Saturday, September 05, 2009


Most of us come equipped with a pretty active complaint system. If we see, hear, try or otherwise experience something we don’t like, we complain about it almost reflexively. It’s as if humans are hard-wired to bitch.

Why is that? Why are we compelled to share every little inconvenience, disappointment, and episode of misery and misfortune? What's the purpose of reliving these moments out loud, oftentimes over and over again?

One reason may be that complaining serves an emotional purpose. Complaining vindicates us in some small, yet meaningful way. Negative word of mouth is our way of exacting revenge on someone or something when we feel we’ve been wronged. It’s how we stick up for ourselves when we’ve been screwed by “the man.”

Even if we can’t get our money, our time, or our dignity back, we can always fight back with harsh words in the hope those words will one day come to haunt or harm the party responsible for our discontent - and that can be pretty much anything these days.

The weather. The waitress. Rising taxes. Traffic. Our shitty job. No shitty job. The religious right. The liberal left. The neighbors. Obama. Rush. The cops. The media. Lawyers. Long lines. High prices. The privileged. Panhandlers. Aggressive drivers. Sunday drivers. Communists. The post office. Smokers. Technology. This damn head cold. Guns. Oil barons. Rap music. The Illuminati.

No, you can't always get what you want – but you can always complain! Talk is cheap, as they say.

Today, more than ever before, people actually LISTEN to complaints. We actively SEEK out consumer reviews on websites like Yelp because they help us make informed decisions. Leveraging the experiences of others helps us make better decisions for ourselves. Thanks to technology, in an instant we can tap into an online database of collective experiences and download mob wisdom.

Go here. Do this. Avoid that. Try this. Do NOT go there!

People freely contribute to these sites because while companies can afford to ignore us as individuals, they have learned to respect the power of communities. One squeaky wheel gets a little grease. Thousands of squeaky wheels gets a whole new machine. Big changes require speaking with a single voice. Case in point: President Obama. (Oh, yes we did.)

All of this, believe it or not, is prelude to a point...which I will get to. Eventually.

We all know the feeling of getting taken, or getting a great deal. We can relate to both because we’ve experienced both. When we spend our valuable wages and precious time somewhere, we expect certain things in return.

I expect my order to be correct in the drive-thru. Most of the time it is.

I expect the doctor to keep his appointment time, or at the very least call me to let me know he is running an HOUR late so I can use that time to do other things. (This never happens, by the way - why is the doctor's time more valuable than mine?)

I expect the guy at Jiffy Lube to be honest with me when he says I need a new air filter. Really? You just charged me $40 to change my oil and you're going to upsell me an air filter?

I expect the waiter/waitress to tell me if gratuity has already been added to the check. Not a small detail, or an easy one to spot at the end of a long tab...especially if you've been drinking.

I expect the store to match the low price I just found if you have a price-match guarantee. How can you advertise a guarantee if you can't guarantee it?

I expect the company to take me off of their calling list if I ask them to take me off of their calling list. Seriously, I am going to find out who you are, drive to where you are sitting, and take my name off your list the old fashioned way.

There sure are a lot of opportunities to complain, aren’t there? But after a while, don’t you get kind of tired of complaining? I do. And I get tired of listening to them.

Complaints, by their very nature, are negative. They’re hostile in spirit. They come from a sad, hurt, and often angry place. They don’t promote the emotional states we think of as pleasurable or otherwise positive, even if they seem to satisfy us on another level.

Complaining, and listening to people complain, are two surefire ways to depress your mood. Think of the people we enjoy being around. Fun-loving, positive, optimistic people with a lot of enthusiasm. They take bad news in stride. When shit happens they step over it.

And then there are the people who can't seem to avoid shit no matter where they step. They're surrounded by it. Drowning in it. Choking on it. Their entire existence is a world of shit and all they can do to make themselves feel better is tell you how shitty things are. Don't you LOVE these people?

Me neither. I recently thought about how much more I prefer hearing recommendations from people than complaints. Positive stories. Good ideas. Things I should try some day. Great experiences. Encouraging news.

So I decided to think positive - for a little while, anyhow.

Instead of investing my time listing all the products and experiences and companies and services to AVOID, I'm going to promote a few that exceeded my expectations.

For some reason I think it’s just easier for people to complain than to give praise. It seems more satisfying, somehow. Or less of a risk. Don't you LOVE when you recommend something you like and the person next to you rips into your recommendation with a story about how awful their experience was? Yeah, thanks for that. Sorry it RAINED the whole time you were in Maui. God obviously hates you. I had the time of my life.

I will confess that I do take a lot of pleasure in crafting written complaints. It's an opportunity for me to be creative. I imagine Roger Ebert takes some pleasure in completely trashing a movie – his negative reviews are always loaded with quality one-liners and painfully riotous insults. Yes, complaining can be fun…

Still, what’s the GOOD word?

In the short term, I'm going to try something a little different and share some POSITIVE experiences here. Recommendations. Product alternatives. New things to try. Experiences that made me smile and think, "This is something other people would enjoy, too."

So stay tuned, because in my next few posts I will be describing a handful of personal recommendations. You may not agree with them all, but they are my recommendations based on my experiences with companies that lived up to their end of the bargain…again, in my humble opinion.

In the mean time, if there’s a company, service, or product you would like to recommend here, please share. I'd love to hear the good word!

The Complaint Department, for the mean (spirited) time, is now closed.