The Complaint Cloud


“There’s a continental divide between what happens on a daily basis and what could happen?” we say to try to ease the fears of a fellow passenger who fears flying.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me that a machine this large, with this many people on it, can lift up off the ground and fly 36,000 feet in the air, at an average of 500 miles per hour, for four to five hours,” the passenger who is in obvious discomfort says.

“Oh I know it,” we say with an expectant chuckle. We think the passenger is trying to ease his fears by doing a bit, and we are the bit players.

“I trust the earth, gravity, and the ground,” they say. “I trust concrete.”

“Okay,” we say, “but the designs in many sidewalks and streets make them more susceptible to cracks than you’ll find in the designs of commercial aircraft.”

Our role, as bit players, is to encourage them in any way. We think we’re only adding to their bit, but our expectant smile drops in direct proportion to them progressively proving how serious they are. They don’t trust air travel. They don’t trust that industry professionals know what they’re doing, and some travelers don’t believe in the human ingenuity that has made air travel relatively safe, and they never will, because it is so far beyond their grasp.

“I view it as public versus private,” we say. “The public institutions that create our sidewalks and streets are much less concerned if we trip over a crack on their sidewalk than a private institution. The state, in general, doesn’t much care what we think about their reputation, but private corporations are in business to care.”  

It doesn’t matter to some that the technology necessary for airplanes to achieve and sustain flight is now over one hundreds of years old, they don’t trust it. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of aerospace engineers have checked the technology and corrected the various design flaws since the Wright Brothers fist took flight. It doesn’t matter that one of the top reasons for flight delays is that the pilot and/or the ground crew discover a hint of what could be a mechanical issue that warrants a check, an investigation, and an official release from a qualified professional in the ground crew. It doesn’t matter how many routine checks pilots and/or ground crew do on a daily basis, for decades, most people fear these industry professionals don’t know what they’re doing, and most people fear what they can’t understand.

“If they knew what they were doing why is there ever a crash?”

“Things happen,” we say. There’s a difference between what happens and what could happen. Some of the times, things happen, and there’s nothing anyone can do to prevent somethings from ever happening.”

A NASA site informs us that there are four forces that “Keep an airplane in the sky. They are lift, weight, thrust and drag.” Some of us can read the science of flight on a site like that one and still feel uncomfortable, because we know things happen. To maintain this uncomfortable stance, we also think the companies who own commercial aircraft are willing to chance-it that the plane we’re on will make it to its destination without incident.

Even though the science is now relatively sound on flying, we’re still taking a chance. Yet, we’re taking a chance, when we step off a curb to enter into a crosswalk, we’re taking a chance that there is no car coming. We can minimize the chance of something happening by looking both ways, but we’re still taking a chance that we’re correct. Things happen. Similarly, an airline is taking a chance that one of their planes will crash every time one takes flight, but they put each machine through vigorous checks and tests, on a daily basis, to minimize that chance.

I thought about all this on my very first flight, and I knew that there was still a possibility that something could go wrong. Maybe I’m too trusting, but I felt secure that if something could go wrong, the company flying me knows that their reputation would take a drastic hit.

Those who will never trust human ingenuity often know what happens, but they’re more concerned with what could happen. The fuzzy line between the two can often be heard in a complaint cloud. While in the complaint cloud, the complainer details for us the chronology of something that happened months, years, and decades ago to suckers who trust the system too much. While detailing for us their findings, they shapeshift into the most prominent being in the complaint cloud, the informed. The informed will often litter their presentation with characteristics of the concerned to endear them to their audience. Their performance in the cloud, as an informed, concerned citizen, is important to them, and they will combat any attempts to correct their informed concerns in a uniquely personal manner.

The primary function of their brain, like ours, is to protect them from harm, but theirs see bodily harm and premature, unnecessary death in every arena. When someone suffers a bout of food poisoning as a result of something happening in a relatively careless restaurant, they’re quick with the I-told-you-so’s, but nobody likes an I-told-you-so, and they know it, so they often say they don’t want to enter into the complaint cloud as often as they do.

***

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, in her cloud, 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’s such an easy fix that 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. 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 while in the industry. She smiles a strained smile to reveal for us her internal struggle, 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 standard. 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 was pointless and pitiful. Gross 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 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. We complain about our friends and family members, our politics, religion, and our place of employment. Complaining about stuff is just what we do when we gather in groups, but we shroud most of our complaints in humor. There’s also a hint of irony in this article in that it’s a complaint about complainers who complain too much, but in the right context, there’s nothing wrong with complaining. 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 out complaints in check. We see such complaints as bringing 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 their goods and services,” complainants say to justify their complaints, “And the least they should do is try to provide everything that you’re paying your hard-earned dollars for, and I don’t think they even tried in this case.” 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 the server puts your food before you it’s time to reevaluate. If it happens once or twice, it’s annoying, but 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. 

Portion Control


“Excuse me,” a customer calls out to a server. “I ordered a roast beef sandwich, and I believe my slices are insufficient.” Has this ever happened? Has a customer ever called a server back, with bread pealed back, to inform a restaurant employee that they need more slices? I know it has. I know if I interviewed a number of servers on this topic, they would tell me to sit down before they began their tales, but I’ve never witnessed it firsthand. The more common complaint occurs in whispers long after the server walks away, as most of us avoid confrontation and situations that could draw attention to us. Most of us quietly cede portion control to the restaurants we choose for our dining experiences.

“MORE? You want more?” a Dickensian character might say in a manner that drops a proverbial spotlight on us. When we go to an established franchise we’ve learned to accept their nationally accepted portion control, but do we accept the same norms from an upstart mom and pop’s deli at the end of the block? Anyone who has worked at a restaurant has heard a wide array of complaints from customers, but how many hear that the portion of meat on a sandwich is too small, or that there aren’t enough fries? Would we deem that so bold as to be obnoxious? It might seem like such a violation of sorts of our conditioning that we might view the complainant as gluttonous?

Franchise websites suggest that portion control is vital to establish a level of consistency in a national chain, and they discuss the health benefits of lesser portions for the consumer and the profit potential for franchise owners. “Customers don’t complain about more portions,” they write, “but they will certainly complain about less.” I realize that writers of such columns have franchise owners in mind when they write such things, but I’ve never heard customers openly complain about less.

How many ounces of roast beef should we expect when we purchase a roast beef sandwich? Is there a generally accepted or preferred amount? How much does it vary with each restaurant? We could look this amount up, but the actual number is relatively unimportant when compared to our expectations. It’s a ‘we know it when we see it’ amount that varies, and if the restauranteur violates that principle most of us simply go to a restaurant that meats (sic) that expectation.

If the restaurateur notices our absence and finds a way to ask us why we left, they might say, “Well, why didn’t you say anything? We could’ve provided you a couple more ounces of roast beef to make you happy.” The problem for most restaurateurs is that most of us are members of the silent majority who don’t complain. We don’t fill out suggestion cards or comment cards, then we tell the cashier that everything was fine when they ask how our meal was, and we never go back. We also whisper things to our friends that close restaurants down.

If it benefits all parties concerned to speak up, why don’t we? As with just about every adult predilection, it goes back to high school. We see the hungry patrons in line behind us at the deli, and we remember the groans, fidgeting, and ridicule we heard when we asked one too many questions in our Algebra II Trig class. Even if we still didn’t understand the teacher’s explanations, we learned to shut up and stop asking so many questions. Our peers’ audible fatigue conditioned us to stop asking questions, don’t appear difficult in any way, and avoid complaining. Thus, when we feel the hungry patrons behind us, who just want us to move along so they can get their sandwich, we do. Even though we’re not satisfied, we shut up and move along to avoid causing a scene, and some of us do this so often that we start ceding portion control to the restaurant.  

How many customers prevent a waiter from leaving their table with the complaint, “I only have four broccoli florets on my plate, I’m accustomed to having five?” How many people would say, “I’m accustomed to a half a cup of mashed potatoes. Does that look like a half cup to you?” The more likely complaint would be, “I ordered the eight ounce steak, but this looks like six ounces to me.” I’m sure there are some who complain about this portion control restaurants have on us, but I have to guess that that percentage of the population is so small that it’s hardly representative. The rest of us know that they’re in charge, and we’ve learned to accept this facet of life. 

Most complaints lead to a manager visiting our table, and that manager brings a proverbial spotlight with him. When that manager kneels before our table that we’re being difficult, and we experience the same anxiety we did in Algebra II Trig. “It’s not a big deal,” we say to attempt to soften the blow, “I just thought I should get a couple more slices of beef for my roast beef sandwich.” I’ve witnessed some go bold in the face of a one-on-one with a restaurant manager, but most people shrink from the magnitude. We don’t want to appear difficult. The manager might consult a franchise advisor, as I’m guessing that a person complaining about portions happens so infrequently that they don’t have a standard operating procedure, but my guess is that the manager does whatever he has to do, under the “customer is always right” imprimatur to make us go away.

The inclination most restaurants might have to avoid such stated and unstated complaints is to go “bigee” on the portions. I witnessed this as a deli employee at an upstart, now defunct bagel shop franchise. The national chain decided to allow an owner to open a franchise in our area, and they apparently believed that their key to success was bigger portions. They never said that they wanted to compete with the portions Arby’s provided, but that was my takeaway. They provided over-abundant roast beef portions on a bagel sandwich. I was a dumb kid who didn’t know anything about market testing, or any of the particulars franchises uses to establish themselves in a given area, but when I took my first bite of their roast beef sandwich, all of my fixins fell out the other side. The sandwich was excellent. The roast beef was so tender, and I thought all of the other fixins were fresh and tasty, but their portions were so large, on a comparatively weak bagel, that everything fell out the other side. I told the owner of this particular franchise that I thought it gave the sandwich a sloppy presentation.

The manager lifted an eyebrow on me, but he said nothing further. I thought he totally dismissed my observation, until the franchise advisor walked in the bagel shop, days later, to see how things were going. My manager encouraged me to ask my question. I repeated my question, and I added, “We’re a bagel shop. My motto would be if you want more meat go to Arby’s.” I said that the bagel shop didn’t have to say such things openly, but that it should be our M.O., and I said that I thought bagel shop patrons would understand that, even expect it, before they set foot in our restaurant.

We all enjoy eating out at restaurants, but how much of our enjoyment of the food centers around presentation? How many of us would be turned off by a sloppy sandwich at an otherwise clean bagel shop? I told the franchise adviser that I thought portion control, and the art of presentation were everything. I said that a patron of Arby’s might find a sandwich overflowing with meat more attractive, whereas a bagel shop patron is more likely to prefer a clean presentation that appears more structured, regardless of the portions. To me, it was all about demographics. 

I’m sure that their insider information told the owners of the franchise that if they wanted to open a location in the Midwest market, they had to increase their portions, but my gut instinct told me that if you’re going to increase portions, make a larger, stronger bagel. The bagel they sold did not adhere to the illusory notion of portion control, and when the bagel shop went out of business in our area, I felt vindicated.