The Complaint Cloud


When the complaint cloud approached our table at a restaurant, we didn’t need a meteorologist to tell us that conditions were ripe for a chance of complain. All we had to do was wait for the complainant to receive her food. 

“There’s something wrong,” she said to introduce her complaint, and she added the international refrain of the complainer, “I don’t want to complain, but …” She probably expected us to stop eating to listen to her complaint, or run for cover, but we didn’t even pause. In lieu of that insult, she said it again. She wouldn’t eat. She can’t, because she’s found something wrong with her food. The rest of the table gives her the attention she requires, and we’re silent and silently screaming at her to say it, but she won’t say it, because she “doesn’t want to complain” because she “[doesn’t] want to be seen as a complainer.”

She doesn’t call the server over, because she some part of her enjoys hovering over the rest of us with her hard-earned knowledge of the steps required in the proper preparation of the onion ring. She doesn’t want to lord her industry knowledge over the restaurant, the server, or our table, but she keeps changing the subject back to her improperly prepared onion ring. It might take less than two minutes for the server to come over, address her concerns, and return with a new plate of onion rings, but she doesn’t want to explore that for all its worth. While in the cloud, she enjoys a certain level of respect from the uninformed for the knowledge she’s attained in the industry. She smiles a strained smile to reveal her internal struggle to us, but she now knows so much that she just can’t eat a poorly prepared onion ring anymore that she knows it isn’t a temperature that the industry requires.

She could say her onion rings are cold, but she knows that exaggerated description carries no attention-grabbing exclamation points, so she says they’re “ice cold!” to superlative her way to gathering some real attention. When she’s done with her exaggerations, we fear touching the onion rings the way we do dry ice, knowing when they’re that cold they could burn.

To bolster her characterization, and the resultant sympathy that follows, she could also add that her slightly above room temperature onion rings are, “Gross.” Would it be a gross exaggeration to say that they’re gross, yes, but that doesn’t stop anyone else from doing it. Why do they do it, because no one challenges the gross assessment. How can we? Gross is such a relative term that it’s personal, and any challenge of a personal assessment will be viewed as a personal insult.

We will meet a gross assessment with crinkled noses. The sympathetic and empathetic response is almost reflexive now. An assessor doesn’t even have to back up their claim anymore. Gross can now be used to describe everything from finding live insects in our food to tasting excrement in fresh seafood, but it can also mean finding a stray french fry in a serving of pasta, or an onion ring that is less than perfect. I once thought that one of my purposes in life was to try to unseat the word from its perch atop the lexicon we use to describe poor quality. I thought if I could start a personal campaign to limit use of the word, in my social circles, I might give it back some of its power. I made some strides in my battle against the ’ly words, literally and actually, but my battle against the word gross was pointless and pitiful, even in my inner circle. I didn’t know what I was up against. The word is gone, I realized in the midst of my battle, it just is. Overuse has diluted any meaning it once had, but people still use to gain attention.

When someone at the table tired of the grumblings in the complaint cloud, as a result of her carefully orchestrated drama, they called the server over. It was anticlimactic when the chef quickly arrived with a hot plate of onion rings that he informed us would not appear on our bill. Shows over folks, time to go back to our other conversations, because there’s nothing left for us to talk about in the immediate aftermath of a resolved dilemma.

“How are those onion rings?” one of the uninformed asks her.

“Eh, they’re all right.” The truth is that those onion rings are not right, and they never will be, because no onion ring can ever be right in the complaint cloud. They’ll never be as tasty as they could be, or as hot as they should be, or as crispy, or as pleasing as the industry requires. “I like a nice crunch when I bite into an onion ring, don’t you? Yeah, no, this isn’t for me. This is a fine restaurant that’s known for their food, but it just doesn’t meet my professional expectations.” She picked the restaurant, and she selected the meal she would eat on this restaurant’s menu, for which this restaurant is well-known. She knows restaurants, because she works for a competitor, and she knows what this restaurant specializes in, and she’s “always wanted to try it”. When it arrives, she takes it personal when they serve her something that is a couple of degrees below the industry standard that she knows too well.

“Do you have any idea who I am?” They don’t, and it doesn’t take us long to learn that is the point. “I work down the street, and I am a manager, and there’s no way I would allow one of my servers to serve these onion rings.” She didn’t say this, but this was the subtext of her complaint, because no one knew who she was, and no one cared. Her entrance into the complaint cloud was personal, and she expounded on her virtuosity after they served her a second plate of onion rings by saying (drum roll please), “I will eat them.” She was kind enough and virtuous enough to suffer through her onion rings, so we wouldn’t view her as a complainer after she spent the last couple minutes doing nothing but complaining.

Praised be the all mighty, now will you climb down and speak to the peasants, as you said you would when you invited us to try to enjoy an evening out with you dining?

Complaining is what we do. It’s what I do. It’s what I’m doing right now. I’m complaining about complainers who complain too much. We complain about family, friends, the very idea that that feller would cross the street outside the crosswalk, people who walk extra slow through a cross walk, politics, religion, and our place of employment. Complaining is just kind of what we do when we’re in groups, but we shroud most of our complaints in humor. Complaining is fun, illustrative, it defines our character, and it can provide for provocative, engaging conversations. When we invite friends and family for a night out, however, most of us try to keep our complaints in check. We know some complaints bring an evening to a crashing halt. Some of us don’t even complain when we probably should, because we want to avoid bringing attention to ourselves. Is this submissive? Are you brash?

“I don’t care. I’m paying for these goods and services,” complainants say to justify their complaints, “and the least they should do is try to provide me what I’m paying my hard-earned dollars for, and some of the times they don’t.” They also say such things about air travel, “You’re flying in their aircraft, and the airline should do everything they do to make you feel secure.” It’s all true of course, and it’s actually a good rationale to expect as much from our fellow man as we expect from ourselves, especially when we’re paying them, but as Malcolm Gladwell once wrote, there is a tipping point.

The tipping point arrives when everyone around knows the complainer is going to complain. The meal could pass every stringent code restaurants have for quality food, and they would find something. We could try to dig into their past to figure out what drives them to do this, but it all boils down to one intcontrovertible fact, some people just love to complain. Most of us go along to get along, and others argue debate, argue, and fight because it provides grist for their mill. They might not consider themselves complainers, and they might even say they hate people who complain all the time, but if the people intimate enough to know them know that the minute they sit down for a meal that a complaint cloud will darken their table one minute after that server puts food before them, it might be time for them reevaluate their perception. When it happens once or twice, it’s annoying. When it happens so often that the people at your table dread this moment, it becomes obvious that your greater complaint is not with the goods and services others provide, but with the way your life panned out. 

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