The Complaint Cloud


When the complaint cloud approached our table, 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 avoid eating until she could complete her complaint, but we didn’t even pause. In lieu of that insult, she repeated her complaint. She won’t eat. She can’t, because she’s presumably found something wrong with her food. Perceiving the insult, the rest of the table gave her the attention she required, and then we went silent, silently screaming at her to state her complaint, but she won’t, 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 some part of her enjoys hovering over the rest of us with her earned knowledge of the steps required to prepare a satisfying onion ring. She doesn’t want to lord her industry knowledge over the our table, the server, or restaurant, but she keeps changing the subject back to the poorly prepared onion ring. It might take less than two minutes for the server to come over, address her concern, 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 shares a strained smile to reveal her internal struggle, but she now knows too much to just eat a poorly prepared onion ring that she knows isn’t a temperature the industry requires.

She could say her onion rings are room temperature, but she knows that 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 finishes displaying her mastery of provocative adjectives, we fear touching the onion rings the way we do dry ice, because we know the physics behind something being so cold it could burn.

To bolster her characterization, and the resultant sympathy that follows, she  adds that her slightly above room temperature onion rings are, “Gross!” Was it a gross exaggeration to call them gross, yes, but that doesn’t stop everyone else from doing it. They do it because no one challenges the gross assessment. Gross is such a relative term that it’s personal, and any challenge of a personal assessment will be perceived as a personal insult.

The proper reaction to the “Gross!” assessment, as illustrated throughout America, is the sympathetic and empathetic crinkled nosed. The crinkled nose response is so pervasive and ubiquitous that it’s almost reflexive now. We don’t even require the “Gross” assessor to back up their assessment. They say it, and we crinkle our nose at the subject of their scorn without evaluation. Gross can now be used to describe everything from finding live insects in our food to tasting excrement in fresh seafood, but we can also use the term after we find a stray french fry in a serving of pasta, or an onion ring that is somewhat less than perfect. 

I once thought that my prime directive in my life was to try to unseat the word gross from atop its perch in our lexicon. I tried to develop a campaign to limit use of the word in my social circles, to give it back some of its power. I made some strides in my battle against the ’ly words, literally and actually, so I thought I might my experience in this regard might translate to some success challenging the illiberal use of the gross assessment. The battle proved 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 this battle, it just is. Overuse has diluted any power it once held, because it wields such power, (and yes that dichotomy was intended).

When someone at our table tired of her grumblings, as a result of her carefully orchestrated drama, they called our server over. It was anticlimactic when the chef quickly arrived, in a surprisingly timely manner, with a hot plate of onion rings. The chef informed us that the price of the onion rings 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 asked her.

“Eh, they’re all right.” The uncomfortable truth about those onion rings was they were not all right, and they never will be, because no onion ring can ever be all 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 and pleasing as the industry requires. “I prefer a solid crunch when I bite into an onion ring, don’t you? Yeah, no, these are not for me. This is a fine restaurant ad all that, that’s known for their onion rings, but these just don’t meet my professional expectations.” She picked the restaurant, and she selected the side item that she would eat, for which this restaurant was 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 their onion rings”. When they arrive, she takes it personal when they serve her something that is a couple of degrees below the industry standard that she knows only too well.

“Do you have any idea who I am?” is a question she would never ask, because she knows they don’t, and even they did, they wouldn’t care. No one would, and it doesn’t take us long to learn that is the point. If she said, “I work down the street, and I am the manager of that establishment, and …” and they might even roll their eyes in a here-we-go manner.

Her complaint cloud was personal, and she concluded this dramatic portrayal of her virtuosity by saying, “I will eat them,” when the server returned to see if the second plate of onion rings met her expectations. She was kind enough and virtuous enough to suffer through those 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 just what we do. It’s what I do. We complain about complainers. “I don’t want to hang out with him anymore, because all he does is complain,” we complain. I complain all the time. It’s what I do. It’s what I’m doing in this article. I’m complaining about complainers who complain too much. We complain about family, friends, and the very idea that that one feller crosses the street outside the lines allotted for walking across the street at an intersection. We complain about people who walk extra slow through cross walks, 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 those complaints in check. We know the looks, the eye rolls, and the physical discomfort some display when we complain too much about our relatively comfortable lives. We know some of our complaints can bring an evening to a crashing halt.

Some of us don’t complain when we probably should, because we want to avoid bringing attention to ourselves. Is this submissive, perhaps, but how brash are you? We know that they “Don’t want to get you started, because you have so many opinions to challenge the status quo that you’ll shake up and shatter their whole world,” but are your complaints really that substantive, or do you just enjoy lofting yourself up into the complaint cloud for the attention it warrants?

“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 comfortable and 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 who knows you knows that you’re  going to complain, and we know that it doesn’t really matter what you’re complaining about as long as you’re complaining. The meal they set before you could pass every stringent code restaurants have for quality food, and you will find something, because you’re not some stooge who’s just going to eat anything just cuz. 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 debate, argue, and fight because it provides grist to 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 that 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 should be obvious that your greater complaint is not with the goods and services others work so hard to provide, but with the way your life panned out. 

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