, vice president of Yang's Fortunes and daughter of founder Steven Yang, fell into writing fortunes, as well. When her father expanded into printing fortunes, he hired a writer to translate Chinese proverbs. Because cultural context was lost in translation, they often ended up nonsensical. Lisa Yang would edit them in her free time. In college, she spent a lot of time writing and rewriting the fortunes, even when her father hired a writer and a teacher to assist with the duty. Lisa Yang would read books of quotes for inspiration, and peruse daily horoscopes to get in the mindset to create new messages.

Yang joined her family's company full-time in 2005, after graduating college. Today, the company has a database of about 5,000 fortunes, and no one on the payroll dedicated to producing new ones. Still, Yang will sometimes add fortunes if the mood moves her. She admits spending nights from time to time sifting through blogs dedicated to fortune cookies. "I think it's fun being the person behind this," she told me. "Fortune cookies are such a part of our lives. Even when I go to Chinese restaurant I always share my fortune out loud with friends. We always want to know what the other one has."

Fortunes also are tweaked based on client feedback. "You will meet a tall, dark stranger" was removed from circulation when people complained they found it sinister.

Wonton Food contracts freelance writers once every couple years to craft new messages for the company's database of about 15,000 fortunes. "We understand opening a fortune cookie is an exciting moment, so that is why we renew our database — to create exciting moments for people," says Danny Zeng, vice president of sales. One of the last such attempts to spice up messages was earlier this year, when the generally vague, sunny messages got a bit racier with quips like "The evening promises romantic interest" or "Romance and travel go together." The company did get some complaints about children receiving such sayings. "We want to create excitement, but not offend," Zeng says.

Yang finds that people are often surprised to learn she and her family are behind many of the fortune cookies they receive, and they often pull out the favorites from their wallet to show her. And if knowing the business origins of treasured, seemingly omniscient fortune cookie messages brings them disappointingly back to earth, they can at least still hang onto the belief that the cosmos conspired to land a particular cookie in their hands.

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Do 'Close Door' Buttons in Elevators Actually Do Anything?
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When you’re running late for work, one small comfort is finding an empty elevator waiting for you at your office building. You scurry inside, and since no one else is waiting to enter, you jab the 'close door' button. The doors comply, the elevator starts moving, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

This is a familiar scenario for many, but it’s also a big fat lie. That’s because most of the door-close buttons in U.S. elevators don’t actually work. In fact, they’re programmed that way.

But before you get ready to send off a strongly worded email to your office building’s elevator manufacturer, you may want to hear why this is the case. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.

The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.

Since the life span of an elevator is about 25 years and the Disabilities Act has been around for 28 years, it’s safe to assume that most of the elevators in operation today do not have a functioning 'close door' button, The New York Times reports. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a key.

It's important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working 'close door' buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button's usefulness into question).

However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). 'Close door' buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.

While U.S. elevator manufacturers have a seemingly good reason for disabling the 'close door' button, some may question the point of propagating the myth and installing a button that serves no purpose in the first place. In response, some would argue that placebo buttons serve an important psychological function in society.

"Perceived control is very important," Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told The New York Times. "It diminishes stress and promotes well-being."

That’s right: By believing that you’re in control of your fate—or at least how quickly you can make it up to the sixth floor—you’re better off. It doesn’t end with elevators, either. Buttons placed at city crosswalks are often disabled, and the thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so that the temperature can’t be altered (even if the numbers appear to change).

Some might swear up and down that elevator 'close door' buttons work, but this, too, could be your brain deceiving you. As author David McRaney wrote in an essay: “If you happen to find yourself pressing a nonfunctional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

According to The New Yorker, these buttons are designed to alleviate some of the subconscious anxiety that comes from stepping inside a tiny box that's hoisted up some 20 or 40 or 80 floors by a cable: “Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command."

So now you know: Next time you’re running late to work, take comfort in the fact that those few extra seconds you would’ve saved by pressing a functioning 'close door' button aren’t worth all that much in the long run.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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