The Culture of Online Reviews

Categories: Global Leadership, Global Mindset

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:

  • Will national cultural comparisons be consistently reflected in a digital context? For instance, will the tone of online reviews from Germans, who are famously direct on average, be different from that of reviews contributed by people from Thailand, with its more indirect national norm?
  • Will the written online format be more liberating or more inhibiting to people who normally prefer to communicate in more indirect ways? For example, online forums in China appear to be a welcome and trusted means of obtaining information that is more “real” than filtered media propaganda. On the other hand, people may be more cautious about the formal step of writing a review that could become a more permanent and potentially damaging record than the spoken word.
  • Are there techniques for drawing out more indirect users, or for avoiding the fiery diatribes of overly direct ideologues who use the online review format as their soapbox?

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!).

  1. I would use a service that has a handful of positive reviews and no negative ones. (Agree/Disagree)
  2. If all you have to say is something negative, it’s better just to say nothing. (Agree/Disagree)
  3. If there are just a few negative reviews, I tend to dismiss the more critical authors as people who had a bad day or who have personal issues. (Agree/Disagree)
  4. The person who gave the glowing review must have been the owner’s cousin. (Agree/Disagree)
  5. I liked the driver well enough that I was willing to overlook the fact that he was ten minutes late. (Agree/Disagree)
  6. The service at this restaurant was so painfully slow that I felt it necessary to warn others so that they don’t have to wait an hour for their guacamole. (Agree/Disagree)
  7. Although I wasn’t particularly happy, other people might like it. (Agree/Disagree)
  8. The traffic outside was so noisy it felt like it was in the room, but I don’t want to relive the experience by writing about it. (Agree/Disagree)
  9. In the review I mentioned that the eggrolls were delicious, but I didn’t say anything about the main course – smart readers will get the message. (Agree/Disagree)
  10. If I write what I really think, perhaps they will get rid of that surly desk clerk. (Agree/Disagree)

Answer Key:

Agree: Direct
Agree: Indirect
Agree: Direct
Agree: Indirect
Agree: Indirect
Agree: Direct
Agree: Indirect
Agree: Indirect
Agree: Indirect
Agree: Direct

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.

About the Author

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, Global Impact.