Roughly half the people on the planet are already online, and there are a mind-boggling 1.5 billion Facebook users. Our daily lives are being reshaped by new digital technologies – we even use technical metaphors for ourselves such as “bandwidth,” or “processing speed,” or “press the refresh button.” Yet at the same time each of us brings our own values and cultural background to the web.
Online business reviews, driven by rapidly growing companies such as Amazon, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Uber, and Airbnb, have become a wildly popular form of expression in which various factors now mingle: technology platforms, software, culture, and individual personalities. Some of the outcomes of this intense swirl are unprecedented and unpredictable, while others contain familiar ingredients. Consider, for example, what influences the level of candor expressed in online business review. The classic cultural dimension that highlights more direct communication versus more indirect communication styles turns out to be highly relevant in this burgeoning new arena, with tens of thousands of fresh reviews being written every hour.
Direct and Indirect Reviewers
Here are reasons for critical comments provided by more “Direct” reviewers:
“I want others to know about my experience. It’s my responsibility to tell them.” (Or even, “I need to warn them about this plumber/restaurant/hotel so they can stay away.”)
“I appreciate the frank reviews I read, and want to pass on the favor to others.”
“The feedback I’m giving will lead to improvements.”
“They deserve the rating I gave them.”
More “Indirect” reviewers, on the other hand, may express a different viewpoint:
“It’s their livelihood. I’m not going to trash them online.”
“If I don’t give this person a high score, the company may drop them.”
“Maybe the experience I had was just me – I was having a bad day.”
“It is painful for me to offer critical comments. Why should I do this on a volunteer basis?”
“There are critical comments I would share with them in person or via email that I just wouldn’t put into an online review.”
In addition to the kind of reviews that are written, people also read reviews in different ways. There are some who will scan a set of reviews and say, “Well, the average score on a scale of 1-5 is a 4.2, and the comments in general are pretty good, so I’m going to use this service.” But there are others, including people who are attuned to subtle, indirect messages, who are likely to say, “It’s true that the average is 4.2, but look at these three people out of 50 reviewers who had a bad experience. There were probably more who felt this but didn’t respond. I’m worried both about what I’m seeing and what I’m not seeing here…”.
Digital Communication: New or Old Patterns?
The rediscovery of direct versus indirect communication patterns in digital formats raises a host of new questions yet to be explored:
Implications for Companies
Companies committed to their online review platform should combine their investments in the latest technology with efforts to draw out deeper and more candid input from their users, applying cultural insight and empathy to their user interface. For example, they could tap our knowledge of factors that make many indirect communicators more comfortable with expressing themselves openly: established relationships, permission from authority figures, or ways of responding more anonymously as the member of a group. Potential reviewers who would otherwise decline to provide their views might change their attitude and offer keen insights if they receive an invitation to comment from a friend, are assured that the owner of the business welcomes feedback, and can provide their remarks in a completely anonymous group discussion. They may be further reassured by learning, for instance, exactly how their feedback will be used by the company and the consequences for their drivers/craftspeople/hosts.
Implications for Individuals
How do you personally use online review platforms? How do you respond to indirect communication versus direct communication? Have you noticed differences in the reviews of people from other cultures? Each of us, consciously or unconsciously, is likely to read reviews through the filter of our own character, looking for views expressed by people who appear to be like us, while avoiding others based on factors such as poor grammar, cranky tone, or different political viewpoints. As we read yet another set of reviews, it’s probably worth pondering, “What kinds of people wrote these reviews and who hasn’t responded? What did this person really mean to say? What did I not say on the last review I wrote myself and why?”
What’s Your Profile?
Here’s a brief set of statements to gauge whether your own profile as a review contributor or user is more direct or more indirect. Please indicate the response you would be most likely to select for each item. (The answer key is below!).
To measure your own profile on five dimensions of culture, including Direct vs. Indirect communication styles, and compare it with profiles from other countries, try out the GlobeSmart Profile.
Ernest Gundling, PhD is a co-Founder of Aperian Global & currently serves as Managing Partner. Ernest works with clients to develop strategic global approaches to leadership, organization development, and relationships with key business partners. He’s a frequent contributor to many industry publications and has authored several books including the recently published, Inclusive Leadership: From Awareness to Action.