How to Complain

How to Complain

Eric Anderson

There is an art to complaining—at least if you want people to listen to you or you want to change their behavior. I sometimes wonder if proper complaining is a disappearing art.

No doubt everybody at Southwestern has had some experience with artless complaining. Whether you are a teacher dealing with plagiarism, a counselor talking to a demanding parent, the dean of students explaining why 21 year olds must live in the dorm, or a cook preparing vegetarian food in the cafeteria, you may have had a run-in with somebody who needs a few complaining lessons.

You know the type—the “customer” who just wants to vent. But if they want people to listen, they need to add a bit of strategy to their complaining.

If I were teaching Complaining 101, I would offer the following rules:

First, target your complaining. Far better than a scattershot rant, fired into the air via e-mail or Facebook, is a quiet conversation with a person who can correct an alleged mistake or prevent an impending injustice. On a little campus like ours, it is not hard to see key decision-makers in person.

If you want more Gregorian chant at vespers, buttonhole Islem Mattey. If you think Southwestern needs a fencing team, call Tom Bunch. If you’d like a new major in Patristics—well, you get the idea. (It’s even possible to see the president on fairly short notice, or no notice at all if Susan Grady steps out for a minute.)

Targeting involves issues as well as people, of course. Your complaint will be more effective if it aims at discrete, fixable problems. Come with a possible solution, along with that urgent complaint.

Next, avoid hyperbole. People may tune you out if you call a minor blunder the unpardonable sin. Keep calm and assume, until proven otherwise, that your “target” does want to help you.

Don’t make ad hominem attacks. For example, Ben McArthur is one of the nicest and smartest people I know (far nicer and smarter than I am.) But judging from some of the student complaints blowing around campus last week, he is vicious ignoramus because he “awarded” students only two snow days instead of canceling classes for four days.

Finally, mix a compliment or two with your protest. Try saying something like “this isolated folly is so uncharacteristic of you,” or “I have heard you know how to deal with a problem like this.”

Carefully targeted, precise complaints, free of exaggeration or personal slurs, greased with a little niceness—that’s the ticket. Who knows what such complaints might accomplish?

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