In A Manner Of Speaking: Email Comments Less Heated Than Ones Given By Phone

The late fulfillment guru Stanley J. Fenvessy once reported that consumers sometimes got so frustrated with mail-order firms that they sent envelopes filled with dog excrement.

“Were these people crazy?” he asked. Or were they simply driven into a rage by bad service and lack of response to complaints? 

That was in another time. But the question comes up again, in less vivid form, in a study that found written email comments from customers tend to be less hyperbolic than those given by phone.  

That may seem counterintuitive, but it also is true when people are expressing positive emotions. In general, writing “led people to express less emotional attitudes because it is naturally more deliberative, but encouraging deliberation mitigated the impact of communication mode and led speaking to look more like writing,” says co-author and Wharton professor Jonah Berger.



Speaking “often involves less formal language, more words produced, paralinguistic cues, and other aspects all of which might independently impact observer attitudes,” Berger notes.

He continues, “On a website, do I want to use spoken or written reviews? Well, that choice is going to impact not only what kind of content people produce, but how likely it is that that content is going to be persuasive.”  

Berger adds, “If I’m a brand, for example, and I’m encouraging people to create product reviews, it might be better to get them to speak because they will be more emotional. And in many product categories, that might be more persuasive.”

The study authors write that “not only does writing lead consumers to express less emotional attitudes but this, in turn, decreased observers’ interest in trying the liked product. This holds even when taking the same and replacing a less emotional word (‘superior’) with a more emotional one that is equally positive (i.e., ‘enjoyable.’).”

What’s the conclusion?

“It depends on what you’re trying to achieve with that interaction. If you want to be more careful and reasoned, writing is pretty good. It gives you the time to construct and find what you’re going to say. On the other hand, we have a lot of data in this paper that suggests that emotional content is often more impactful in a positive way. So, if you want to be impactful, speaking can be good to be persuasive to change others’ minds.”

The paper was published in the Journal of Consumer Research and co-authored by Matthew Rocklage, marketing professor at Northeastern University, and Grant Packard, marketing professor at York University in Toronto.

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