Are unhappy Brits less polite online than their American counterparts?

I love journalists.  I’ve had the privilege of interacting with several of them, and I’ve found them to be a smart, well-informed, and insightful bunch.  What’s more, journalists ask really great questions. Their questions typically bring a slightly different – and often thought-provoking – spin to some of the same topics that I’m interested in.

A few days ago, I got an email from a journalist – let’s call him “J” –  who asked me if I’ve ever looked into relationships between nationality of reviewer and review valence (positive/negative).

I responded by explaining how hard it is to assign categories like “nationality” to a reviewer.  First of all, people move around a lot, so even if someone indicates in their profile that they’re (let’s say) “from Chicago”…what does this actually mean?  That this person was born and raised in Chicago?  Or that they they currently live in Chicago (but maybe they were born and grew up in some other part of the world)?  Or maybe the person is transnational, and considers him/herself to have multiple nationalities?  So nationality can be hard to pin down. Especially so in online environments.

But I was intrigued about what would prompt him to come up with this question in the first place, so I asked him to elaborate.

He told me that, after traveling for several months in Europe recently, he had observed that Brits (i.e., people who claimed to be from a location in the UK in their profile) tended to be “hyper-negative” and “not objective in the least” in their TripAdvisor reviews. (btw, though he shared some examples with me, he also acknowledged that his observations were only  impressionistic and totally unscientific.)

This got me thinking though.

According to a common stereotype, Brits are known for being super polite.  Perhaps even overly so! – as is captured so well in this cartoon:


But there are actually a couple different ways of using language to be “polite.”   The British way of being polite is often expressed in terms of non-imposition, and is realized by means of linguisitic indirectness: as we see in the cartoon above, as well as in the example below.

British sign

I took this photo in a garden on my last visit to England.  When I show this sign to my students in the US, their reaction is “Why is it so wordy…when the point is just ‘Be careful’???”  And my answer is: Because this is considered culturally appropriate language for public signage in England.  We just happen to have different norms for this sort of thing in the US.

And this brings me to my main point as it relates to review language.  In my very first TripAdvisor study, I looked at 1-star “rant” reviews: the very “worst of the worst” hotel reviews.  And even then, I found that about 1/3 of them offered at least ONE positive comment. I argued that when reviewers do this, it helps to construct them as “reasonable” people who are trying to be objective, and who are able to discern quality between different features of the property.

As I’ve given talks about my research over the years and shared this particular tendency, I have been asked by people from Italy, Germany and elsewhere: “Is this a uniquely American phenomenon?”  And it may well be.  I think we do have the tendency to “sandwich” bits of bad news, negative assessment, or critical feedback, between something more positive.  Or even if this is not something that all of us do, it’s usually what is recommended that we should do. We also have a strong cultural orientation toward acting in ways associated with appearing “nice” and “friendly,” even with strangers – and this is quite different from the British.   (It also happens to contribute to why people from other cultures sometimes have the impression that Americans are “phony.”  All of this kind of stuff usually comes down to differences in cultural ways of being.)

Returning back to J’s question, in negative reviews, are US reviewers more likely to present a balanced critical perspective (i.e., “be sure to include the good with the bad”) than British reviewers?  And in contrast, are Brits more likely to “tell it like it is” when they have a criticism?  (After all, just because they tend to be indirect in telling others what to do doesn’t mean that they are going to apply the same level of indirectness when engaged in a totally different activity: posting negative reviews online!)  At this point, I don’t have the answer to J’s question, but it is certainly one that is worth exploring.  Doing so could actually reveal some interesting things about politeness norms and cultural differences  in online contexts.

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