Share Letter:

Resolution vs. Frustration: The Art and Absurdity of Complaining

October 10, 2023 | Letters
Author: Nicole Olynk Widmar, Interim Department Head and Professor, Purdue University Department of Agricultural Economics

We cringe at the prospect of someone complaining – especially when we’re on the receiving end. Complaints are unpleasant. It’s right there in the definition. According to a complaint is a statement that a situation is unsatisfactory or unacceptable. Put this into play in a business setting and what comes to mind … I plan to make an official complaint.

But why? Why are you complaining?

It’s plausible that you are genuinely looking for a resolution. In such case, you want to evoke change or seek a remedy. If you receive a sandwich with mayo despite explicitly asking for one without (because the mere presence of mayo in your vicinity is offensive), couldn’t you simply ask the person for the correct sandwich? You could complain, whine and yell at someone about your mayo issues. Or, if your true desire is a mayo-less sandwich, you could straightforwardly ask for one and skip scolding the person who incorrectly served it to you. This is one way to address the issue, correct the error or find a remedy.

On the flip side, maybe you want something that’s beyond reach. Maybe your flight out of Miami is canceled due to an impending tropical storm. Your reasons to get home, of course, are far heavier and more crucial than the thousands of other potential hurricane survivors. The reality – courtesy of meteorologists and the gate agent standing in front of you – is that airplane won’t be leaving, and neither will you. We’ve all witnessed, or perhaps even been there ourselves a time or two, this type of airport-induced hissy fit. Despite the fact it’s not the gate agent’s fault, they graciously bear the brunt of said hissy fit.

What’s the objective here? Why direct complaints toward the gate agent who, inevitably, lacks control over the destiny of this aircraft?

Does your public display of frustration make the plane fly? Will it change the meteorologists mind? Venting might make you feel better, but it sure won’t make that hurricane change its course. Sure, you might earn a hotline to someone higher up or in customer service. But seriously, is that your endgame? Last I checked you wanted to get the heck out of Miami.

Perhaps you’re on the quest for restitution. Miles, a free hotel room or even a heartfelt apology is on your wish list. Indeed, you might be entitled to such perks, provided you haven’t turned your complaint into a cringe-worthy YouTube scene. But let’ be real – complaining isn’t the only path here. It’s not the smoothest journey for the complainer nor the target of those complaints. You could ask for the perks or express your discontent, but let’s not pretend your hurricane-induced theatrics aren’t just a thinly veiled tantrum about the inevitable outcome. We get it; you’re not thrilled. Spoiler alert: Neither are we.

Why are you complaining – to improve the situation? Chances are you might be making things worse. What do you want out of this complaining?

We’ve all encountered situations like this as professionals when there is nothing left to do. We don’t control the weather. We can’t reverse our mistakes, or maybe we screwed up and don’t know how or why. At any rate, we’re aware it’s not a good situation. Was it that colleague complaining that made you want to fix it? Often, the answer is no.

As frustrated as you might be, your words – what you say and how you say it – does matter.  Before you decide to take flight on a complaining spree, ask yourself: where do I hope to land? What do I really hope to get out of this situation? If it’s something specific, articulate it. If you just want to wallow in frustration, go ahead. However, if you want to be angry and take it out on others, knock it off. It’s unproductive and embarrassing.