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 talk to the complainant for five minutes. “There’s something wrong,” she said to introduce the complaint cloud to us, and she added the international refrain of the complainer, “I don’t want to complain, but …” We’re so accustomed to some complainers complaining that we don’t even stop eating while they’re doing it. In lieu of that insult, they say it again. She won’t eat. She can’t eat. She found something wrong with her food. The rest of the table gives her the attention she requires, but 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 an onion ring. She doesn’t want to lord her industry knowledge over the restaurant, the server, or us, 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 possibility, because she knows her complaint time in the cloud will be brief, and she enjoys the respect she attains 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 they’re 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 some real attention. When she’s done with her exaggerations, we fear touching it the way we do dry ice, knowing that it’s so cold it burns.

To bolster her characterization, and the resultant sympathy that follows, she should also add that her slightly above onion rings are, “Gross.” Would it be a gross exaggeration to say that they’re gross, yes, but that doesn’t stop everyone else from doing it. Why does everyone do it, because few challenge a gross assessment. Gross is a relative term that should never face challenge, because it’s uniquely personal, and anyone who dares challenge the assessment should prepare for blow back.

All she has to say is her onion rings are gross and her table will crinkle up their noses and sympathize with her plight. 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 the use of the word, in my social circles, I might give it back some of its power. I did the same with the overuse of words such as like and the ’ly words, such as literally and actually, but my battle to limit the use of the word gross was pointless and pitiful. The word is gone, I realized, it just is. Overuse has diluted its meaning, but people still think it has the power it once did. 

When someone at the table tires of her carefully orchestrated drama and just calls the server over, it’s anti-climactic when the chef quickly arrives with a hot plate of onion rings that he informs us will 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 your onion rings?” one of the uninformed asks her.

“Eh, they’re all right.” The truth is that those onion rings are not right, because 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? 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 inferior plate of onion rings by saying (drum roll please), “I will eat them.” She was kind enough and virtuous enough to suffer through her “all right” 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 our friends and family members, our 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 can be fun, and it can provide 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 in this way. 

“But you’re paying them for these goods and services,” complainants say to justify their complaints, “and the least they should do is try to provide you what you’re paying your 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 you knows that you’re going to complain. You might not think you’re a complainer, and you might even say that you hate complainers, but when everyone who knows you knows that a complaint cloud will darken their table the moment that server puts food before you it might be time to reevaluate your philosophy on moments like these. If 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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