A Complainer’s Lament

Coffee

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.