Establishing Rapport with Evaluative Language in Online Hotel Responses
Ly Wen Taw
School of Humanities and Social Science, Faculty of Education and Arts, The University of Newcastle, Australia
Department of English, Faculty of Modern Languages and Communication, Universiti Putra Malaysia, Malaysia
Centre for the Advancement of Language Competence (CALC), Universiti Putra Malaysia, Malaysia
Abstract: Tourism, particularly cultural heritage tourism, promotes the conservation and preservation of a country’s cultural and natural heritage. The hospitality industry plays a vital part in the development of tourism. In this digital era, electronic Word-of-Mouth (eWOM) has gained popularity with the development of the internet and has significantly influenced consumers’ purchase decisions. In the hotel industry, there has been an increase in the use of social media that has led to the emergence of various websites with online hotel reviews, such as TripAdvisor. Given the considerable influence of eWOM, hotel responses have become increasingly essential to positively influence consumers’ purchase decisions. Online follow-up customer service, such as responding to customers’ online reviews, is an effective way of reaching customers and engaging in online reputation management. The positive emotions from the management have been widely known to enhance rapport with customers. Building on Appraisal Theory (Martin & White, 2005), this study explores the use of evaluative language by the hotel management in Malaysia in responding to negative online reviews on TripAdvisor to establish rapport with their customers. The evaluative lanuage focuses on the linguistic resources in the affect sub-system of the theory, which are utilised for expressing positive and negative emotions. The data was collected from 5-Star, 4-Star, and 3-star hotels in three different destinations. The study findings show hotels in these three categories had a strong preference towards positive affect evaluations. Among the three hotel star categories investigated, the 3-Star hotels recorded the lowest frequencies in both positive and negative affect evaluations. Interestingly, the 4-Star hotels had the highest occurrences of negative affect evaluations. The 5-star hotels recorded the highest occurrences of positive affect evaluation. An examination of hotel responses to negative reviews will establish an understanding of evaluative language used by the hotel management in Malaysia to establish rapport with the customers.
Keywords: evaluative language, online reviews, hotel responses, rapport
Tourism is not only vital in the growth of the economy at both national and global scales, but it also contributes significantly to the protection and preservation of natural, historical, and cultural heritage. Tourism provides the positive and lasting effects on our cultural and natural heritage assets (Robinson & Picard, 2006). Tourism contributes significantly to Malaysia’s economy, as the tourism sector is the third highest source of foreign income after manufacturing and palm oil industries. Malaysia is recorded as the third most visited country in Asia after China and Thailand, with 26.75 million international tourists arriving in 2016 (World Tourism Organization, 2018).
The tourism industry correlates closely with the hotel industry, as Johnson and Vanetti (2008) emphasise, and it is an essential sub-sector of the tourism industry. The Department of Statistics Malaysia (2019) demonstrates that the accommodation contributes considerably to tourism expenditures, after shopping and transport services. Padlee, Thaw, and Zulkiffli (2019) point out that the hotel industry has become one of the important sources of revenue in Malaysia’s tourism industry.
As the internet has dramatically revolutionised many aspects of life in this digital age, there has been an increase in the prevalence of electronic Word-of- Mouth (eWOM) in the hotel sector. EWOM is the communication between consumers on online platforms about a product or service provided by companies. The influence of eWOM seems potent to both consumers and companies. Litvin, Goldsmith, and Pan (2008) contend that the influence of eWOM has become increasingly crucial in the hospitality and tourism industries. As the effects of online reviews and eWOM can be profound, hotel management’s responses to the customers’ online reviews can influence positively on the reputation of the hotel and customers’ purchase decisions.
Positive affectual expressions from service organisations are known as an effective way to enhance customer relationships (Wang et al., 2017). This circumstance can be termed as emotional contagion. Emotional contagion in customer relationship influences significantly on customer satisfaction during the interaction with customers (Barger & Grandey, 2006). With the increasing use of the internet in this global age, many individuals are exposed to various emotion expressions in the digital realm, thereby resulting the occurrence of emotional contagion, which is known as digital emotional contagion. This digital emotional contagion appears to have a powerful effect on internet users’ emotions (Goldenberg & Gross, 2020), so emotional contagion in the employee-customer interactions can also be mediated by electronic means.
With the notion of emotional contagion that can enhance the rapport with customers, this study examines the evaluative language of positive and negative emotions used by the hotel management of 5-Star, 4-Star, and 3-Star hotels in Malaysia in responding to customers’ negative reviews to establish rapport with customers.
2. Theoretical framework: Rapport Management Model (RMM)
Language has its vital role in developing rapport in social relations. With the Rapport Management Model (RMM), this study focuses on the use of evaluative language that can establish connections. Spencer-Oatey(2008) proposes the theoretical framework to examine the ways of using language to build and maintain rapport in social interactions.
There are three bases in the model: face sensitivities, sociality rights and obligations, and interactional goals. The first element of the framework is face sensitivities. Spencer-Oatey (2000) states that there is a close relation between face and an individual’s sense of identity or self-concept. The second basis of rapport is sociality rights and obligations, in which people perceive themselves to have a range of sociality rights and obligations when relating to others. Finally, an interactional goal is the third element in the model that can affect interpersonal rapport. This element is related to people’s specific goals in interactions with others, and they can be relational, transactional in nature or task-focused.
Spencer-Oatey (2000) maintains that rapport orientation is the one of the major factors in rapport management strategies. There are the four types of rapport orientations, which are: rapport enhancement orientation, rapport maintenance orientation, rapport neglect orientation, and rapport challenge orientation. The former two can strengthen rapport, while the latter two can jeopardise rapport.
Spencer-Oatey (2008) identifies the rapport management strategies from a linguistic perspective in these five domains: illocutionary, discourse, participation, stylistic, and non-verbal domains. This study focuses on one of the domains - stylistic domain to examine the lexical choices in expressing emotions by the hotel management when responding to customers’ negative reviews. The next sub-section will explain further the theory that shapes the data analysis in the stylistic domain.
2.1 Stylistic domain: Appraisal Theory
Within the stylistic domain, Spencer-Oatey (2008) asserts that the choice of lexis can have considerable impact on interpersonal relations. To analyse the stylistic domain of the hotel responses, Appraisal Theory (Martin and White, 2005) was applied to examine the evaluative language used to build and maintain the rapport with the customers through online reviews on the TripAdvisor online community.
Appraisal Theory is a set of a system of evaluative resources in language. Appraisal is defined as a “linguistic resource used to construct interpersonal meaning” (Martin & White, 2005, p.35). In Appraisal Theory, evaluative resources are divided into three basic systems of semantics: Attitude, Engagement, and Graduation. The focus of this study is the sub-system of Attitude, and the next sub-section will present one of its sub-systems, affect.
2.2 Appraisal Theory: Attitude-affect
Attitude is the central system of Appraisal Theory, which leads the data analysis of the stylistic domain of this study. This system comprises the three semantic regions embodying emotion, ethics, and aesthetics. In other words, Attitude entails the expressions of human emotions, as well as the evaluation of behaviour, personalities, objects, and events. According to Martin and White (2005), the system of Attitude is classified into three sub-systems, which are affect, appreciation, and judgment.
As the research question of the study focuses on expressions of emotions by hotel management in rapport management with customers, the sub-system of affect was singled out to examine the polarity of positive and negative feelings expressed in the responses. Martin and White (2005) maintain that feelings are construed as the realisations of qualities, mental and behavioural processes, and modal adjuncts as illustrated as below:
· Affect as qualities: the happy customer
· Affect as mental process: the customer loves the service provided.
· Affect as behavioral process: the customer compliments the staff and manager.
· Affect as modal adjuncts: Happily, the customer gave the positive online review.
[Adapted from Martin & White (2005)]
Martin and White (2005) further categorise the sub-system of affect into the semantic topology of affect emotions groups between positive and negative polarities: satisfaction, security, happiness, and inclination, and all these groups are presented with the examples in the following table.
Table 1: Affect sub-system of Appraisal Theory
Kinds of Affect Sub-system Semantic Typologies Positive (+) Negative (-)
Satisfaction (+) / dissatisfaction(-) (+) interest, pleasure /(-) ennui, displeasure pleased, impressed, reward angry, bored, scold
Security (+) / insecurity(-) (+) confidence, trust / (-) worry, surprise confident, assured, entrust uneasy, anxious, freak out
Happiness(+) / unhappiness(-) (+) cheer, affection / (-) misery, antipathy cheerful, love, adore gloomy, dejected, weep
Inclination(+) / disinclination(-) (+) desire / (-) fear miss, long for, yearn wary, fearful, tremble
The data were collected over three months from January 2020 to March 2020, from a travel online reviews website—TripAdvisor. TripAdvisor is known as the world’s largest travel site, with more than 830 million online reviews (Kinstler, 2018; TripAdvisor, 2017). TripAdvisor allows two-way communication between customers and management representatives, who represent accommodation venues, restaurants, or attractions; and the latter can respond to the posted online reviews by the customers or travelers. The online reviews are categorised into five traveler ratings from Excellent, Good, Average, Poor, to Terrible.
The hotel responses from 5-star, 4-star and 3-star hotel rating categories in the selected destinations in Malaysia were collected for analysis. To ensure the finding validity, this study applies the data triangulation technique to its sources. Thus, six hotels in each of three destinations: Kuala Lumpur (KL), Selangor, and Pahang were selected from among the thirteen states and three federal territories in Malaysia. A total of eighteen hotels were chosen. The hotel industry correlates significantly with tourism destinations (Attila, 2016), so the selected hotels in these three destinations are all popular tourist destinations in Malaysia.
Purposeful sampling, which is defined as selection of “information-rich cases” to illustrate the central importance in the purpose of the study (Patton, 1990, p. 169), was adopted in this research. It is considered as the sampling design that can maximise the range of variation (Palinkas et al., 2015). Applying the purposeful sampling in this study, the responses to the negative reviews, which consist of traveler ratings of either Poor and Terrible, were selected from 5-Star, 4-Star, and 3-Star hotels in KL, Selangor, and Pahang. Two responses for the negative reviews of Poor and Terrible traveler ratings were selected for each of the eighteen hotels in this study. In other words, there were four responses collected from each hotel, giving a total of 72 responses to the negative reviews in the data collection. Due to the selected sampling method, some responses were written in 2018, although the data collection occurred from January to March 2020.
Using NVivo 12, the affectual instances in positive and negative polarity were coded according to the hotel star rating in the responses. The affectual evaluations were quantified in term of the frequency use, and the evaluations were analysed qualitatively with reference to the bases of the rapport in the theoretical framework, along with its rapport orientation.
4. Results and discussion
Figure 1 demonstrates the frequency of affectual use in polarity among the hotels of different rating in Malaysia. As shown in the chart, positive affect instances considerably outnumbered the negative ones. 5-Star hotels (N=163) were recorded as the highest frequency of positive affectual use, and it was followed by 4-Star hotels and 3-Star hotels. However, for the negative affectual evaluation, the 4-Star hotel category had the highest frequency (N=29). The next sections will present the positive and negative polarity in affectual evaluations.