Perfecting the fine art of complaining.
Author’s program note. Oh, my, she was angry, angry to the point of bursting, to the point of indiscretion, even scandal. And so she let fly a cascade of hot words, each one hotter and less controlled than the last. It was a bravura performance… a rip snorter of a complaint months in the making, starting with this memorable opening, “Your servant, your servant? Indeed, I’m not your servant”.
Can you recall this cinematographic moment of choler, rage and unbridled anger? It was, of course, from Rodger and Hammerstein’s brilliant production “The King and I”, the film version (1956) starring Deborah Kerr as royal Siamese governess and Yul Brynner role perfect as His Arrogant, Condescending Majesty, life-and-death master of all; one “civilized”, the other a jewel-encrusted, half-naked “barbarian”.
Mrs. Anna (as her charges called her) was Welch, plain spoken, clean living, a woman who understood what was right and what wasn’t, as she made perfectly clear in her memoir “The English Governess at the Siamese Court” (1870). As such her path to acute irritation and the strongest possible disapproval of her capricious, exacting employer was inevitable…. her outburst one of the greatest complaints ever. Go to any search engine now and find this tune, “Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?” There could scarcely be a finer tune for an article on complaining, don’t you think?
Something we do every day, without thought, with often acute consequences.
Let us start at the beginning, the way a good governess like Anna Leonowens would certainly do.
Complaint: A statement of wrong, grievance, or injury. From the French “complaindre”. The word also has a legal dimension, “the first paper setting forth the plaintiff’s cause of action,” and a medical angle, too: “A physical ailment, disease.” As such complaints, problems to be solved are at the very root of our civilization and knowing how to handle them is crucial to your well being.
What level of complainer are you?
Before we deal with the matter of how to handle complaints, it is useful to see how much of your time and energy is bound up in complaining. All people complain of course; it is the most constant and human of activities. But what level are you at? Someone whose complaints are mild and occasional, or someone who sees grounds for complaint in every matter or incident, big or small? First, then, recall to memory the last day or two. What happened that caused complaint? And what did you do to complain; keep the complaint(s) to yourself, share with friends and co-workers, contact the establishment where the complaint was generated, or what? You will know immediately, if you do not already know, whether you are an infrequent complainer or someone with a cosmic axe to grind, complaining as frequent as breathing.
Turning complaints into improvements.
A complaint properly handled is a device for improvement, not a means for showing off your superior intelligence and bosom buddy friendship with God. In other words, a complaint can be used to ameliorate or belittle. It all depends on how you handle it. For example a few days ago an argumentative acquaintance of mine managed to get himself into the most common of bar room altercations.
The matter at issue could easily have been dealt with if there had been any mutual desire to solve it. But liquor and morality were in this lethal mix. Thus, in just a minute or two my sanctimonious, always right, never wrong friend lay on the floor, writhing in pain, three front teeth at his feet, When he called me, as he was sure to do, he expected tea and sympathy from me. After all I was “his” friend, the right to speaking truth waived for the duration.
However, what he got instead of soothing acquiescence was another version of the “truth” — mine…. And it went something like this. You’re nearly 60! Your bar room brawl days are long over. “But they were trying to take advantage of me.” So now we had dueling complaints. His about the rightness of his tawdry cause… mine about his unarguable and abashing propensity to “pop off” whenever truth, justice and the American way were in his corner, as they always were. His dentist told him the final replacement work would be done — “No, sir, I am not exaggerating” — in about a year. And that, of course, generated additional, full, rich, resonant complaints, which he immediately began to lay on friends everywhere, for he was assuredly a man of righteous grievances… “didn’t I agree”? My (justifiable) complaint, irrefutable, unassailable, totally veracious, long overdue.
No, I did not agree, and so here, now I intend to take this matter in hand giving an ample piece of my mind to every non-stop complainer in the land. You’ve had this coming for a very long time. For openers, the only reason I ever listened to your unending litany of “I’m right, I am never, ever wrong” complaints is so that I can force you to listen in turn to mine.
Thus, I want to go on the record, once for all, to tell you what I think of you and the grievances you expect me to listen to and agree with.
Now hear this:
Your unending stream of complaints has alienated every single person who, through courtesy and for no other reason, has listened to your trivial chronicles of woe; each less important and more boring than the last. By now you surely must be the Guinness Book of Records Cosmic Complainer Award winner… for you have achieved the enviable distinction of turning absolutely everything in your life (including the hideous tattoos which deform your aging bulk, each a reminder of outrages past) into the basis for complaint and moral indignation.
And thus, began my epic flight as a complainer, a flight recalled to this very day as a matter of the great possible impact and interest. Once begun, I couldn’t help myself. I had waited a lifetime to unload the burden of my silence. Now I intended to let every grievance out and allow it to breathe, prosper and expand, to the wonder of all.
In just a minute, my cause picking up speed and momentum as I went, I had advanced into the ranks of senior complainers everywhere, deft, thorough, awing the world with practised skill and wondrous delivery. I discovered I had a knack, even a genius for complaining. And so I began to understand why everyone and his brother complains so… not to air grievances… not to correct gnawing injustices of every kind… no, indeed.
… but for one reason and one reason only: because the delightful selfishness of complaining enables you to gather every eye, engage every brain and turn your unending rodomontade into glorious selfishness, and what a joy that is! But I must not let this selfishness get out of hand…. and neither must you….. Thus, this great, this overdue, this public-spirited way to handle the insufferable business of non-stop, universal complaining.
We have, you well know, a universal energy crisis. Complaining, or to be quite specific, the hot air it engenders can solve the problem in record time. Here’s how.
Each person on earth even those who claim never to complain will be assigned a hose by a grateful government. Instead of complaining in the usual way, hot air generated but uselessly expended into the air; this time we will voluntarily agree to blow the hot air effusions directly into a tube that connects with a central processing facility, built just so to generate heat, light, electricity, power and energy. My science team says the idea is not only feasible but certain to win the Nobel Prize. I shall be the saviour of the planet.
“What do you mean my idea stinks? That you haven’t heard anything so daft for a coon’s age? That it can’t’ be done, won’t be done, and shouldn’t be done? Are you trying to be a smart ass? Then hear this… I’m glad those punks nailed you; you had it coming. they should have punched out all your teeth and kept going. You twittified, arrogant, bloody jerk!” A moment more and we were both on the floor, Mrs. Anna singing in the background “Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?” There was already one tooth on the bloodied floor… “you conceited, self-indulgent….”