There are some people in this world who will put up with goddamn anything. I know this because I'm one of them. The list of indignities I have suffered on account of keeping my mouth shut is too embarrassing to detail here, but for the sake of illustration, let's just say I was once served a salad that contained a piece of a metal fork on which I nearly broke a tooth, and I still didn't send the salad back. (Instead I mumbled something like, "At least it didn't have any spiders in it.")
For years I've watched my friends score upgrades, corner tables, and free drinks just by grousing to maître d's and front-desk attendants. Not me. I stay in the hotel room with a view of the electrical equipment and passively accept the broken airplane seat in front of the bathroom. One time a co-worker even whipped out his penis during a meeting, and I stayed in the room for 20 minutes unsure of the polite way to leave.
Perhaps if I grew up complaining, this would be easier. But I'm from the South, where people still adhere to the life philosophy of "We're all in the shit, might as well hold the door for the next guy." I was raised by a single mom who sewed herself an outfit for a job interview after my father walked out on her. Try to moan about a piece of metal in a salad in a house like that.
It took 31 years for me to finally figure out how to complain properly, and even then I had to be under physical duress to do it. I had snapped the tendon holding my hamstring to my pelvis during a rec-league kickball game. After surgery and two months on crutches, I went to my first physical therapy appointment. There I heard the three worst words you can possibly hear in a doctor's office: "out of network." Though somehow the orthopedist who had diagnosed the injury in the same office was covered by my insurance, the physical therapist was not. Until I hit an absurdly high out-of-network deductible, each appointment would cost about as much as a car payment. And I had been sentenced by my surgeon to two a week.
Needless to say, I paid the bill with a credit card. But then I crutched back to my office feeling weak and stupid. The refrain of the pathologically cooperative echoed in the part of my brain that processes shame: should have said something. Shoulda said somethin. Shouldasaidsomethin. That afternoon, I called the therapist to cancel my remaining appointments. The in-network versus out-of-network status was not clear, I said, and I simply couldn't afford to pay. The woman on the line asked me to hold, and then connected me to a manager in the finance office.
"What if the appointments were just $40 apiece?" he said.
"Just because I said I didn't want to pay $250?" I said.
"Yes." A pause. "Would that be OK?"
"I don't understand what is happening."
To be fair, prices and policies in the health care industry are made of frog eyes and unicorn dust, so a doctor's office was probably an auspicious place to begin my adventures in complaining. (If you take nothing else from this article, please, please always contest gratuitous medical bills.) Still, I felt so empowered by having altered a set of seemingly immutable shitty circumstances that I wanted to do it again. I began to wonder how powerful this newfound ability really was. If, say, I complained about every single annoying thing that happened to me for a month -- what would my life be like?
Way better, it turns out.
Because I'm not a horrible person, I set a few ground rules for this project: I wouldn't lie, I wouldn't be rude, and I wouldn't tell anyone I was a journalist (or a lawyer). I've seen enough YouTube videos shaming people for whining to desperately fear invoking the wrath of the internet. Hell, there's even a "I'd like to speak to your manager" haircut.
In fact, newspapers and magazines delight in categorizing the entire generation of millennials (which technically I am, albeit barely) as a cadre of mopey, entitled infants. When we dare to gripe about not being able to afford a home or crushing student loan debt, we get slapped with a retrospective on participation ribbons and the self-esteem movement. Those who get caught complaining on camera end up carrying the burden of having their actions speak for the moral fortitude of an entire generation. No thanks.
So I started small. I texted my landlord to remind him that he still hadn't fixed my broken front-door buzzer. He said he'd get right on it. (He fixed it two weeks later.) I opened a fake Yelp account to grumble about a restaurant that claims to allow dogs but in practice does not (the restaurant didn’t do anything, but another Yelper found my comment useful). At a dentist appointment, my Eastern European hygienist got reckless with the tooth polish and I raised my hand to inform her that she was getting it all over my face.
"Better close your eyes then," she said.
So far, not so great. But then one morning I got up the balls to call my supermarket about their product selection. I waited until 11am because I thought 10 was too early for complaints. Then I had a mimosa.
"Excuse me," I said, "May I please speak to a manager?"
I detected a note of irritation. "I'm the manager. You can talk to me."
"Oh, um, well I go there a lot, and you guys don't have any chipotle mayo, which seems to be a bit of an oversight because a lot of people really like chipotle mayo."
"So I think you should sell chipotle mayo."
"Oh, sure, I can order chipotle mayo. Any particular brand?"
I was flabbergasted. So I did it again. I emailed GT's Kombucha to complain about the grittiness of the lavender flavor. And though that particular flavor is especially gritty, it was an absurd gripe -- show me a kombucha that doesn't have stuff floating in it and I'll show you a Snapple. As you'd expect, the first response was a dud. "We're happy to confirm that the 'floaties' (otherwise known as SCOBY) are edible," it said. There was a smiley face. It was clearly meant to scare off the less persistent. I responded that the lavender was even grainier than usual. I whined and cajoled. I invoked a comparison to poorly dissolved Kool-Aid. And then GT's offered me a voucher for a free kombucha.
It was like my big mouth was a Groupon.
The best day was the day I called AT&T. My bill had recently increased by $5 for no reason. This happens occasionally. I figure they raise the bill by minuscule amounts every six months or so because $5 seems too petty to complain about. So this time I complained about it.
"My bill appears to have gone up by $5," I said, over the phone.
"Yes, AT&T does this sometimes. Sometimes the prices go up."
"Yes, but why? I don't get anything more for it."
"I see here that you're on an unlimited data plan. They're probably increasing the price because they don't want people to have those anymore."
I appreciated the candor, but I also suspected she was reading from a script meant to mollify me. I was still on the hook for $5 a month. I actually cringed as I uttered the next sentence: "Yes, but what do I get for the extra money? Nothing?"
She hesitated. I wasn't going away like I was supposed to and she wasn't allowed to hang up. Our interaction began to play out like a low-speed car chase, her attempting each of the standard methods of casting me off while I remained relentlessly on the phone. With each explanation, I repeated my disappointment that I didn't get anything for my extra $5.
And then, without warning, she relented. "For your patience, ma'am, I'd like to offer you a $25 credit on your next bill."
The turnabout was breathtaking. Where a minute before I'd been powerless in the face of a corporation that would sell my voice to China if that were possible, now I could force it to give me gifts. I felt like I finally understood gambling addiction.
As the month wore on, success came more and more quickly. My total winnings included a free kombucha, a set of buttons for a coat that had lost a couple, chipotle mayo, a functional apartment buzzer, a $25 cellphone credit, a gas company appointment two weeks earlier than was "technically possible," a waived fee on a subpar box from a clothes-styling website, a free drink at a bar after I complained that my first was too minty, and two sincere apologies (one from a guy I'm seeing who'd inadvertently checked out a passing girl, and one from some friends who stood me up without texting first). I got to keep a joke I liked in a story after telling my editor that his edits made it less funny. And God bless the Ralph Lauren counter at Macy's, which let me return a purse for a full refund after two years just because it was missing a small piece of the handle. Even this story's editor, inspired by my success, complained bitterly to an airline after a bad flight, and got a $100 credit for it.
This is not to say that the experiment was all milk and honey. My dealings with ConEd (NYC power), National Grid (NYC gas), and the Metropolitan Transit Authority were all fruitless, but then those are all basically monopolies, which makes them immune to complaining -- however good I had gotten at it. But apart from the utility and infrastructure cartels, the experiment was paying off shockingly well.
Here's the thing I learned. Customers should want to bitch, because it benefits them. But companies should also want customers to bitch, because it's actually good for business.
John Goodman, vice chairman at Customer Care Measurement & Consulting (CCMC), says that customers who complain and have their problem solved are 20-30% more loyal than people who don't bother to say anything. And there are far more people who are invisibly unhappy with a product or service than there are folks who actually voice their opinion. CCMC estimates that only one in 20 affected consumers complains to a manufacturer about major car problems or supermarket products, for example, which means companies often don't know what to fix because not enough people speak up.
When companies repeatedly disregard a customer's complaints, however, you get what Goodman calls "trained hopelessness." In a 2015 study, CCMC learned that 63% of people who complained felt like they got absolutely nothing after speaking up, and that's up seven percentage points since 2013. "People will pay $100 extra rather than complain because in a cost-benefit analysis it's cheaper to do that than to complain and not get anything," Goodman says. And this is not a recipe for creating customer loyalty.
To me, trained hopelessness sounds a lot like "learned helplessness," which is an effect scientists observed in dogs when they were trying to create an animal analogue for depression in the 1960s. (Stop reading now if you're squeamish and/or affiliated with PETA.) Scientists put dogs in three groups. In the first group, the dogs could press a lever that did nothing. In the second, dogs got periodic shocks but could stop them by pressing their levers. The third group was "yoked," which means they were shocked at the exact same times as the dogs in the second group but their levers didn't do a damn thing.
Eventually, the scientists put all the groups of dogs in cages with working levers and shocked them. The group that had never experienced shocks before quickly found the lever and turned them off. So did group two. But the group-three dogs, which had only ever learned that their efforts were fruitless, just lay on the floor and whimpered. They didn't even try the one thing that could have fixed their problems. And neither did I, until now.
It's possible that this stunt has made me view the entire world through the lens of complaining, but it's hard not to see learned helplessness or trained hopelessness or whatever you want to call it in many of our national social problems. Why did it take 31 years for me to realize that I don't have to pay whatever the health care industry decides to charge me? Why don't millennials vote? Why won't my 20-something cousin who got laid off during the recession just go out and get another job?
The problem may not be that we complain too much, but that we're so used to futility that we don't complain to the right people, or in the right way. In a system where it's harder than ever to attain the basics that make life worth living, blasting a restaurant on Yelp or attacking a corporation on Twitter is easier and more cathartic than calmly asking your waiter to replace your cold chicken. But that doesn't mean it's your only option. Choosing to place a piece of fork on a napkin rather than chance confrontation with a potentially mean stranger is a risk-reward ratio that I was comfortable maintaining. Now, not so much. And I'm better off for it.
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