Ly Wen Taw

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

1. Introduction

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

3. Methodology

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.

Figure 1: Frequency of affect instances in polarity among the hotel star rating categories

4.1 Use of positive affect in responding negative reviews

To establish rapport with customers, the hotel management predominantly engaged in positive affectual evaluations in responding customers’ negative reviews. Table 2 illustrates the positive affect types employed by the different hotel star rating categories.

Table 2: Positive affect types of hotel star rating categories

Affect Types (positive) 5-Star 4-Star 3-Star Total

Happiness 21 9 10 49

Inclination 45 55 51 151

Satisfaction 51 56 41 142

Security 46 22 18 85

Total 163 141 120 427

A Chi-Square test of independence was performed to examine the statistical difference between the variables. It was found that there was a significant relationship (p=0.001, p<0.05) between the hotel star rating and the positive affectual evaluation. Here are some samples of the affect types used by the hotels of different star rating:


· We will do our best to give you the great hotel experience that so many of our guests have grown so fond of. (5-Star)

· We hope to afford the opportunity to welcome you back on your next travelling journey. (4-Star)


· We are very sorry and apologize for the inconvenience cause by this incident happen. (5-Star)

· We look forward to your return with your group. (3-Star)


· We are very thankful for your comment. (4-Star)

· We do appreciate your feedback. (3-Star)


· We would like to guarantee you that we will look into the importunities to improve. (5-Star)

· Rest assured necessary steps has been taken to rectify the issue. (3-Star)

In the topology of the positive affect types, inclination was the manifestation of positive evaluations by the hotels. Martin and White (2005) state that inclination refers to the emotion expression when the intention is involved, rather than reaction. As seen in the examples above, the affect mental state of “sorry” and behavioural surge of “apologize” were categorised in the positive polarity of affectual evaluation in inclination.

It is crucial to place these words in the context of the study in which hotel management responded to the customers’ negative reviews. The emotive state of being sorry and behavioural process of apologising imply the desire to establish positive relations. It is essential to pay attention to the contextual evaluative roles of the aforementioned affective mental state and behavioural process that can lead to a positive connection. Therefore, being “sorry” and the act of “apology” appear to entail admission of fault, so they are considered as rapport enhancement orientation, as it can rebuild the trust with customers in the study context by attending to the dissatisfied customers’ face wants.

The semantic use in the affective types of happiness is oriented in line with rapport enhancement with the customers. As shown in the example—“welcome you back”, the affect type of happiness was realised in the surge of behaviour in affection towards customers by making them feel appreciated and welcome. This affective instance occurred the most frequently among the semantic use of affectual happiness. The hotel management intended to establish the relation with the customers by creating the sense of appreciation and gratitude in them with the affect type of satisfaction.

To repair the relationship with dissatisfied customers, the hotel management used the affectual language such as “guarantee” and “ensure” which are realised in the behavioural surge in security to earn customers’ trust and retain loyal customers. These aforementioned positive affect types attend to customers’ wants and sensitivities that indirectly emphasise customers’ value and worth to the hotels. The next sub-section explores the use of negative affect in rapport management in the responses made to customers’ negative reviews.

4.2 Use of negative affect in responding to negative reviews

Although the hotel management had a preference towards positive affectual evaluations, hotels of different star ratings also used negative affectual evaluations in the responses to the negative reviews. Table 3 illustrates the distribution of different negative affect types for 5-Star, 4-Star, and 3-Star hotels.

Table 3: Negative affect types of hotel star rating categories

Affect Types (negative) 5-Star 4-Star 3-Star Total

Unhappiness 6 5 1 12

Disinclination 0 0 0 0

Dissatisfaction 9 22 12 43

Insecurity 3 2 0 5

Total 18 30 14 61

As can be seen in Table 2, the data for the negative affect appears potentially non-normal distributed, as the values for some of the negative affect types were less than 5, or even 0. Therefore, Chi-Square one-variable test was used to investigate the statistical difference between the variables. The result indicates that there is a statistically significant difference (p=0.023, p<0.05). In other words, the use of negative affectual evaluation was significantly different between 5-Star, 4-Star, and 3-Star hotels.

Table 3 illustrates that the negative pole of dissatisfaction was recorded as the highest frequency among other negative affect types. The negative affect types used by the hotels are exemplified as follows:


· We are disheartened to read that your stay with us was not up to your expectations. (5-Star)

· It is always sad for any manager to read when guests have not enjoyed their stay. (4-Star)


· I very much regret the inconvenience you experienced. (4-Star)

· I would like to personally extend my sincerest apologies for the disappointment. (3-Star)


· We are disappointed and disturbed to learn of your unpleasant experience during your recent stay with us. (5-Star)

· I am sure that there was never any intention of yelling or make you feel scared. (4-Star)

The lexical choice in the negative affect types in unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and insecurity are realised as the negative affect types because of the definitions that they carry which do not seem to achieve the positive rapport with customers. Thus, placing the lexical choice in the study context, the lexical use in these semantic regions appear to incline towards rapport-neglect orientation.

Expressing emotions of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, or insecurity might be intended to convey empathy. However, it only appears to neglect the customers’ dissatisfaction, as dissatisfied customers usually expect an apology and promise of improvement, or offer of repair. In other words, the negative affectual language did not seem to attend to the customers’ social entitlement. For example, when the hotel management responded to negative reviews by expressing unhappiness as shown in the example: “it is always sad for any manager to read when guests have not enjoyed their stay”, it did not acknowledge the customers’ expectations of the improved service, despite the attempt to allay the customers’ concern.

On the other hand, the expression of regret is considered to be different from “sorry” because expression of regret simply implies the recognition of the service failure. Apart from that, it conveys a dispassionate tone and seems to preclude the acceptance of responsibility. In general, dissatisfied customers regard themselves as having sociality rights as the hotel clients and develop the behavioural expectation of their perceived sociality right. In other words, it can be concluded that the negative affectual language use did not fulfil sociality rights and obligations of the rapport management, which can affect the interpersonal relation between the customers and management.

5. Conclusion

Since this theory is the major theoretical foundation of the study, the findings can expand the existing literature on rapport management in workplace communication, particularly in hotel management, tourism, and hospitality industry. From the findings, it was found that some hotel management could have communicated with the dissatisfied customers with more positive evaluative language for the service recovery. Business-related ESP courses should raise awareness of the evaluative language that focuses on the positive words instead of the negative ones. Given the importance of digital emotional contagion via eWOM, positive language related to expressing feelings should be used when interacting with customers.


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