The high art of complaining

Singaporeans complain a lot, but don’t seem to be that good at it

We Singaporeans complain so often, in fact, that you would think we would be good at it. In our case, practice does not make perfect.
We Singaporeans complain so often, in fact, that you would think we would be good at it. In our case, practice does not make perfect.ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

I have been complaining most of my adult life, and probably most of my childhood too, if you take my birth cries as the starting point (as my parents do). 

We Singaporeans complain so often, in fact, that you would think we would be good at it. In our case, practice does not make perfect.

The Forum page of The Straits Times is a hymn book filled with songs of woe. We cry out unto the ministry of this or that, or the bodies that govern wellness spas, yoga centres and insurance agents. There is a general gnashing of teeth and the beating of breasts. Oh give us our refunds, our pound of flesh, our reasonably priced massages! 

The letters are heartfelt, their intentions pure. But the results, if any, are paltry, judging from the quality and quantity of the responses. Clearly, if the response-to-complaint ratio is any measure, the verdict must be that we, as a people, are as good at complaining as we are at the luge.

Thus, our mobile service providers leave us writhing with rage, trapped in helpline phone hell, and the taxi companies tie us up in knots with their boiler-plate e-mail promising to “look into the matter” or “monitor the situation”.

Then there are the rank amateur complainers. You know the kind – the ones who get too huffy too soon (“I will take my business elsewhere”) and make noble appeals to higher causes (“Will company X think of the children?”). These ploys never work. You might as well have put an “ignore this” in the subject line of your e-mail.

But I have known a few people in my life who have reached the pinnacle in the art of complaining. If I may, I would like to share with readers what I have learnt from them. 

People who work in sales, I have discovered, tend to be the best at complaining. First lesson: Sales is the art of making things look better than they really are; complaining is about making things look much, much worse. Scratch a good salesman, and you will find someone who could moan the back legs off a horse. 

A saleswoman I used to know, let’s call her Val – Val, for some reason, is a hugely popular name for saleswomen, topped only by Jess – was so good at getting redress for injury, real or imagined, that I called her alter-ego Scary Val. 

We had lunch at a restaurant once. She had the buffet and I ordered a la carte. When the bill came, both she and I had been charged for the buffet, because she had given me a slice of cake from her plate. Rules are rules, and I had been nabbed eating from the forbidden dessert cart. I had committed the crime and was ready to do time, I felt.

Val’s superhuman power is acting, or rather, overacting. You could hear a pin drop as she looked at the bill, took a deep breath and summoned Scary Val from within her. Her hurt was palpable in her eyes; her voice trembled with feeling as she made her case to the restaurant manager. Scary Val’s complaining flowed with such relentless virtuosity that she not only got me off the hook, she also received a discount on the meal.

Unlike her, I don’t know how to put my emotions to work for me. Under stress, like a gearbox deprived of lubricant, I seize up and my first instinct is to flee before my strangled spluttering is met with howls of derisive laughter. It is only later that I find the words to match my fury. That is when my keyboard is aflame with a hotly worded e-mail to “Whom it may concern about the shocking lack of courtesy displayed by...” – you get the picture.

The e-mail messages are usually never sent, which brings me to the second lesson. Once a person talks about the problem, or writes about it, catharsis follows, the sting is lessened. The same goes for lunchtime whinging. Everyone likes a good moan, but we tend to do it to get it off our collective chests so we can go on denying that there has been a problem that we are too lazy or cowardly to solve.

I recently became acquainted with a woman who blogs anonymously under the moniker Kitchen Tigress. She felt she had been promised a birthday cake by her bank, OCBC, because one of their commercials had seemed to imply it, and by golly, she would have that cake. The standard blogger practice would be to moan about it in a vague, non-defamatory way, garner sympathy, then let it go. But instead, she complained to the manager, got her piece of confectionery, then wrote about it. 

See the sequence? Take action, get your just desserts – even if it is a Hello Kitty cake – then discuss it in public. Do not blow your load of steam. You will need it to push the train of action out of the station.

Third lesson: Do not be afraid to make a scene. There is a reason why general managers, once you approach them with your story about being ripped off, try to usher you to a quiet corner with a “could you please step over here, we can discuss this?” Do not fall for this. 

Scary Val stood in the middle of the packed dining room and spoke loud and clear, her voice carrying above the polite tinkle of the silverware. When customer service representatives usher you into their cubicles, they are taking you into their battlefield. Sun Tzu’s words should ring in one’s ears: “Do not fight at the place of your enemy’s choosing.” (Or perhaps it was a line from a Jason Bourne movie, I am not sure).

I love studying good complainers. The best in the world are the Americans. Manufactured outrage squirts from every corner of the political spectrum. It is quite wonderful to watch the Sturm und Drang and that wonderful theatre of rallies, slogans and bumper stickers. They are never just supporting a politician. They are righting wrongs. They are waging an epic battle against evil. 

The last lesson is the most controversial: Complain even when you know you are wrong. Never let your self-righteousness desert you, nor let the sense of entitlement and privilege ever leave your side. Only then will you ever beat back the forces of ineptitude and venality.

A friend of mine, an American, taught me that. He is awesome. When it is his turn to buy the beers, he is shocked that we would dare ask him, after he had secured us a sought-after table or a free round by pretending it was his birthday.

Every day that I am in his presence, I grow as a person. A shouty, overbearing person, but a person nonetheless. 

I could take him to task for turning me into a manipulative swine, but that would be complaining.