Complaining, also known as protesting, bitching, moaning, fussing, gripe, vent, and so-on has become increasingly commonplace with the advent of social media. Of course, you already know that much about the internet. Heck, it’s the biggest complaint I hear about Facebook (Yes, the fact that others complain too much is cause for many to complain). I’ve had my fair share of exasperated frustrations and have even resorted in blogging about them. You can read my failed attempt at complaining HERE. My interest is in how the rhetoric of a complaint is either successful or fails. From observation, it would seem that successful complaining has certain qualities that allow the complainer to be heard and agreed with.
Types of complaining
Before diving headlong into rhetorical strategies of complaining, it would be best to determine some definitions and purpose to complaining.
A 2017 Psychology Today blog post [Found Here] by Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener, suggests that complaining “happens in the wake of a negative situation”, meaning that complaining is less proactive and more reactive extending from some exigent need. While this is not always the case, it does mean that the perceived immediate need of the complaint-rhetoric outweighs more substantial or valid issues. In other words, you’re more likely to complain about stubbing your toe on that “stupid F*ing bed-frame that no one can see because of that stupid bed sheet ruffle” (especially after immediately stubbing it) than current socio-economic concerns over low-income housing rates as a result of inflation and the resulting increase to homelessness. Both are current problems, but you did just-stub-your-toe.
According to Dr. Biswas-Diener there are three types of complainers. The first two are different types of “chronic complainers”. The first type makes the act of complaining into a habit. This is either as a result of general attitude or deeper psychological/physical issues. The second type, known as “venting”, is complaining with an agenda in mind. Typically, the second type is attempting to fulfill some lack in emotional validation. If you’ve ever heard someone complain to multiple people at different times, the complaint sounds rehearsed as you hear it over and over again. The third type, known as “instrumental complaining”, is “all about solving problems”. While these are very few and far between, instrumental complaints can be a significant source for social or political change, if used properly.
Dr. Biswas-Diener does make a suggestion on how one should complain, but it’s more of an issue of frequency as in, “only rarely” or “only in instances where you believe it will affect real and positive change”. I’d like to suggest a construction for a complaint based off personal experience with grant proposals. More specifically, let’s use needs/problem statement.
The needs-statement in a grant proposal is a great example of a more formal “complaint”. For a non-profit, a needs-statement is an expression of a problem and usually involves a solution the non-profit hopes to achieve using the awarded money. In 2017, I did a case study over 5 successful grant proposals (all quite different in populations served, location, and amount requested). Interestingly, I found that each of the 5 grants wrote more about the solution to the problem than the problem itself (strictly word count in a cluster analysis). If anyone really cares about my methodology or results just email me. The more interesting point to make is that needs-statements definitely fall under instrumental complaining and their general construction could be used to formulate more successful everyday complaints.
A needs-statement is very similar to logical statement construction. You have the premise, the inference, and the conclusion.
Premise in a complaint
This is the bread to your butter or, in other words, the foundation of your complaint also known as the problem. What you base your complaint on will determine the level of positive or negative reception, if any at all. I mean “positive” in the sense that the complaint has a higher likelihood of being received as valid and vice versa with “negative”.
Positive complaint examples:
Responding to national/intl. tragedies. Really, anything with violence or mass death is in this category. For instance, there was a ton of complaints about the levees after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There was also a ton of complaints about the security of Mandalay Bay Casino after the 2017 Las Vegas Shooting. Both have lead to conversations for changes in legislation and preventive measures.
Out of the ordinary personal life experiences. These events concern themselves with conditions, lifestyles, or major life events. For instance, I recently saw a tweet thread from a person who is blind complain about a terrifying encounter with a man on a bus that was attempting to “help her off the bus”, even though it was not the correct stop (see picture below). The event hopefully informed many people on how to treat those with disabilities, but usually these occurrences do well with altering public behavior.
Universal/common emotional straining experiences (traffic, sickness, children, career etc). These events usually stir up solutions for the person complaining, but if done correct in public, may help several others. I have seen several complaints on twitter about lack of a mentor or someone to help with career decisions. What’s great is the number of suggestions that come from responses. The more common the complaint results in more solutions that already exist.
Negative/neutral Complaint examples:
Full omission of a group, condition, or effect. These are easy to spot. The complaint is made without consideration to the situation. While I don’t have much of an opinion over the tweet below, I do know that the responses were quite critical in terms of gender, assertiveness, and equality.
Nonsensical or incoherent. These are quite odd. When I worked at Arby’s years ago, I had a woman start to complain about the quality of the tacos she ordered. I attempted to tell her that “we don’t serve tacos”, but she was already too upset to be corrected. Eventually she did leave on her own. However, working in the public, you’ll find that these types of complaints are quite common.
Generally missing one or more points of information. When you start to receive a ton of skeptical questions concerning the nature of your complaint, you may be just missing a major point. While working fixes watches, I had a customer complain about his brand new watch not working. What he failed to state was that he had taken the watch to another store that I found out broke the watch and told him to “go to the place where you bought it”. At that point, I had to charge him to fix the watch.
Inference in a complaint
This is the butter to your bread or, in other words, the delicious goodness that results in a successful complaint. The inference is the second half of a complaint where a call-to-action, a suggestion, or a plan is presented. Know that a successful complaint incorporates more than just an expression of emotion, but also considers possible different outcomes to a terrible situation. It is also an opportunity to ignite collaborative efforts or instill change (whether that is change for a group or yourself doesn’t matter).
The difficulty with offering solutions is the need to carefully consider what actions have already been done and who will be able to take action, but here are three outcomes you should consider:
For Yourself: this is where you complain and the solution is asking/hoping for help either because you lack resources or because you lack knowledge. “It sucks that I don’t know how to fix that lamp, know anyone?”. Response, “I have an uncle that fixes lamps that could take a look at it for you”.
For a specific group: these solutions are for social change or policy that focus on smaller groups. “It’s terrible that she has cancer and is an immigrant. She’s not eligible for insurance. There should be a law about this”. Response, “There’s a law that says immigrants that are not eligible for insurance that have cancer can get treatment without going into debt”. (By the way, this is true in Washington)
For states, countries, & the planet: These are for massive change and have the hardest time being successful, but they are possible. “People die of thirst in many parts of Africa due to lack of clean drinking water. We should start a charity organization that helps these people” (The basis for a funding campaign through Rain City Church: HERE)
This post is getting too long for me to keep writing on the subject of complaining. So, I’m going to wrap it up pretty quickly. (see what I did there). Really consider why you are complaining, how often, and what solutions you are ready to propose. Seriously consider who you are addressing your complaint to and if they are able to help. Complaints seem commonplace, especially if you’re on social media, but know that others are reading/listening. If you find yourself with angry responses or no response at all, it probably means that you didn’t formulate your complaint correctly.
As always, thank you for reading and I hope that you have found something of value to add to your everyday rhetoric repertoire.