Why People REALLY Complain

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday, 11 October 2011 |

The natural assumption is that people complain because they’re dissatisfied with something and they need it rectified. In some cases this is true. Valid complaints are normally very easy to recognise, because the complainant is directly focused on getting a resolution in as little time, and with as little effort, as possible. For example, the person making the complaint would be likely to pick up the phone, ask for the boss, and demand an immediate resolution.

A genuine complainant would be personally affected by the issue, and have a clearly apparent reason for needing it resolved. They may rant, or they may handle the situation calmly, but they’d always maintain that focus on getting the matter settled without delay. What they wouldn’t do, is write a five-page meandering letter or email skirting round the main problem, documenting several sub-issues entirely irrelevant to them, and generally painting a verbal picture of disgust at pretty much everything the offending business or individual has ever done. It’s the latter, personally irrelevant complaint I want to look at in this piece. I’m asking myself why someone complains about something they have little or no vested interest in having resolved.

DEFINITELY NOT WHY PEOPLE COMPLAIN…

Most people who say they’re complaining about a matter which doesn’t affect them personally, out of concern for other people, are either severely deluded, or lying. People are self-centred, and are just not programmed to spend their time ensuring, for example, that someone they don't know is not offended by a magazine article. When someone who wouldn’t dream of taking an unused coat to the charity shop says he/she has spent an hour making a complaint to help some distant soul he/she has never met, then bluntly, it’s nonsense. It’s often the case that this type of complainant doesn’t personally know the individual about whom he/she is professing to be concerned, and in some cases, doesn’t even know for sure if such an individual exists. Complaints on behalf of theoretical people who “may be caused distress by an issue”, can not be regarded as real complaints. In these instances, the main motive is not to get the issue resolved – it’s something else. What? Well, keep reading, and I’ll give you my take on it…

SERIAL COMPLAINANTS

One thing which elevates these ‘faux complaints’ and exposes them for what they really are, is serial complaining. Some people find fault with virtually everything, often for reasons they can’t explain. They might ‘find it disgusting’, for instance, that a BBC news presenter was not wearing formal clothing. The presenter’s attire doesn’t in any way affect the presentation, and when pressed, the complainants can’t actually elaborate on why they’re so disgusted, other than to say something like: “It’s just not right”. What they’re effectively saying is that it’s not right because it’s not right. They’re complaining, but they don’t really know why they’re doing it.

Some serial complainants make hundreds of complaints over the course of their lives – sometimes repeating the same thing over and over again, sometimes about a multitude of different issues. A clue as to one facet of the motivation behind these serial complaints is that the people making them frequently target the businesses or individuals they perceive will make the most fuss of them. BBC TV’s Newswatch, for example, attracts a wealth of ridiculous, needless and utterly banal complaints – all written with a tell-tale verbose flourish. Why? Because the programme gives complainants a public platform and takes their often laughable nitpicking seriously. The complainants are given a minute or two of fame, and that’s exactly what some of them want. If the BBC ignored those complaints and stopped giving permanently appalled wretches a soap box, the complainants (or the bulk of them, I’d envisage), would find something else to be disgusted with.

I don’t see a single overwhelming motivation for this kind of 'fake disgust' or ‘disgust by proxy’. Rather, I think there are several possible explanations, and the probability is that it’s a combination of factors. The most likely reasons why people make spurious complaints, I believe, are as follows...

5. To get compensation. There is a niche for targeted complaints made expressly with the aim of netting compensation. In fact this is so prominent in the travel business that some holiday brokers have banned certain complainants from using their services in future. Particularly if there’s a precedent for compensation awards with sizeable payouts, there’ll always be those ready to angle for them.

4. Peer pressure. Particularly online, being part of a group means participating in the things the group does. And if one of the group’s leaders or foreheads takes exception to something and decides to complain about it, other members of the group can find themselves dragged into it. They may feel they have to make a choice. Do they take a neutral stance and risk isolation from the group, or do they join in with the griping and voice a kind of sympathetic disgust, currying favour with the group leader(s)? Sadly, the sheep-like behaviour this dynamic can cause is widely visible across the web, and a single person’s crusade, however misguided, can turn into what almost seems like a public outcry. Of course, in truth, it’s nothing of the sort. It’s just a small number of people following someone who sounds authoritative and has a bee in his/her bonnet – because they don’t want to risk being ostracised from what they see as their group of friends. They may believe in the complaint, or they may not, or they may not care one way or the other. But the point is they’re only voicing the complaint in the way a politician would toe the party line for fear of losing his/her job. Online complaints can appear to have much more momentum than is really the case, largely because of the dynamics of peer pressure.

3. Because they're jealous. Jealousy is a massive motivation for complainants to begin breathing heavily down their noses and hammering words of disgust into their computers. Success is a funny thing. It can make half the population putty in your hands, and the other half incredibly angry. In fact the half who are angry are probably partially so because the other half are putty in your hands. Jealousy is particularly apposite to complaints about celebrities, who are perceived to have an easy life and to get vaults of money for doing next to nothing. One of the factors fuelling this in more recent times has been the change in the nature of celebrity to include, and in some environments even favour, those who don’t have any special ‘talent’. In the past, those who’ve been “paid vaults of cash for doing next to nothing” (the top actors, musicians, etc) have at least had to spend their formative years working much, much harder than average to develop and market themselves. But today it’s possible, particularly courtesy of reality TV, to acquire lasting celebrity status without putting in the years of work, and that seems to have bred a whole new wave of vitriol towards those who live their lives in the public eye.

2. To get attention. I thought before I really started to research this in depth, that attention-seeking would be the number one explanation for ‘faux disgust’. Now I don’t believe it is. It’s certainly very high on the list of likely factors though. Years ago when I worked in the contact centre for a large transport operator, I’d have said a high proportion of serial complainants were attention-seekers. Essentially, people who just wanted to be apologised to, to gain sympathy, and to have someone taking notice of them. The complaints could be about matters utterly irrelevant to the person making them, and one caller in particular would list all his gripes down on paper before calling – otherwise he’d never have remembered everything. Almost every one of his complaints was supposedly out of concern for other people, and invariably the matters would be petty in the extreme, concerning things like the positioning of signage or various measurements he’d found to be contravening rules. The difficulty was, of course, that as an agent tasked with taking complaint calls, you had a duty to listen to his ramblings, and give them equal consideration alongside genuine complaints, some of which were serious and required urgent action. People often issue phrases like “Get a life”, or “You’ve got way too much time on your hands” in response to complaints of this nature. But I really do think the driving force here is the need for attention, and not a lack of anything more pressing to do. Attention-seeking is of course also a motivation for complaining which comes to the fore in online forums. Making a range of complaints is an easy way to become a ‘people’s champion’, and on that basis, sometimes, whether or not the complaint really needs to be made is immaterial.

1. To get someone into trouble. Yes, in my humble opinion, the number one reason why people complain by proxy, is so someone will get a sound bollocking. Ideally, the sack. This motivation for complaining is almost like telling tales at school. The complainant assumes the boss doesn’t know that a member of staff has taken a particular approach, or that a task has been carried out in a certain way, and sets out to inform the boss, like a school tell-tale. The complainant's hope is that the boss will be angry with the subject of the complaint, and eternally grateful to the complainant for pointing out the transgression. In reality of course, the boss almost certainly knows how his/her company operates and will not be learning anything new whatsoever from the complaint. The complainant may even see the complaint as some sort of history-changing contribution which points out an endemic problem within the business and allows the boss to ‘set the company back on course’. Some of the people making these spurious complaints appear to believe they know a vast amount about business and are actually giving the boss a nugget of advice which will make him/her a great deal more money. But fundamentally, it’s the thought of some poor skivvy getting into serious trouble which I believe lies at the forefront of this, the number one facet of unnecessary complaining.

In the end, the natural way to treat something you don’t like or approve of, but which doesn’t, or at least needn’t, affect you personally, is to ignore it and forget about it. When people don’t conform to this law of human nature, you know they’ve got other motives. I mean, obviously, if something’s truly dangerous and someone stands to get seriously injured or killed, then yes, there are legitimate grounds for complaint on behalf of someone else. And of course, I don’t want to be read as saying it’s wrong to complain. It’s entirely right if you have a valid grievance. But the histrionic act of complaining for the sake of complaining is something I believe many people spend far too much time doing, and it looks to be getting worse. If serial complainants put as much effort into contributing something of their own to the world as they do into complaining, maybe they’d much more easily get the attention they’re after, dispense with the jealousy, and find they didn’t need those scraps of compensation afterall.

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