The Art of Complaining
// Heather Welsh

“Excuse me, excuse me!" The shrill voice sounded in my ears one morning. "You've been out of paper towels in the men's washroom in the basement since eight PM last night, can you do something about it?"

"Yes sir, I'll get it sorted," I replied politely, trying to keep a calm face on despite the fact that this particular guest had complained to me five times already that morning.
No prizes for guessing the name I've given to this "species" of traveller – "The Complainer.” And unfortunately, if you work in customer service, you probably meet people like this fairly often.

It was another day working in the hostel for me, and with it came a new complainer who just couldn’t help but chat to me at long length about what really annoyed her whilst staying in Vancouver – or any other place for that matter. “Rain, it always seems to be raining here, and everything’s so expensive. I am running out of money fast, how am I going to afford to get home after this North America trip?”

She zipped up her waterproof coat to the very top, pointing out her discomfort and unhappiness even more, “Oh, and the fan in my room doesn’t work, which is quite annoying, actually.” It’s good to know that cool rainy days also require a fan just in case the sun pops out from behind those clouds and turns the room into a sweltering sauna.

According to author Will Bowen (acomplaintfreeworld. org), there are five main reasons why people complain. Firstly, to start a conversation: complaining inspires rapport, and if someone else shares your view then you have found common ground. Second, to avoid taking action by shirking responsibility: they don’t want to change the situation or find a solution; they just want to talk about it. Third, they use them as a way to brag about their superiority by stating that their high standards are not being met by other people. Fourth, complaints are used to control others by using it as a way to get people to switch loyalties; and lastly, to pre-excuse poor performance: complaints become off-hand excuses for why somebody was late or forgot something, for example.

I would like to think that I don’t complain very much unless absolutely necessary (the definition of “necessary” is a debatable topic, however). As Bowen suggests, I do complain a lot in order to start up new conversations or generate friendly banter. For example, I might say, “This coffee tastes like dirt!” to the guy spitting out his coffee next to me who seems to share the opinion that the coffee is in fact, disgusting. Or, if the girl sitting next to me on the bus begins staring down at my sodden boots, I would say, “Rain doesn’t work with new shoes.”

However, this kind of complaining is a less annoying because it’s typically not as aggressive, and instead is used as a spark for conversation – arguably a more positive purpose. Shared experiences, even if they are bad, bring people together, and complaining about them is part of that step. When guests complain about things like their fan not working, or their roommate snoring, I am instantly less irritated because they are legitimate reasons for seeking help from me. However, when “The Complainer” is bragging and attempting to control others, it’s a different story.

Margaret Paul, author of Addiction to Complaining, believes that complaining is a “pull” on other people. She states that complainers are pulling on the energy of others in a search for compassion and understanding because they have emotionally abandoned themselves. Their inner child is desperately seeking attention and approval. Complaining does seem like the easiest way to get it, if the service worker they talk to has the patience and time on their hands to listen to them and put on their best “the customer is always right” face in front of their boss. And sometimes, much to my excitement, I have to do just that.

// Heather Welsh, Columnist
// Illustration by Jason Jeon

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