Paper: “Culture, Conformity and Emotional Suppression in Online Reviews” by Hong et al., 2016
“While Americans say, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” the Japanese say, “the nail that stands out gets pounded down.”
In other words, in the States, people who complain the loudest get the most attention while in Japan, people are discouraged to express personal opinions loudly especially if they don’t fit the community expectations. This phenomenon illustrates the differences between individualist (American) and collectivist (Japanese) cultures as defined by Hofstede (2001) and House et al. (2004). But this post is not entirely about cultural differences – it is about their influence on online reviews.
Hong et al. explored this research opportunity and conducted a study of 3735 restaurants and the corresponding reviews of people from 52 countries on TripAdvisor.
As shown in the Research Framework (below), the study constitutes of two stages – review generation and review influence, presenting the respective research elements.
Figure 1. Research Framework
The corresponding findings* are that:
- people from individualist cultures are likely to deviate from previous comments
- people from individualist cultures are more likely to express their emotions as comments
- conformity and emotional expression are negatively related with review helpfulness (total number of “helpful” votes)
- travel experience moderates the effects of individualism on rating behavior
My personal “research” also confirmed the provided findings. As shown in the following two screenshots, comments in Chinese (also native Chinese, collectivist) show a higher conformity than Italian speaking reviewers (also native Italians, individualist culture) who have more diverse ratings and corresponding opinions.
The study is the first to include a large amount of countries as previous studies focused mainly on one or two countries (Fang et al., 2013), thus having a greater sampling validity and generalizability. The research also extends previous studies, contributing with novel and unexamined findings. Also, as countries’ individualism/collectivism levels vary, it is useful to observe the corresponding aggregate level as opposed to individual or comparison level analysis for a more general overview and an extended findings applicability. As a suggestion for future research, I would add that the study could be extended to cities outside of U.S.A. as there might be some differences between travelers to the U.S. and to other countries.
The authors also incorporate several control variables which are valuable on their own. Besides the obvious travel experience, consumer tenure and time effects are very interesting factors. As users get exposed to more reviews, they change their perception as they get accustomed to social norms and evaluations standards. This is not necessarily related to travel experience as users might be checking some restaurants but eventually end up not visiting the places. Future research can also account for usage before registration, which can influence reviews perception and standards (not incorporated in this study).
The other variable, time effect, is somehow connected to the reviewers’ tenure and the corresponding shrinkage of review variance over time, but might also be caused by quality changes. Although the variable is included in the study, no concrete explanation is provided, which could be done through future research.
As the rate of people traveling and immigrating is increasing and as cultures merge and influence each other, the country of residence is becoming a less relevant indicator of culture. The researchers account for these factors by including them in the analysis and limitations respectively. However, they could have partially solved the problem by testing the influence of language as it is a way of expressing one’s culture (Hantrais, 1989). For example, in Germany, due to historical reasons, exist some communities of unintegrated Turkish emigrants (Gogolin, 2002) as well as refugees who speak their own languages among each other and consequentially still embed their inborn culture. Thus, it might be interesting to test for the impact of language on culture and review characteristics respectfully.
Online review platforms can provide some examples of reviews to balance the effect of differences in reviews among people from different cultures. Managers should be cautious of the research findings and “read” the reviews accordingly to get a more realistic and insightful overview. Reviewers and other users should also take into consideration cultural differences and perhaps place a higher importance on reviews from other countrymen due to shared evaluation standards and expectations.
* additional How can these findings be explained? People from individualist culture backgrounds would like to stand out (Owens, 2008) and are not afraid to express emotions, even if they are contradicting to previous comments. However, if a review seems too subjective, one might wonder if external factors influenced the reviewer, making the comments seem less helpful. The opposite – a conformity to previous posts might be perceived as deceiving, especially if there are too many positive comments (possibly by the owner) and very few reviewers. However, these observations are not valid for experienced travelers as they have been exposed and influenced by many cultures.
Fang, H., Zhang, J., Bao, Y. and Zhu, Q., 2013. Towards effective online review systems in the Chinese context: A cross-cultural empirical study. Electronic Commerce Research and Applications, 12(3), pp.208-220.
Gogolin, I., 2002. Linguistic and cultural diversity in Europe: A challenge for educational research and practice. European Educational Research Journal, 1(1), pp.123-138.
Hantrais, L., 1989. The Undergraduate’s Guide to Studying Languages. Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research, Regent’s College, Inner Circle, Regent’s Park, London, NW1 4NS, England, United Kingdom (9.25 pounds).
Hofstede, G.H. and Hofstede, G., 2001. Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. Sage.
Hong, Y., Huang, N., Burtch, G. and Li, C., 2016. Culture, Conformity and Emotional Suppression in Online Reviews.
House, R.J., Hanges, P.J., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P.W. and Gupta, V. eds., 2004. Culture, leadership, and organizations: The GLOBE study of 62 societies. Sage publications.
Owens, A., 2008. Fitting in” in a” stand out” culture: an examination of the interplay of collectivist and individual cultural frameworks in the Australian university classroom.
Photo: Creative Europe. (2017). Galway to be the European Capital of Culture in Ireland in 2020 – Creative Europe – European Commission. [online] Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/creative-europe/news/20160715-galway-ecoc-2020_en [Accessed 9 Mar. 2017].