As a unique type of virtual communication, customer-to-customer interaction on the Web has been considered more effective in influencing consumer purchasing behavior than advertising or personal selling. Researchers recognize that by participating in online communication, customers share information and in so doing influence other people’s decisions and help others reduce purchase risks. However, a number of studies have found that the flow of information typical for this activity is often characterized by an asymmetry of activity in which a small group of very active participants contribute and a large group of silent participants read others’ postings but contribute nothing to the community. There are clear differences in willingness to display opinions in a virtual public.
Degrees of willingness to communicate vary from culture to culture, even in online customer interactions involving the same product. The communication literature suggests that members of different cultures have different communication predispositions and preferences based on how they utilize context as a source of information.
In general, western cultures, in which individualism is highly valued and members are taught to vocalize their desires, privilege personal over collective goals. People from these cultures tend to utilize low-context communication through which “the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code.” A low-context culture favors a communication style in which information is incorporated into the message and detailed background is provided in the course of interactions. Said simply, people within this culture are more likely to be explicit, direct, factual, and provide sufficient evidence. On the other hand, Asian cultures, greatly influenced by Confucianism and collectivism that emphasize developing and maintaining harmony within interpersonal relationships and society, tend to utilize high-context communication in which “most of the information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message.” In other words, a high-context culture such as the Chinese culture has a communication style in which most of the information is derived from the context, leaving very little information transmitted explicitly. Additionally, in conflict situations, people in high-context cultures tend to use more abstract, indirect and avoiding styles to let others make inferences from the context so that they can protect interpersonal relationships from embarrassment or disagreement.
The above mentioned differences between low-context cultures and high-context cultures in terms of communication style can be used to develop hypotheses about how groups in American culture and Chinese culture differ in their online engagements and to provide the rationale for such differences since, as Rubin (1998) pointed out, culture plays a critical role in shaping individuals’ emotional experiences and the ways they express themselves.
Within a low-context culture, people are more likely to be explicit, direct, factual, and provide sufficient evidence, as is the case western cultures (e.g., American culture). In this type of culture, members tend to speak out, expressing positive and negative emotions, and are more likely to show a high level of willingness to deliver sufficient information and support their opinions.
However, in a high-context culture where the underlying values differ from Western cultures, the behaviors and interactional patterns of online discussions are very likely to be different. Chinese culture, for example, has communication styles in which most of the information is shared by people in society, leaving very little information in the explicit transmitted part of the message, as opposed to the low-context Western cultures. Therefore, members in this type of culture prefer to use indirect messages and deliver them in an abstract, implicit manner. By employing this community style, they can preserve others’ face and avoid confrontation.
In an effort to gain a better understanding of the impact of culture on the willingness to communicate, we examined online customer interactions regarding Amazon and Taobao products. Amazon and Taobao are among the largest E-commerce trading platforms in the U.S. and China respectively. In addition, they have similar and active online customer-to-customer posting communities. The study investigated potential culturally related differences in online reviews of the same product, Apple Corp.’s iPad, by Amazon and Taobao customers. Linguistic features of online reviews were analyzed by using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program.
Based on previous research examining communication styles in different cultures, we hypothesize that behavior in relation to the willingness to communicate and the interactional patterns of online discussions is very different between low- and high-context groups. Since Americans from a low-context culture tend to speak out, regardless of positive or negative emotions, and Chinese from a high-context culture are more likely to employ an implicit and avoiding style to communicate, we further predict that American customers will demonstrate a higher level of willingness to deliver sufficient information to support their opinions than their high-context Chinese counterparts. Specially, low-context Americans are expected to be more willing to express their opinions toward iPad, even their critical negative thoughts, compared to Chinese customers. On the contrary, Chinese customers are hypothesized to demonstrate a lower level of willingness to express their opinions toward iPad, and in particular, to express negative thoughts because they are more indirect and more sensitive to interpersonal relationships. From a linguistic perspective, we hypothesize that low-context Americans, driven by the underlying culture of individualism, are more likely to utilize first-person, singular pronouns than high-context Chinese counterparts, who are highly influenced by the philosophy of collectivism, which can be used as further evidence of their greater willingness to speak out during online interactions.
The data for this study are customer reviews for the iPad G found on the Amazon website http://www.amazon.com/Apple-iPad-MB292LL-Tablet-16GB and the Taobao website http://site.taobao.com/1101/site-100256024-0-0-0-updown-8.htm. The reviews on Taobao were available only in Chinese and were translated into English. Considering the possibility of bias occurring during the translation, the Chinese version was used as a secondary reference.
Next, randomly selected online postings were analyzed using Pennebaker et al.’s (2001) Linguistic Inquiry Word Count (LIWC). The LIWC tracked and counted the number of words fitting the definition of several meaningful dimensions. For example, the number of times a customer wrote us or our was counted and categorized as the customer using social words. Those linguistic categories that resulted in significant differences in willingness to express themselves by American customers and Chinese customers are reported in the data analysis section.
Lastly, the online postings on both the Amazon and the Taotao websites were coded for Applause and Criticism functions in order to gain a greater understanding of the difference between these two groups in terms of the impact of culture on the willingness to express oneself on the Web.
Apple’s iPad has attention in international markets as well as in the United States. Even before its release in China, growing numbers of authentic iPads were distributed in the country through all kinds of channels, including individual online retailers, friends, relatives or online American stores. In this regard, American and Chinese users have had a great opportunity to share their experience in using iPad and to comment on such issues as price, features and problems. Accordingly, comments or reviews on iPad by American and Chinese customers were available on both Amazon and Taobao websites. Overall, on these two websites, some customers gave supportive reviews while others displayed negative ones.
In the U.S., 139 customers participated in online reviews, 75 (around 54.0%) of whom wrote very supportive comments with ratings greater than 3 points. Seventeen posted neutral comments that equaled 3 points in ranking, and 47 (roughly 33.7%) expressed a very negative opinion toward iPad by giving ratings lower than 3 points. Conversely, the Chinese data from Taobao have a total of 228 customer reviews, in which 167 (about 73.2%) left very positive reviews with ratings greater than 3 points, 44 (around 19.3%) gave neutral comments that are equal to 3 points, and 17 (roughly 7.5%) provided very critical reviews with ratings lower than 3 points.
On all three levels of ratings, Amazon customers used more first person singular pronouns (e.g., I, me, my) and social words (e.g., we, us) compared to Taobao customers. Interestingly, among 1-point, very negative reviews, Taobao customers used more social words than Amazon customers.
In order to understand the difference in communication by Amazon customers and Taobao customers, all the online postings were coded for two major functions: Applause and Criticism. Representative words associated with these two pragmatic functions were listed as follows:
Applause: Customers give positive comments on iPad in terms of its significance in the history of the tablet PC, style, quality, performance, etc.
- American Amazon: a tremendous leap in the right direction…/ very fast/ impressive/ absolutely gorgeous/ easy/ the least bit sorry to have bought one/ iPad isn’t just making history, it’s making an impact on the future of media reading on a whole new level…/ delight/ far easier and better to use than I had expected/ web browsing experience/
- Chinese Taobao: epoch-making product/ more powerful hardware specifications bring outstanding performance/ color quality/ although not the first tablet PC, definitely now the number one. It is a stunner…/ performance/ admire the design/ not a bad choice/ stylish/ very portable/ stylish and very attractive/ the future of tablet PC/
The above data of applause function demonstrate that Amazon customers gave credit to iPad because it is “impressive”, “superb”, “gorgeous”, and “a delight” from their personal perspective and experience. In contrast, Chinese Taobao customers approached iPad’s advantages mainly from others’ points of view because it looks “stylish”, “fashionable”, “attractive”, and was “a stunner.” One possible explanation for this finding is that Americans as individualists focused more on whether the product satisfied their own needs. Conversely, Chinese affected by collectivism put their emphasis on whether iPad can bring others’ attention or give them “face.”
Criticism: Customers express one kind of disapproval usually by pointing out faults or shortcomings of product, displaying emotions about iPad’s price, configuration, and other aspects such as screen, apps, performance, and so on.
Criticism on Price: Both American and Chinese customers showed their disappointment with the high price but they approached it in different ways: Americans directly criticized the price without any reservations; Chinese shied away from sharp criticism in depth by using “little bit” or relatively neutral tones.
- American Amazon: overpriced/ price/ How much money do I have to have so I can enjoy this thing…/ nice device, but high price…/ will I get one? Probably, but not at this price…/ Price tag too high for what it does…/ For $600 you can buy a netbook and a Kindle and have WAY more capability…/ price
- Chinese Taobao: It is for a profligate…/ bit expensive/ / without any logic/ if the price is a little bit more affordable for ordinary people, more people would choose to buy it/ it’s not affordable
Criticism on Configuration: Both American and Chinese customers criticized the iPad for its configuration. American customers listed clear and detailed factual evidence in order to support their opinions whereas Chinese made similar criticism without providing too many details.
- American Amazon: brainless browsing board/ if Apple manages to put a CPU into this, I’ll be the first to buy one…/ Photoshop, no memory card reader means useless for photographers…/ Even if you could, you still would not be able to compress or decompress zip files or transfer any files in or out of the device via USB, there is no USB…
- Chinese Taobao: The configuration is too low/ USB/ hardware.
Criticism of Other features: Both groups made negative comments on other functions, including screen, connections as well as lack of printing support.
- American Amazon: The screen resolution for movies really sucks, you need to see it…/ serious connectivity problems with the iPad, for which there are no fixes…/ iPad only runs a few truly useful applications, the other 300,000 apps are gimmicks of dubious value…/ it’s really fantastic for all the reasons everyone else wrote but it doesn’t have flash that’s the only stupid thing to me…/ one major flaw – no external video for viewing iPad screen or movies…/ iPad is NO replacement for a netbook, in fact, I don’t know what it is at all…/ [printing] is a potentially huge flaw, especially for people who want to use the iPad for editing office documents…/ to hold without a case.
- Chinese Taobao: WiFi is not good/ connection/ It doesn’t support multiple-task processing/ camera/ compatibility/ to transfer the data or file.
Criticism based on Holistic Negative Feeling:
- American Amazon: Now I am disappointed because my idealist expectations have not been lived up to…/ I bought one, tested for a week and then resold. And guess what: I don’t miss it at all…/ Not bad, but seriously limited…/ I’m frustrated with iPad.
- Chinese Taobao: Overall it is not very good because there are so many accessories that you need to purchase additionally…/ what do we do with this iPad? Probably we can only use it until China is as developed as the U.S.
Data in Criticism show that American customers use more factual information collected from their first-hand experience to support their comments, while Chinese customers employed more implicit and conclusions without providing sufficient factual details to back up their negative thoughts. The differences in the use of factual information showed American customers’ full engagement while the prevalence of abstract words demonstrated the Chinese customers’ detachment especially from negative comments. As we know, American culture endorses individualism and encourages members to express themselves overtly, emphasizing independence from groups by highlighting individual accomplishment and personal goals. So speech acts such as criticizing sharply or refusing directly are acceptable. Conversely, culture is known for its implicit and face-oriented way of communication driven by collectivism. With the purpose of maintaining harmony with others or society, speech acts such as making negative comments or refusals are considered face-threatening, and members often utilize implicitness or abstractness to help mitigate the potential possible damage to interpersonal relationships caused by full confrontation. In addition, research has shown that the degree of context and the amount of information in a culture effectively differentiate the communication styles between communications in Eastern as opposed to Western cultures. High-context Chinese customers are more likely to employ an implicit abstract manner to communicate than their low-context U.S. counterparts.
The present study utilized Hall’s (1976) concepts of high- and low-context- cultures and major cultural factors identified in previous research, such as individualism-collectivism, to examine how cultural aspects relevant to these two components may influence in willingness to express one’s opinion in online interactions by American customers on Amazon and Chinese customers on Taobao about the iPad. As hypothesized, the analysis presented in this article demonstrated that these two groups’ willingness to speak out differed in several ways. First, customers appeared to be more direct and more willing to speak out, regardless of positive and negative opinions, whereas Chinese counterparts developed indirect means of communicating, making a greater use of implicit and information. In the Chinese culture, openness and frankness can at times be considered positive, but they can also be viewed as negative, especially when dealing with negative emotions, which explains why Chinese customers expressed themselves in a more avoiding, abstract style. Another aspect of the impact of culture on the willingness to express oneself is the heavy use of first person singular pronouns and references to the self by American customers in the American data, compared with their Chinese counterparts. According to Newman, Pennebaker, Berry, & Richards’ notion (2003), the use of the first person singular pronouns is a method of declaring ownership of a statement, which might be explained by the individualist nature of American people in which the self-value is relatively emphasized versus the group or society. American customers emphasize me in order to have their individual accomplishments, thoughts, and abilities recognized by others or society.
One limitation of this study is that a convenience sample was used. Another is the sample size. Specifically, the data analysis was solely based on online reviews of one product, iPad. The third limitation rests with the fact that only the impact of cultural dimensions related to low/high contexts and individualism-collectivism were explored in the study. Differences in willingness to speak out by American and Chinese groups might also result from other factors such as individual differences (e.g., age, gender, education, etc.). Thus caution should be exercised in interpreting the findings. The fourth limitation of this study is that a small number of randomly selected reviews were chosen using the Pennebaker et al.’s (2001) LIWC. Ideally, mean differences should be sought by using a large sample. Therefore, the generalization of the results is limited. Finally, online reviews of iPad by Chinese users might have been affected by the fact that the iPad had not been officially released into the Chinese market at the time of this study. However, the study’s findings provide directions for future research. Although the assumption that the U.S. and China are considered to be lower and higher context cultures, respectively, has been widely accepted, there are few studies in which this assumption was tested in the context of online reviews. The imitativeness and findings of the present study should be considered valuable in this regard. Additionally, the current study attempted to integrate cross-cultural communication with asymmetric online discussion in a business setting. It would be interesting to see whether the findings also apply to face-to-face communication. In sum, this small-sample study lends support to the validity of the hypotheses proposed, which can be further tested with a well-designed, large sample study in the future.
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