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'Not to sound overcritical,' study finds that a little politeness can change perceptions

April 17, 2014

It's not what you say, it's how you phrase it.

New research has found that with online reviews, there may be some truth to the saying, "There's no such thing as bad publicity.'

Negative reviews can lead to positive results when they include "dispreferred markers" — phrases like "I'll be honest," or "I don't want to be mean, but …" that are intended to soften the blow of negative information — wrote researchers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Emory University and the University of Minnesota.

"We initially thought of these phrases as regional peculiarities but soon learned that they are common in many languages and cultures. In looking back, that makes sense," says Ann McGill, professor of general management, marketing and behavioral science at Chicago Booth. "People take the time to use these phrases — they complicate what people have to say — so they must have a job to do in communicating ideas. This research uncovered that job."

The use of such phrases improves the likability and credibility of the reviewer — even over those who write exclusively positive reviews — according to McGill; Ryan Hamilton, assistant professor of Marketing at Emory; and Kathleen Vohs, associate professor of marketing at Minnesota.

The researchers note in their paper, "We'll Be Honest, This Won't Be the Best Article You'll Ever Read: The Use Of Dispreferred Markers in Word-of-Mouth Communication," that the phrases are signs of politeness, and have a positive effect on the communicator and the brand about which they are writing or talking.

"More than homey sayings, dispreferred markers act as a social lubricant, allowing an otherwise sticky interaction (the communication of negative, and therefore potentially threatening, information) to operate smoothly," they wrote.

The trio conducted five experiments to show that the dispreferred markers made the communicator, brand and product more likable, and the communicator and product more trustworthy. Dispreferred markers also made consumers more likely to pay more for the product in question. These trends stayed true whether the review was written or spoken, and crossed international and cultural barriers.