Complaint: From Minor Moans to Principled Protests

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Profile have just published a book called Complaint by Julian Baggini.

It is claimed that this 224-page paperback is the first to be devoted to the subject and all I can say is: It’s about bloody time! Call yourself a publishing industry, making us wait 568 years for a book we obviously need? Idiots.

Complaining is a popular subject, especially I’ve noticed, with Americans and the British. The only difference appears to be that Americans do it more vocally and prefer everyone to share their disappointment, whereas we Brits try and keep it ‘in the family’. To actually let the person you are complaining about know that you are dissatisfied is traditionally thought rather rude. Things are changing, Starbucks are taking over the High Streets of Britain, but it’s a slow process.

To quote Theodore Dalrymple’s review of  Complaint in The Guardian: “Only Homo sapiens can conceive of a world different from the one in which he currently finds himself. The inevitable gulf between things as they are and as they ought to be is what gives rise to complaint.”

I, for one, really do try not to complain. I fervently hope that all of life’s little encounters will be tranquil and that everyone will meet my modest expectation. But that’s seldom the case. No matter how hard I try to appreciate the other person’s point of view, people let me down. I am often forced to complain against my will.

Take last week, for example. I booked into a hotel via the Internet. (I originally did name the hotel, but it has recently changed hands and I don’t want to mess up their new business). We arrived, after 2pm as directed, to be greeted by a sign in reception asking us to go to the bar. There was a funeral “party” in full swing and we had to wait 13 minutes until everyone present had been served – some of them several times – before we could check-in.

A pleasant young lady gave us the keys to two rather unpleasant little rooms and confirmed that the funeral guests had taken all the hotel’s parking spaces, so we’d have to park on the road and feed a meter for three hours. The rooms were short, thin and grubby. Although it was a hot summer’s day, the heating was on full and the radiator in one room was locked on maximum. The nice girl in reception promised that someone would see to it. I won’t spoil the suspense by revealing whether or not anyone did – you can probably guess.

Although the building is impressive – late Victorian with 1930s art deco influences? – it seems neglected and it’s pretty obvious that the people at the helm have given up. The lack of care is obvious everywhere. At this point I was going to include a list of all our complaints, from no marmalade at breakfast to the stink of tobacco (and an ashtray!) in the room of a no-smoking hotel, but then I realised it would be futile. And it would take too long.

I was going to complain at the hotel, before we left. Honest. But there was no one at reception when we checked out – and the bar was shut.

It seems unfair to single out De Parys Hotel for individual criticism. I’ve stayed in worse hotels and, to be honest, the Fawlty Towers Experience in family-run establishments is commoner than the English Tourist Board would have us believe. And not just in Britain: the worst hotels I’ve ever stayed in were in New York and Antwerp. Don’t get me started on them…

In my average week, three or four more major complainable issues occur. Sometimes you shout about it, at other times you keep quiet. Some people do not take criticism in the right way and I’ve learned to avoid anything that might backfire on me. Experience of the ‘hospitality trade’ means I never voice my concerns in a restaurant whilst there’s still an opportunity for the chef or waitress to add a little something to my next course.

Maybe more companies should follow BT’s lead in solving their quite significant complaints problem. British Telecoms messes everything up on a regular basis – including in our case disconnecting lines because we’re moving (we weren’t), charging for reconnection, penalty fees for not paying reconnection charges, not taking direct debits, penalties because they didn’t take direct debits, disconnection for non-payment of reconnection and non- direct debit payment charges, more charges for further reconnections, etc, etc – and then making it impossible to complain. Well, you can complain but the person you’re complaining to is never the right person and unless you want to spend the rest of your life holding on and transfering to various call centres around the world (with the regular return journey), you do the sensible thing, give up and pay up.

It has taken me over 50 years of life to discover life’s ultimate truth: it’s practically impossible to get anything done properly unless you do it yourself. Everyone, from the tax authorities to public utilities to the computer departments of major government agencies, to the check-out girl at the supermarket, to the window-cleaner and the guy who comes round to fix your computer, will screw up. Sometimes it’s on purpose, usually it’s because they don’t know what they’re doing or because they don’t care what they are doing.

The good news is that you can complain all you like.

The bad news is, a fat lot of good it’s going to do you.

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