Complaints: Research Notes

American Indirect Complaints

Themes (Boxer, 1993a)

  • Self (Oh, I'm so stupid.) - 7%
  • Other ( still the worst manager.) - 27%
  • Situation (I feel, in a way, boxed in, you know?/Why did they have to raise tuition?) - 66%

Responses to Indirect Complaint (Boxer, 1993a, 1996)

  • Nothing or topic switch - 10%
    • Such responses function to either minimize or terminate an exchange.
    • The addressee may be tired of listening to a chronicle complainer.
    • There may be either intimacy or a high degree of social distance coupled with status inequality.
    • Minimal responses or indications of listening often terminate a complaint exchange.
  • Question - 12%
    • Such responses take the form of either simple clarification requests, challenge questions questioning the validity of the complaint, or request elaboration
  • Contradiction - 15%
    • Contradiction responses indicate that the complaint is not accepted or approved of.
    • The majority involves either intimates or status-unequals with large social distance.
  • Joke/teasing - 6%
    • Frequent among strangers and in service encounters serving as self-presentation
    • Intended to make light of the situation
  • Advice/lecture - 14%
    • Advice was offered in retrospect or before solving a problem.
    • Likely to be given from those of higher social status
  • Commiseration - 44%
    • The most common response to a complaint
    • Commiseration responses offer agreement or reassurance to make the speaker feel better.
    • Such responses include: straightforward agreement with the speaker, elaboration of the speaker's complaint, or confirmation of the validity of the complaint. Some take the form of exclamations signaling commiseration; some even finish the speaker's sentence.

Outcomes of Indirect Complaint Exchanges (Boxer, 1993a)

  • Non-supportive exchanges - 18%
  • Neutral Exchanges - 8%
  • Supportive Exchanges - 74%

Hebrew Complaints


Native speakers of Hebrew preferred the central strategy, explicit complaints, as seen below (Olshtain & Weinbach, 1985).

  1. Explicit complaints (45%)
  2. Warning (23%)
  3. Disapproval (15%)
  4. Below reproach (14%)
  5. Threat (3%)



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. (Eds.), Speech acts across cultures: Challenges to communication in a second language (pp. 217-239). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

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.


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