Complaints: Teaching Tips

Indirect Complaints
Although the common image of complaining is negative, indirect complaints are utilized frequently in a positive manner to establish points of commonality -- ELT textbooks tend to center on direct complaints and exclude important information on this underlying social strategy (Boxer & Pickering, 1995 [©]).

Interpreting Complaints
In presenting or interpreting complaints, non-verbal features are important part of the communication (e.g., gestures, motions, gaze, postural shifts, tone of voice) (Boxer, 1993a).

Gender Differences
Women tend to commiserate about twice as much as men do, while men are more likely to give advice, especially in response to complaints by female speakers. Males are likely to think logically and want to solve problems, whereas females tend to provide emotional support (Boxer, 1996).

German / English
German complaints tend to have a higher level of directness than British English complaints. Words and phrases that intensify the force of the complaint ("upgraders," e.g., absolutely, really, I’m sure) are more often utilized in German than in English. While attaching someone’s identity seems to be a taboo in Britain, it seems perfectly appropriate behavior for Germans under specific circumstances. German learners of English, therefore, may use more direct complaint expressions than appropriate in English (House & Kasper, 1981).

American learners of Hebrew have been found to relatively prefer softer complaints than native speakers of Hebrew. The central strategy preferred by native speakers was explicit complaints on the severity scale of: no reproach, disapproval, explicit complaint, warning or threat (Olshtain & Weinbach, 1985).

Japanese learners of English may tend to make nonsubstantive responses (e.g., no response, non-verbal backchannels, and nonverbal backchannels in repeated succession) rather than commiseration to indirect complaints. Such responses are unlikely to sustain their part of the conversation, and result in a missed opportunity in establishing solidarity in the interaction (Boxer, 1993b).



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

Boxer, D. (1993b). Complaints as positive strategies: What the learner needs to know. TESOL Quarterly, 27(2), 277-299.

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.

Boxer, D. & Pickering L. (1995). Problems in the presentation of speech acts in ELT materials: the case of complaints. ELT Journal, 49 (1), 44-58.

House, J. & Kasper, G. (1981). Politeness Markers in English and German. In F. Coulmas (Ed.), Conversational Routine: Explorations in Standardized Communication Situations and Prepatterned Speech (pp. 157-185). The Hague, The Netherlands: Mouton Publishers.

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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