eWOM: Why is Venting at Strangers more satisfactory

yellWhy do people love to vent online? The emergence of electronic “venting” behaviour is well documented, and so are the concerns and potential consequences. Yet, the literature remains rather quiet about why so many people like to vent online – rather than talking to friends. Especially as one could expect, that, for example if a friend may be more likely to believe me and take appropriate action  – than a complete stranger.

A possible [partial] explanation is a tricky bit of psychology: Friends are most likely to try and help – but that may not be what is wanted. I.e. when talking negatively about something, such as in the case of negative Word of Mouth, many people have encountered an interesting problem: When complaining to a friend, there is little satisfaction – but when you complain to a complete stranger, it’s highly satisfactory.  This issue has been raised in previous research on WOM (e.g. Bearden & Oliver 1985) – yet unfortunately, it seems to remain largely ignored in the eWOM literature. Yet, it may actually give an interesting rational for people venting to complete strangers online – in preference to telling a few friends.

Let me start with an example: Recently, a friend complained to me about a service encounter. My instant reaction was to try to figure out what might have caused the problem, focusing mostly on trying to explain what might have caused the strange reaction from my friend’s counterpart. So, while I was attempting to  rationalise the encounter in a genuinely well intended attempt to calm down my friend, this had quite the opposite effect on my friend: My friend felt that I was taking the opponents side – and, obviously, felt that, by implication, I was accusing him of being the irrational one. Clearly, having his confidant and friend “turn on him” was highly unsatisfactory.
As Bearden & Oliver would suggest, my reaction was not really untypical.  However, this  episode might explain why “venting” to a friend is frequently perceived as unsatisfactory – as friends often (in a maybe misguided) way try to help – rather than let the venting stand as it is.

Think of a similar situation, but with a complete stranger (I admit, in face to face WOM, this would be a rather unusual situation): If you vent to complete stranger in the street, the person is probably far less likely to try and rationalise what was going on. Rather, wanting to get out of the uncomfortable situation, the stranger, may simply try to get out of the situation by saying something like “oh how terrible of XYZ” and move away. As Bearden & Oliver suggest – a much more satisfactory resolution for someone “venting” – and looking for some sympathy or reassurance.

Of course, venting to complete strangers face to face is not exactly an easy option (unless yo want to be seen as “the crazy person”)… but online venting to strangers is the standard. Think of a typical negative Tripadvisor review: Few real life friends will ever know about the review – or even challenge any points made in the review. Rather the review is seen mostly by complete strangers. Strangers may, of course, contradict the negative review – although there is generally very little ongoing discussion.
Interestingly, again going back to the original Bearden & Oliver article, people may feel satisfied once they actually got their point “out there” – and “walk away” from the issue. In other words, the action of writing or even crafting (unchallenged) the review and getting it out there, may deliver enough satisfaction to “let go of the issue” – so any future contradictions are less likely to be seen in the same way as a real-time discussion with a friend face to face. In an interesting twist, Bearden & Oliver actually suggest that in some cases, if a public complaint has been made, the “feeling of satisfaction” can be so good, that even in the absence of a resolution, a consumer repeats a purchase of a product previously complained about – prompting them to conclude that complaints behaviour should be encouraged (although they were clearly not talking about very public complaints behaviour, such as in the case of TripAdvisor).

To summarise, the likely (even potentially well meaning) reactions of friends, which are perceived as unsatisfactory when complaining,  may in part explain why the internet is an interesting – and attractive-  forum for venting negative emotions or often bitter complaints. There are certainly other factors which may make the internet an attractive platform (such as the imagined reaction of strangers etc) – but the role of feeling unsatisfied with face to face complaining to friends should not be forgotten.

As always, it would be great to hear your perspective on this. Have you recently complained? Did you complain to a friend? On a website? To the service provider? Or all? Which was more “satisfactory”? Let me know!

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