Why Writing Scathing Yelp Reviews Feels So Good

Yet another reason why the right to complain on Yelp needs to be preserved.

Ben Richmond

Ben Richmond

Two congressmen from California just introduced a bill that would make it illegal for businesses to penalize customers who negatively review them on Yelp or other sites, citing citizens' rights to free speech. Not only do Americans have an inalienable right to complaining, there is research suggesting that negative Yelp reviews may actually be "a coping mechanism for dealing with the minor trauma people experience at restaurants."

It's surprising that a bill like the "Consumer Review Freedom Act" would even have to be introduced—indeed Rep. Brad Sherman said that the bill "will allow consumers the freedom to continue doing what they thought they could all along"—but companies that are apparently not interested in winning disgruntled patrons over have been opting to just sue them instead. 

In February, a D.C.-area contractor sued a homeowner for $750,000 in damages in response to two negative reviews. A Brooklyn watch repair shop threatened to sue a man in March. And the bill was inspired by a Utah couple who were sued for "$3,500 by KlearGear for violation of a non-disparagement clause after they posted a negative review online about their experience with the company," and whose credit rating was sullied by the encounter.

Image: Amanda/Flickr

It's these non-disparagment clauses at which the legislation specifically takes aim, by granting "authority to the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general to take action against businesses that include them." The legislation also boasts the support of Public Citizen, Yelp, Consumers Union, Trip Advisor, Consumer Federation of America, Public Participation Project, and the National Consumer Law Center.

Businesses have an understandable stake in looking good online. According to Forbes, "a Harvard study showed that a one star increase in rating on Yelp yields a 5-9% increase in revenue for a company." But oddly, customers also have a stake in writing negative reviews.

Cleansing the palate after a bad meal is not only fun, a team of linguistslooked at the frequency with which words appear in Yelp reviews and found that strongly negative reviews aren't just critiquing the food. More often the complaint is about service, and the way people talk about that bad service and how their group was treated "has been associated in a number of previous studies with a particular genre: people writing after experiencing trauma."

No one is saying anyone had a meal that was bad enough to be truly traumatic, only that certain linguistic markers—portraying the author as a victim, using more first-person plural pronouns like "we" and "us"—resemble trauma narratives:

According to the standard social stage model of coping, shortly after a disaster or tragedy people experience emotional upheavals and obsessive thoughts and feelings. In this phase they share these thoughts and feelings with others, including strangers, and the phase is marked by expressions of collectively shared grief, in which people seem to emphasize their belonging to groups, using the words we or us with high frequency, as a sign of solidarity and other–comforting and a way of achieving "collective closure."

The bill will be referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce, framed as an issue that stands in the way of creating an informed marketplace and also somewhat related to the First Amendment.

"No country that values free speech would allow customers to be penalized for writing an honest review," said U.S. Representative Eric Swalwell, who introduced the bill to the House.

It's not only true that we Americans love redressing restaurants, it may, in fact, be how we heal after being snubbed by a host or server.