American English Complaints

Function of Complaints

Americans use complaints:

  • to express displeasure, disapproval, annoyance, blame, censure, threats, or reprimand as a reaction to a perceived offense/ violation of social rules (Olshtain & Weinbach, 1985, 1993; Trosborg, 1995)
  • to hold the hearer accountable for the offensive action and possibly suggest/request a repair (Olshtain & Weinbach, 1985, 1993)
  • to confront a problem with an intention to improve the situation ("a face-threatening activity", Brown & Levinson, 1987)
  • to share a specific negative evaluation, obtain agreement, and establish a common bond between the speaker and addressee"trouble sharing" (Hatch, 1992), "troubles talk" (Tannen, 1990) ~ (Boxer, 1993a, 1996). For example:
    1. "I can't believe I didn't get an A on this paper. I worked so hard!"
    2. "Same here. She doesn't give away A's very easily, that's for sure."
  • to vent anger or anxiety/let off steam (Boxer, 1993a, 1996)
  • to open and sustain conversations (Boxer, 1993a, 1996)

Two categories of complaints, direct and indirect complaints, are often investigated separately. While direct complaints are addressed to a complainee who is held responsible for the offensive action (Could you be a little quieter? I’m trying to sleep), indirect complaints are given to addressees who are not responsible for the perceived offense (She never cleans up after her. Isn’t that horrible?). Indirect complaints often open a conversation and establish solidarity between the speakers.

Above passages from Boxer (1993a).

Direct Complaints


Explanation of Purpose / Warning for the Forthcoming Complaint

  • I just came by to see if I could talk about my paper.*
  • Uh, I got my paper back here and after looking through it...*
  • Listen, John, there’s something I want to talk to you about. You remember our agreement, don’t you?
  • Well, look, I might as well start right out.
  • Look, I don’t want to be horrible about it.


  • I think maybe the grade was a little too low.*
  • I was kind of upset with my grade. I know that a lot of the problems are mine but there are certain areas that I wasn’t totally in agreement with what you said.*
  • I put a lot of time and effort in this...*

Request for Solution/Repair

  • I would appreciate it if you would reconsider my grade.*
  •, I’d like to maybe set up a time when we can get together and discuss...*
  • Would you mind doing your share of the duties?**
  • I presume your insurance will cover the damage.**

Request for non-recurrence (The speaker requests that the complainee never perform the offence again or improve the behavior.)

  • Well, I’d really like to find out about this because I’m hoping it won’t happen again.**



Use of pronoun "we"

  • to indicate that both parties share the blame
  • as a way of negotiating the problem

    I know we have a different point of view on this subject.
    I hope we could sit down and discuss the paper…

Use of questioning

  • to ask for advice, for permission to explain oneself
  • to get the listener to recondsider or discuss the problem

    Do you have a minute so that we could go over the paper together?

Depersonalization of the problem

  • to transfer blame from the interlocutor to the problem

    I feel this grade may reflect a difference of opinion.

Use of mitigators ("downgraders")

  • to soften the complaint (e.g., kind of, perhaps, possibly, a little bit, a second, somehow, I suppose, I’m afraid, you know, I mean, right, don’t you think?)

    I think uh it’s just in my opinion maybe the grade was a little low.
    Maybe you know something about this dent on my car.**
    I’m a bit annoyed that...**
    Are you somehow involved in this affair?**

Use of "upgraders"**

  • to increase the impact of the complaint (e.g., such, quite, terrible, really, frightfully, absolutely, I’m sure, I’m positive, it’s obvious)

    What a frightful mess you’ve made, I’m absolutely shocked.
    I’m certain that this dent wasn’t there when I last drove my car.

  • Acceptance of partial responsibilities for the problem

    …and uh, perhaps it wasn’t quite as polished as both of us would have liked, but the content was there, and I think I deserve a better grade.


Severity Scale**

1) Least Severe:

The speaker avoids actually mentioning the offensive event.
Don’t worry about it, there’s no real damage.
The kitchen was clean and orderly when I left it last.**
There was nothing wrong with my car yesterday.

2) Somewhat Severe:

Neither the offense nor the complainee is explicitly mentioned but general annoyance at the violation is expressed:

Look at these things all over the place.**
This is really unacceptable behavior.
There’s a horrible dent in my car.**

3) Fairly Severe:

The speaker threatens the complainee’s face by making a direct complaint but does not say there will be any other consequences:

You’re inconsiderate!***
You should not postpone this type of operation.***
4) Severe:
The speaker explicitly accuses the complainee of the offense directly and hints that there may be consequences for the offender:

Look at this mess! Haven’t you done any cleaning up for the last week?**
You borrowed my car last night, didn’t you?**
Next time I’ll let you wait for hours.***

5) Very Severe:

The speaker immediately theatens the complainee by attacking him/her:

You’d better pay the money right now.***
I’m not going to budge an inch until you change my appointment.***
Now, give me back what you have stolen or I'll call the police.***

Above passages from
* Murphy & Neu (1996), pp. 199-204
**Trosborg (1995), pp. 315-329
***Olshtain & Weinbach (1985), pp. 200-201.

Indirect Complaints

Indirect complaints usually begin with an introductory expression like one of the following:

  • There’s no way...
  • I’m sick and tired...
  • The problem is...
  • It’s not fair...
  • I’m up to here...
  • I can’t stand...
  • I can’t take it.
  • How dare...
  • It’s a shame...
  • This is not my day!
  • It drives me crazy!
  • Unfortunately...

Indirect complaints tend to center on three themes:

  1. Self (Oh, I’m so stupid.)
  2. Other (John is the worst manager.)
  3. Situation (I feel, in a way, boxed in, you know?/Why did they have to raise tuition?)

Above passages from Boxer (1993a), pp.30-31.

[ Research notes on the section above... ]


Responses to Indirect Complaints

Responses to indirect complaints can vary, but they typically follow one of the patterns below:

Commiseration — showing agreement or reassurance in an attempt to make the speaker feel better.*

A: I’m getting more and more lost.
B: So am I.
A: And yesterday he went over the homework, which is fine, but it didn’t prepare us at all for this week.
B: No. He’s just not a good teacher.

No response, or a switching of the topic (Notice that in this dialogue, minimal response to the complaint or topic switch terminates the complaint.)*

A: It takes a day and a half to get anywhere ‘cause you spend six hours on an airplane.
B: So you stayed at X hotel. We liked that place.
A: Yeah, it was great. There was a big pool for the kids.

Question — simple clarification requests, elaboration requests, or challenge questions expressing doubts about the validity of the complaints*

A: His talk was so weak that I wonder how it got accepted for the conference..
B: Oh, really? I think he had a lot of useful things to say.

Contradiction — not accepting or approving of the complaint by contradicting the speaker or providing some kind of defense for the object being complained about.

A: You don't even do your own writing.
B: Yes I do!


A: Wow- I just opened this bag of chips and before I'd eaten even one, they were half gone!
B: You sure pay a lot for a bag half full of air!
A: Yeah, they should come in a smaller bag. I feel ripped off.
B: Let's write a letter to the chip master!

Advice/lecture — offering advice on solving a problem in retrospect.*

A: An annoying thing happened to me. I took my bike in to be repaired- to align the spokes. They did a lousy job. Now I have to find the receipt and take it back.
B: You should have just bought a new wheel and not bothered to fix it.

[ Research notes on the section above... ]

Above passages from *Boxer (1993a), pp. 39,44,46.



Boxer, D. (1993a). Complaining and commiserating: A speech act view of solidarity in spoken American English. NY: Peter Lang.

Boxer, D. (1996). Ethnographic interviewing as a research tool in speech act analysis: The case of complaints. In S. M. Gass & J. Neu (Eds.),Speech acts across cultures: Challenges to communication in a second language(pp. 217-239). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Brown, P., & Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness: Some Universals in Language Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Murphy, B. &. Neu, J. (1996). My grade's too low: The speech act set of complaining. In S. M. Gass & J. Neu (Eds.), Speech acts across cultures: Challenges to communication in second language (pp. 191-216). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyer.

Olshtain, E. & Weinbach, L. (1993). Interlanguage Features of the Speech Act of Complaining. In G. Kasper & S. Blum-Kulka (Eds.), Interlanguage Pragmatics (pp. 108-122). New York, Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Olshtain, E. & Weinbach, L. (1985). Complaints : A study of speech act behavior among native and nonnative speakers of Hebrew. In J. Verschueren & M. Bertuccelli-Papi (Eds.), The Pragmatic Perspective : Selected Papers from the 1985 International Pragmatics Conference (pp, 195-208). Amsterdam/Philadelphia : John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Trosborg, A. (1995). Interlanguage Pragmatics: Requests, Complaints and Apologies. Berlin, New York: Mouton Gruyter.


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