The Formality Dimension of Service Quality in Thailand and Japan

Terrence H. Witkowski, California State University, Long Beach
Mary F. Wolfinbarger, California State University, Long Beach
ABSTRACT - Service firms expanding globally must address cultural differences both in the desired dimensions of service quality and in the behaviors that represent these dimensions. This paper investigates formality and its relation to other dimensions of service quality in Thailand and Japan. Based on a survey (N = 400) using Servqual and related scales, factor, correlational, and regression analyses all indicate the existence of a separate formality dimension in both bank and restaurant service settings. This finding has implications for international service studies.
[ to cite ]:
Terrence H. Witkowski and Mary F. Wolfinbarger (2001) ,"The Formality Dimension of Service Quality in Thailand and Japan", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 153-160.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 153-160


Terrence H. Witkowski, California State University, Long Beach

Mary F. Wolfinbarger, California State University, Long Beach

[The authors wish to thank Panwadee Chantori and Hideyuki Hirakawa for their valuable assistance in translation, data collection, and data entry.]


Service firms expanding globally must address cultural differences both in the desired dimensions of service quality and in the behaviors that represent these dimensions. This paper investigates formality and its relation to other dimensions of service quality in Thailand and Japan. Based on a survey (N = 400) using Servqual and related scales, factor, correlational, and regression analyses all indicate the existence of a separate formality dimension in both bank and restaurant service settings. This finding has implications for international service studies.


A decade ago, Michael Porter (1990) predicted the emergence of a new breed of larger, internationally competitive, service companies. Recent cross-border mergers, acquisitions, and start-ups in retailing, banking, telecommunications, entertainment, and other service businesses appear to validate his forecast. For example, America’s Wal-Mart has entered markets in Latin American, Asia, and Europe where it purchased two German chains, Spar and Wertkauf, in 1998 and the British Asda group in 1999 (Williams 1999). France’s Carrefour, Holland’s Ahold, and Sweden’s Ikea also have expanded, among other places, in the formerly communist countries of central and eastern Europe. On the web, has duplicated its e-commerce model overseas through subsidiary websites in Britain and Germany.

When companies enter foreign consumer markets, they frequently introduce practices that change and even improve upon local service delivery. In a fascinating series of essays based on ethnographic research, Watson and his colleagues (1997) describe how McDonald’s has introduced orderly queuing, self-provisioning (napkins, utensils, drinks), and self-seating, not to mention more hygienic food preparation and cleaner toilets, in several East Asian markets. Inexorably, suh foreign competition forces domestic service firms to upgrade the quality of their own offerings. Local fast food chains in Beijing now regularly employ workers to mop floors and wash windows all day long and often in entryways where their performances can be seen by prospective customers (Watson, 1997, p. 34).

In many cases, however, service marketers must be much more accommodating to local service cultures. The quality of a service interaction often depends upon the provider’s skill in expressing socially desirable emotions and behaviors in a manner credible to customers (Ashforth and Humphrey 1993). American service personnel are known for their chirpiness and ability to keep their problems at home. Many Europeans, on the other hand, find role-playing behavior to be superficial. They see no reason to disguise their true feelings and differentiate their private and public selves (Murphy 1994). In Germany, customers have come to expect frowns, glares, or a bored look of compulsory compliance from store, bank, and service desk employees (Lord 1994; Stern 1996). Thus, Wal-Mart has been very cautious in introducing chatty American-style greeters in its newly acquired German stores (Williams 1999).

Achieving global service standards is problematic because consumers in different countries disagree over both the appropriate dimensions of service quality and the behaviors that represent these dimensions. Most Americans value their time and generally expect a swift response to questions, complaints, and purchase orders. In developing countries, where people are less driven by the clock, the concept of "promptness" is more flexible (Riddle 1986) and customer satisfaction can result from simply getting a response (Malhotra et. al., 1994). Some cultures, such as the Arabian Gulf States, define service quality in terms of personal attention and pampering (Kassem 1989), whereas others may have a more "do-it-yourself" attitude and may not object to interacting with machines such as automated telephone answering services. The perishability of services sometimes requires the shifting of demand, but not all cultures may have the same waiting line behavior or willingness to defer consumption. Interestingly, a recent study showed that Japanese and Americans cannot even agree on the emotions represented by facial expressions. Whereas 91.1 percent of American respondents concurred that a model’s face showed sadness, only 37.4 percent of the Japanese subjects so agreed (Emmons 1997). Across cultures, non-verbal cues are typically difficult to read and easy to misinterpret (Ferraro 1998), but they have much to say about the relationships between service providers and customers (Gilly and Graham 1996).

The objective of this research is to study whether formality constitutes an independent dimension of service quality in two Asian cultures: Thailand and Japan. Formality has received some attention from the services marketing field (Goodwin and Frame 1989; Goodwin and Smith 1990; Winsted 1997), but little research has been conducted outside the U.S. even though the international business literature suggests that formality is an important characteristic of many cultures (Gesteland 1999; Hall and Hall 1990). This proposition is investigated through surveys of consumer service expectations and outcomes, and overall service satisfaction, in bank and restaurant settings. The conclusion considers some limitations of the research and offers some implications for theory and service studies.


Formality is defined herein as interpersonal communications, both verbal and nonverbal, that express courtesy and proper etiquette and maintain social distance. Formality represents the "highest" and most traditional social standards. This approach coincides with Goodwin and Frame (1989) and Goodwin and Smith (1990), who investigated addressing service patrons by their first names, and Winsted (1997), whose Japanese sample were concerned with nice dress and proper language. Formality is not the same as service "formalization," which Suprenant and Solomon (1987) defined as "high standardization, routinization, or codification with limited opportunity for option personalization" (p. 88). Personalized services can be offered with or without high levels of civility and deference.

Cultures can be differentiated according to their level of formality, ranging from those that are relatively informal to those that are relatively formal. While the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Scandinavian countries typify informal cultures, most of the rest of the world is characterized by more formal cultures (Gesteland 1999). The former tend to value egalitarian organizations and relatively small status and power distinctions, whereas the latter have steep hierarchies reflecting major differences in status and power. A culture’s level of formality is not immutable. America was arguably a more formal culture 100 years ago and, today, it appears that much of the world is gradually drifting toward greater informality.

Language constitutes an important element of culture and a variety of linguistic practices express formality. For example, many languages distinguish between the formal "you," the Chinese Nin, French Vous, Spanish Usted, and German Sie, invoked to maintain social distance and the informal ni, tu, or du used with children, family, and close friends. The English "you" makes no such distinction. English speakers introduce formality by addressing people by their title and surname. More formal German speakers precede the surname with two or more titles such as in "Professor Doktor Schmidt." Moreover, Australians and American frequently address others by their first name, even before meeting them, a practice most Europeans, among others, deplore (Hall and Hall 1990).

Nonverbal communication also expresses degrees of formality. Americans, for instance, convey a relaxed, informal attitude by leaning back in their chairs and putting their feet on their desks. More formal cultures would consider such body posture rude (Ferraro 1998). The choice of clothing for a particular situation also communicates degrees of formality. Americans appear to be moving away from business attire and are more frequently wearing casual clothes in the office. In South and Southeast Asia, "Wearing a suit and tie to meetings during the hot season sends a positive signal of respect, and keeping one’s jacket on in a non-air conditioned office signals even greater respect" (Gesteland 1999, p. 49). Communicating formality non-verbally should be especially important in high-context cultures, where language is less precise and direct and meaning is transmitted more through restricted codes and contextual cues (Ferraro 1998).

Formality appears to have a connection with two of the Hofstede (1997) values: "power distance," the extent to which people accept an unequal distribution of power, and "uncertainty avoidance," the extent to which people feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations. Formality is an important means of conveying and reinforcing disparities in social rank and authority (Gesteland 1999). By preferring more formal rather than more spontaneous verbal and non-verbal communication, members of a culture high on uncertainty avoidance can reduce the anxieties and ambiguities of interpersonal relations. The U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Scandinavian countries all score fairly low on both the power distance and the uncertainty avoidance indexes.

Whatever the overall level of formality, it undoubtedly varies within cultures according to the specific social context (Ferraro 1998). For example, age and status differences generally elicit more formal communication. Younger people typically use less slang and more polite language when speaking to their elders. Employees use more deferential speech with senior executives, patients with their physicians, and the religious with their clergy. Dress and other nonverbal communication often convey impressions more forcefully than language. "Clothes serve as a strong cue to the degree of formality in a situation and help shape how individuals interact" (Kaiser 1997, p. 337).

According to Goodwin and Smith (1990), the intimacy generated by "high-touch" services, such as hair styling and sports instruction, increases first name usage and other elements of informality between providers and clients. In contrast, seriously upmarket restaurants and hotels will insist that waiters and the front desk practice verbal politeness, maintain decorum, and wear classy, even "formal" attire as part of their performance. Across many service settings, personnel making customer contact dress and behave more formally than those who are out of sight (Goffman 1959). Dress and health codes ("No shoes, no shirt, no service!") impose more formal comportment upon customers.

Interestingly, neither the path-breaking conceptual work of Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry (1985) nor their later empirical work (Parasuraman, Zeithaml and Berry 1988) identified formality as a separate dimension although the original model included a courtesy criterion (politeness, respect, clean and neat appearance) which has some elements of formality. The reason may be because this research was carried out in the highly informal American context.


The quality of customer service in Thailand is frequently hampered by infrastructure deficiencies, including onerous government intervention and poorly educated service workers, typical of a "middle-income" developing country. However, some liberalization of financial markets, growing inbound tourism, foreign competition, and imported technological and managerial know-how have raised service standards (Ratanakomut 1995).

Thai cultural practices affect service performance. Thailand is typically referred to as the "Land of Smiles" because this facial expression is so often visible. Rather than indicating an inner state of mind, Thai smiles convey both positive and negative messages and provide a way of lubricating difficult or embarrassing social interactions such as when a request is being denied (Hendon 1999). Showing consideration for the needs and feelings of others, known as kreng jai, all too often means a tendency to say yes to or agree with a customer even when the sales person knows it is not possible to fulfill the promise (Niratpattanasai 2000). Because Thais are trained to avoid conflict, customers seldom complain to shop owners who have, therefore, little motivation to improve service.

Thai business communication tends to be very reserved and business dress is usually extremely neat and formal (Gesteland 1999; Global Road Warrior 1999b; Hendon 1999). Thais also emphasize the use of titles and have a very hierarchical business culture that stresses deference to rank and authoriy (Hendon 1999). Thailand scores somewhat high on Hofstede’s (1997) power distance index (22nd out of 53 countries and regions) and slightly below average on uncertainty avoidance ( 30th out of 53).

Being a highly developed country, Japan is in the position to deliver a superior level of service quality and, indeed, the Japanese expect and receive a great deal of customer attention (Hall and Hall 1987; Schlossberg 1990) and deference from sellers (Gesteland 1999; Graham and Sano 1989). White-gloved young women greet department store customers and thank them for coming in (Schlossberg 1990) and Japanese salesmen serve their good customers in any way they can in order to build long-term relationships (Hall and Hall 1987). Personal attention is so ingrained that self-service fuel pumps were not introduced in Japan until April 1, 1998 (Reitman 1998). As the Japanese put it: "The customer is God." Overseas, the Japanese report lower levels of satisfaction with all aspects of in-flight service than airline passengers from other countries (Gilly and Graham 1996) and have been disappointed with the treatment they receive from shop clerks in Great Britain (International Herald Tribune 1992). Airlines, hotels, restaurants, and retail stores in the U.S. have learned to cater to finicky Japanese tourists and business travelers (Witkowski and Yamamoto 1991).

Japan is a relatively formal culture (Holroyd and Coates 1999). Japanese communication with strangers tends to be ritualized and reserved. Barnlund (1989) attributes this to a Japanese need to "reduce the unpredictability and emotional intensity of personal encounters" (p. 33). Japan scored seventh highest out of 50 countries and three regions on Hofstede’s (1997) uncertainty avoidance index. Although Japan scores in the middle on the power distance index (33rd highest out of 53), it has a vertically organized social structure and people either know or find out who is above and who is below them while conversing (Barnlund 1989). The Japanese also exhibit formality in their non-verbal communication. Bowing and ritualized presentation of business cards (meishi) are two such cultural practices (Holroyd and Coates 1999). Japanese business attire is often conservative with finely tailored dark suits and expensive but understated accessories common for both men and women (Global Road Warrior 1999a). Although long in decline, the institution of the geisha, with its traditional costumes and elaborately scripted tea ceremonies, epitomizes formality in Japanese service culture (Hoh 1998).

Winsted (1997) found that formality-related behaviors (nice dress, proper language) formed a separate dimension for the Japanese, but did not show up among the American respondents; whereas authenticity (genuineness of behavior) was a separate factor for the Americans, but not for the Japanese. Her data also indicated that these different dimensions overlap in the minds of the consumers. These findings inspired the present research which seeks to replicate and elaborate upon the import of formality within Japan and a second, comparative Asian culture C Thailand.


A five-page, self-administered questionnaire was developed in English. It consisted of 22 original Servqual items measuring service expectations and outcomes, three Servpref scales (Cronin and Taylor 1992) assessing overall service quality, and some standard demographic questions about respondent age, sex, education, and income. The instrument also added six items t tap three of the dimensions Winsted (1997) discovered in her Japanese sample: conversation ("Employees at this bank [restaurant] have a sense of humor" and "Employees at this bank [restaurant] like to talk to me"), formality ("This bank [restaurant] insists that its employees use proper language" and "This bank [restaurant] insists that its employees were appropriate clothing"), and civility ("At this bank [restaurant], employees are never arrogant" and "Employees at this bank [restaurant] have a good attitude"). These items all appeared relevant to an informality C formality continuum.

Slightly different versions of the questionnaire were created for bank and restaurant service settings. The translations proceeded in two stages: (1) preliminary translations were made by the Thai and Japanese graduate students who were to collect the data and (2) two additional auditors for each language reviewed their work and suggested changes. In effect, by having translation "committees," this approach was deemed equivalent to back translation, parallel blind, or other techniques.

During the summer of 1998, two hundred usable questionnaires were completed in Thailand (100 for bank and 100 for restaurant settings ) and another 200 in Japan, (again 100 for bank and 100 for restaurant settings). The Thai data were collected in Bangkok and the Japanese data were collected in Kitakuyushu, a city of one million on the island of Kyushu. In both places, the graduate students used opportunistic or "snow-ball" techniques to recruit participants. No unusual problems were reported from the field although some Japanese respondents did not understand the concept of "household" income and reported personal income instead.

Although efforts were made to obtain more or less representative and comparable samples from the two countries, there were some differences. The average age of the Thai respondents was 33.0, while that of the Japanese was 39.7. The Thai sample was 41.0% female and 59.0% male; the Japanese sample was 57.0% female and 43.0% male. Finally, while 81% of the Thais were in the top two out of five educational categories (college graduate and some graduate work or degree), only 25% of the Japanese were so well educated. Thus, the Thai sample was younger, more male, and better educated than its Japanese counterpart. Thailand does have a much younger population than Japan. In Thailand, 27% are under age 15 and only 5% are over 65. In Japan, just 15% are under 15, while 16% are over 65 (Population Reference Bureau 1999).


Checking Convergent and Discriminant Validity of Formality: Factor Analyses

The 22 original items from Servqual, along with Winsted’s (1997) suggested items for conversation, formality and civility, were submitted to principal components factor analysis using Equimax rotation because this method of analysis produces a factor structure that is the most interpretable as well as being the most consistent with the original Servqual analyses (Parasuraman, Zeithaml and Berry 1988; 1991). Nevertheless, four items from the original Servqual crossloaded on multiple factors and were removed from analysis s they did not achieve sufficient discriminant analysis for this Asian sample. The four items came from different Servqual dimensions and three of the four crossloaded on the new factor, formality. The four removed items and the associated factor from Servqual are listed at the bottom of Table 1.

Additionally, the Servqual items intended to load separately on assurance and responsiveness instead loaded together on one factor. In order to further probe this finding, a separate factor analysis was performed utilizing only the original Servqual assurance and responsiveness items (including the two items later removed from analysis for crossloading). The items were submitted with instructions to extract two factors, but all assurance and responsiveness items, except for one, still loaded on a single factor, with the remaining item being "forced" on a separate construct. Inconsistent factor structures have been a feature of Servqual analyses (see Parasuraman, Zeithaml and Berry 1994 for a detailed analysis and review of Servqual properties). Part of the inconsistency in factor structure is likely due to insufficient variance in the underlying sample which prevents factor analyses from differentiating successfully between variables, especially when those variables tend to be correlated. It is unclear whether insufficient variance or cultural factors are the explanation for assurance and responsiveness items loading together. It may be that our Asian subsamples do not perceive assurance and responsiveness to be separate dimensions of the service experience.

Once the four crossloading items are removed from analysis, a five factor solution results explaining 72% of variance, with four dimensions consisting of the original Servqual factors (with responsiveness and assurance being one rather than two factors) and a new factor, formality, which includes the civility items and clearly constitutes a separate factor with high discriminant and convergent validity (Churchill 1979) (see Table 1). In addition to the four formality and civility items suggested by Winsted (1997), one item associated by Servqual with assuranceCcourteousnessCloaded more strongly with formality than assurance in our analysis. Interestingly, the two conversation items suggested by Winsted’s research to constitute an additional factor nevertheless clearly load with the original empathy items from Servqual.



Correlations: Another check of Discriminant Validity

An additional test of discriminant validity is to perform correlations between formality and all other Servqual factors. The correlation matrix appears in Table 2. Formality is moderately to strongly related to other Servqual factors, with correlations between .40 and .69, suggesting that formality retains some uniqueness from the other factors. In fact, two pre-existing sets of factors of Servqual, responsiveness/assurance and reliability and responsiveness/ assurance and empathy, are more strongly correlated to each other than to formality. Interestingly, all correlations in the Asian data set are higher than those reported in the original Servqual analyses, in which inter-factor correlations are between .23 and .35 (Parasurman, Zeithaml and Berry 1988). Perhaps the correlations would be less with a larger sample size and a larger variety of service settings.

Is Formalit Relevant and does it have Diagnostic Validity?

One way of evaluating the validity and relevance of formality as a service quality dimension is to assess consumer’s expectations for formality, especially as compared to the other Servqual factors (Table 3). Of the five dimensions across all four settings, the Asian respondents had the highest or second highest expectations for formality, suggesting that the factor has high relevance. These expectations ratings change somewhat by service setting, with both the Thai and Japanese samples particularly emphasizing high expectations of formality in the restaurant service setting, with formality coming in second to reliability for both samples in the bank setting. Following the reasoning of Perreault (1992), Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry (1994) suggest that diagnosticity or impact on interpretation (not just predictive power) is an important measure of the validity in including a dimension in Servqual. This research measured outcomes and expectations and can thus diagnose gaps between what consumers expect and what they actually receive. Interestingly, both Thai consumers experience relatively large differences between the formality they wish to receive compared to hat they actually receive. Smaller gaps existed for formality in both Japanese settings. These "gaps" suggest managerially actionable areas concerning formality; thus the formality dimension results in diagnosticity.





Nomological Validity of Formality: How well does Formality Predict Service Quality?

Cronin and Taylor (1992) suggest and Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry (1994) concede that Servqual outcome measures do a better job predicting service quality than do measures based on differences between outcomes and expectations, although the difference measures may have superior diagnosticity. Thus, to test nomological, predictive or "construct" validity (Carmines and Zeller 1979; Churchill 1979), regression analyses were performed with the factor scores for the five outcome dimensions as independent variables and overall service quality as the dependent variable. For Thai restaurant consumers, formality is the most strongly related to service quality of the five dimensions; in fact, the relationship (partial beta) between formality and service quality is quite strong (b=.56), while the next strongest relationship is with responsiveness at (b=.38). Interestingly, formality is much less important (although statistically significant) to Thais in the bank setting (b=.19). In the Japanese sample, formality, responsiveness and empathy are all strong predictors of service quality for both the restaurant and bank settings. As in the Thai sample, formality is more strongly related to service quality ratings for restaurants than for banks. These findings increase diagnosticity as well; for instance, formality is very important to Thai restaurant consumers, and yet, the gap between formality desired and received is 18%; together these findings suggest the importance of improving formality before concentrating on other elements of the restaurant experience.

An incremental F-test was conducted to assess whether or not the inclusion of formality in the set of predictors increases explanatory power significantly (Pedhazur 1982). The F-test is significant for all four settings (Table 4), indicating that formality should be included with the other Servqual factors. The variance in service quality explained when formality is included increases mildly C 3% and 8% C for the bank settings, but is quite dramatic C 15% and 30% respectively C for the Thai and Japanese restaurant samples.



In sum, the factor analyses and correlations between factors suggest that formality is a discriminable factor with high convergent validity for our Aian samples. As well, the analyses of expectations show that Asian consumers have high expectations for formality, again suggesting the factor’s validity for diagnosis of service quality in Asian settings. Last, formality has strong predictive validity, as it is strongly associated with service quality in Thai and Japanese restaurant settings, and moderately but significantly related to service quality in bank settings in both countries. Perhaps most importantly, the incremental variance in service quality ratings increased significantly in all four settings, and dramatically in restaurant settings.


Because this study employed a non-probability sampling method, the findings should be further validated by other studies. Although sampling issues are less important for scale development and theoretical research (Calder, Phillips and Tybout 1981; Cook and Campbell 1979), which is the focus in this paper, descriptive and diagnostic findings associated with service quality require greater generalizability than is achieved with the present sample.

Moreover, the research does not assess the effect of survey biases that may be introduced by a tendency to react to surveys in a culturally systematic fashion. Particularly when assessments of customer satisfaction use subjective reports, the findings may reflect substantive differences in perceived service quality across countries, but possibly culturally determined response biases as well. Asians in general, and Thais in particular, have been know to exhibit a "courtesy bias" on survey questionnaires because of their desire to please the interviewer (Onkvisit and Shaw 1993, p. 286). Nevertheless, predictive modeling, comparisons between Servqual factors, and differences between outcomes and expectations within a culture should be unaffected by any biases.

While services research conducted in the U. S. has established a relationship between service quality, behavioral intentions, and overall profitability (Zeithaml, Berry and Parasuranam 1996; Reichheld and Sasser 1990), the present study does not establish such a link. Despite this shortcoming, the findings suggest the importance of including the formality dimension in international service studies, and the continued importance of considering other dimensions that might be relevant to non-American cultures. Above all, there is a need for new research concepts to identify and measure variations in cross-national service quality. There are likely to be additional dimensions of importance in international contexts that researchers have not yet systematically conceptualized, identified, and measured. As these concepts are uncovered and investigated, they are likely to not only shed light upon different service cultures, but may also increase understanding and conceptualization of service quality within domestic settings as well. For instance, while formality may be unimportant to some Americans in some contexts, there may be service settings and provider age and status characteristics in which formality is quite relevant to consumers. Thus, more work is necessary not only in conceptualizing service quality in different cultures, but in developing theories which explain and aid in understanding differences across services settings and between participants within a culture.


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