A Complainer’s Lament


When it comes to complaints, I’m better at the big picture. Inequities have a direct line to my indignation engine, so to speak. But for the smaller stuff – bad meals, long waits, disappointing goods or services – my strategy is different. I’m more likely to quietly get a refund and never return than I am to complain in person or online. Of course, I’ll ask for what I need, but I don’t generally make a formal complaint.

Recently, I made an exception. I had a bad experience at a café I love. I quietly asked for a refund and left. When I got home, I decided to write an email to the owners, because the service I’d received was entirely different from the reception I’d had there every other time I’ve been. I also realized I’d miss going there and wanted to see what their response to my email would be.

Happily, I received a wonderful reply from the owner, who offered an apology (which I accepted) and a gift certificate (which I turned down). I realized that I’d been quite apprehensive about the response and I started thinking about my relationship to complaints.

I realized there are two parts to my feelings about complaining: one, an old-fashioned, middle-class idea that complaining is vulgar (and yes, I’m embarrassed by all the implications of that feeling); the other, that I can’t know the whole story of where an interaction went wrong. I think the second part is the one worth investigating.

A few years ago, I went to a panel discussion called The Art of Food Writing, as part of the North Shore Writers Festival. The panelists were asked whether they wrote bad reviews and the response that struck me the most was from veteran food writer, Stephanie Yuen. She said that she used to trash restaurants, but eventually changed her tone, because she didn’t want to damage anyone’s career. She stopped writing about what she doesn’t like altogether, saying, “It’s only my taste, after all.”

It’s something I’ve been doing without really reflecting on it, whenever I choose to do reviews on my blog. I celebrate restaurants, events, and even products that I love, while remaining silent on those that I dislike. Since I don’t work for The New York Times, I think that’s an ethical strategy. Who am I to affect someone’s livelihood in that way? It’s only my taste, after all.

But clearly there is a place for complaints and we all have to draw our own lines. For me, an email from my personal (not blog) account to a business that matters to me is worth the effort. For others, a focus on consumer advocacy or restaurant excellence might mean that negative reviews are part of what they do.

I am curious to see where others draw the line. I’d love it if you’d share your own relationship to complaints and bad reviews in the comments.


18 thoughts on “A Complainer’s Lament

  1. HI Teresa, If there is a problem my husband and I almost never ever say anything, even if they ask. We rarely go back, ever. I know that is not the best way to handle a situation but that is that.

    1. It’s good to know I’m not alone. I do think that the best way to handle a situation is to do it in the way you feel most comfortable, though.

  2. For sure the struggle is real. I’m a pretty non confrontational person so even when I’m out to a restaurant and things aren’t going well, I’m hesitant to say something. I will remain silent on the blog too. Now, if I am hosted at a restaurant specifically for my opinion, I am happy to give it. I try to remain thoughtful and keep it to small comments (in person) that could make a large difference. I am always aware that what I say online could damage a business.
    One exception: we once went to a new restaurant opened by a well known local chef. Our meal arrived after 45 minutes (it was just pasta), my order was wrong, and my hubby forgot that his was supposed to have pork jowl in it as the bits of meat were almost invisible. There were countless ‘unforgiveables’ about the food and when asked how our meal was, hubby was the one to let loose. I’ve never seen him so angry about a meal as it’s not like him at all. We haven’t been back for a meal since. I like the cocktails, so I’ve made him meet me there for cocktails…I usually have to trick him to get him there… lol.

    1. I like your approach. In person comments that can make a difference would be appreciated, especially if your opinion was sought out. I think what happened for your husband can happen for any of us – there is a point at which you must say something in a situation like that. I love that you have to trick him to get him to go there for cocktails, now!

  3. I am typically a “vote with my feet” kind of person. But if it was a place I loved, or a person’s place I loved, I agree with your solution absolutely. A kind word about a “less-than” experience.

    That said, I don’t write bad reviews about people or places. People are usually smart enough to to figure out what you don’t say. And besides, it’s better to concentrate on making what is good, better. In all things (I will never be a great basketball player, no matter the criticism! 😊). I have probably deviated in my blog, I’m afraid.

  4. The other day someone asked me why I don’t write negative of reviews of cookbooks (I review a lot of cookbooks) on my site, even if I really didn’t like it. And my reason is that I like to keep my site honest but also very positive. I want people to enjoy what they read and since I am a cookbook author myself I know that it can be hurtful to read that someone just plain out didn’t like my book. My site is also geared towards people with anaphylaxis or other dietary restrictions so I try to get them excited about food and feeling optimistic, not add more negativity to their relationship with food. Instead I like to give my constructive criticism, or write about how I overcame the things I didn’t like. Maybe I added or substituted some ingredients to tailor the recipe to my tastes, for example. I’d rather write about that than say, “I found this recipe bland”. I agree that omission is sometimes the best option. This was a great read and thanks for sharing. 🙂

  5. I’m with you, I tend not to write about things I didn’t like (services, products and restaurants) but when I am trying a recipe, I will be straight out honest and say if I didn’t like it or if it didn’t work the way I expected. I think there’s a way to do that which is not hurtful or comes across as spiteful or nasty (I hope I’m just coming across as honest, but I always stress that these things are my opinion you know?). In terms of complaining about services, I had “a summer” with Air Canada (all sorts of problems) and until the very end of the summer I kept my communication with them private (on Twitter) but finally I had just had enough (when there was no customer service available by phone until 7am EST – well into the afternoon where I was) and communicated with them publicly because they were responding quicker. I don’t like doing that as a first option though and I always try to give a business the chance to respond to a concern or complaint in person or via email etc… I will say that I do make sure to compliment a business on social media if they have helped me or responded quickly – yesterday I was asking questions about the TTC’s new transit card and the answers I was getting on the phone were ridiculous but the person on the Twitter account was courteous and helpful so I made sure to thank. Even Air Canada has had a number of public compliments from me recently (though they lost my bags, their staff at Paris airport were super efficient, for example…). I feel like in this age of anonymous instant communication we sometimes forget to thank as well as complain, you know?

  6. I think you did the right thing, Teresa. Since you had been to this restaurant many times and knew that this experience was not the norm, I think that it’s fair and helpful to let the owners know what happened. It’s interesting to read how others handle the negativity. I also don’t write about a place if I don’t like it. I want my blog to be a positive, happy place.

  7. If it is a restaurant that I visit often and is not normal for the bad food or service, I would let them know. But if it’s one that I have never been and my overall experience is negative, I probably just don’t go back. I work as a retail pharmacist, and people are not shy to make their compliants. They get upset when they have to wait for their prescriptions…(but we do have to check carefully to make sure everything is right before we dispense!) Funny thing is, people that told us they would never come back, would keep coming back ! Lol…..

  8. Teresa, I agree with your approach. We have a vacation rental and are supposed to review each guest, and if I can’t give a good review, I don’t review at all. That’s only happened a couple of times. On the other hand, if we had a truly horrible guest, I think I would need to post a bad review, in order to warn other hosts. So I think your email to the owner was doing him a favour.

  9. So interesting to read, Teresa! I do the same as you, praise the ones that I love and stay quiet with the ones I disliked. We usually have breakfast out every saturday, and sometimes we try a new cafè. We post it on IG with pic and review. Two Saturdays ago I had a bad breakfast: scones raw in the middle and bad coffee. We won’t be back there but we also decided to keep the bad experience for ourselves. Like the idea of writing an email, though!

  10. I loved reading this, and there are some wonderful incites here. I’m particularly happy to be reminded of the ‘work with what you love’ mentality. I think many of us (myself included) fall into the kind of complainer category you’re describing, and it’s got it’s real pluses and minuses. But I try, really really try, to say something when I feel like it can actually make a difference. It’s a tough call really, and constructive criticism as a concept is difficult to get a grasp on in certain settings (will my comments at a restaurant matter, or will they be ignored outright?). And while I still don’t LIKE to complain, I am reminded of my senior poetry composition class, way back from when I was in my 1st Uni degree. The small, tight-nit class had more-or-less worked very hard over the previous two years, and we’d all developed decent criticism skills, but our professor that year wasn’t afraid to call it like it was. It was a bit of a wakeup when you realized that, yes, criticism could really be empowering. Of course, all of that applies to CONSTRUCTIVE criticism, and not straight-up complaining, but I’m sure the two overlap on at least some occasions.

    As for myself, I find that I now try quite hard to discuss the things I love, but I always try to figure out if there’s a way that my discussion or analysis can shed light on the darker spots. Perhaps it’s not always appreciated, and I know it’s not always easy to hear (or to do), but I believe that it can be a very positive tool. And if my comments fall on deaf ears, then my comments (good and bad) stop coming altogether.

  11. Well now I am in a bit of a pickle after reading this. Just recently I left my first ever bad review on Yelp for a local business (2 stars) because I didn’t think I was dealt with with much courtesy and they wasted a lot of my time. My intent is/was to delete it if/when I get an apology. I just want their owner to know that their lack of courtesy came at a cost to me. My intent was not to affect anyone’s ability to earn a living but rather to spare others the loss of valuable time. Oh, I should add that I only ended up on Yelp because nobody at the business would take my calls…which was part of the problem to begin with.

    As for the blogging world… I would not use my blog ever to post a negative experience. Just not my thing. I stopped doing cookbook reviews after one publisher got quite irritated with me for one SLIGHT criticism of a book I otherwise went nuts for. I thought it made my review all the more genuine and revealed it to be much more than the usual ‘blogger gush’ frequently associated with a blogger who gets something for free. She thought otherwise.

    Food for thought. Great post!

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