The Art of Complaining

3 Apr

“I couldn’t sleep a wink!”

One of the joys of helping to look after my little nieces is getting to revisit things from my childhood. Last week it was paperchain people (try them with monkeys – it’s really cute!) but the week before that it was the Princess and the Pea, the Hans Christian Andersen story about a girl who arrives at a castle in a storm, claiming to be a princess, and whose royal pedigree is proved by her feeling a dried pea through 20 mattresses.

Coming back to this story many years on, instead of dwelling on how ridiculous this is (and it is), I instead found myself thinking, “Of course complaining about a pea in her bed shows she’s a princess. If she was a nice, middle-class girl she wouldn’t dream of complaining!” I mean really, if you were taken in on trust, out of a storm, alone and helpless, would you tell your host the bed was lumpy? I wouldn’t lie about it, but I’m sure I could find something more positive to say than, “I couldn’t sleep a wink all night!”

This got me thinking about complaining more generally. In Britain, we’re traditionally not supposed to be very good at complaining. To be more accurate, we’re very good at moaning about things, but we would rather die than complain to anyone who can do anything about it, like a waiter or shopkeeper, for example. Perhaps we might write a stiff letter, but never say anything to anyone’s face.

This is a Very British Problem, judging by the Twitter account of the same name, which is extremely funny. (It’s also available in book form for those who aren’t into social media.) This is also one of the areas where I’m not very British, perhaps as a result of spending too much time overseas (or it could just be my personality). I am fairly likely to complain if something isn’t right. I spent 15 minutes in Superdrug the other day trying to return some hair chalks that only cost about three quid, on the principle that if you buy something, it should work. The complaint has been forwarded further up the chain of management. By the time I get my three quid back (if I ever do) they will probably have devalued to the equivalent of 30p due to Brexit.

Maybe I shouldn’t have bothered. But there are some things you are supposed to complain about, or at least not sit on. I often find I’m annoyed by some insignificant thing someone has done again and start thinking, “He/she knows I hate it! They’re doing it to annoy me!”, only to realise that I’ve probably never told them I hate it, and they are blithely oblivious to my irritation. In a situation like that you either have to say something, or learn to live quietly with the annoyance, rather than explode in rage when it happens for the tenth time.

Addictions are another situation where you’re supposed to complain, according to official advice. Without going into any detail, there are some addiction/dependency ‘issues’ in my own family, and while a public blog post isn’t the place to drag them out, it’s not something I keep from my friends. In such a situation, silent forbearance probably makes things worse. But there is probably a level of willingness to complain that lies somewhere between doormat and drooket fairytale princess, which is healthy and practical without being self-centred. With that in mind, here’s a slightly altered version of the well-known Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to shut up about the things I ought to put up with,
The courage to complain about the things I ought not to,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

(If you’re into Hans Christian Andersen, by the way, check out my lovely audio version of the Snow Queen, narrated by Sophie Aldred.)

 

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