To Complain or Not to Complain

by Mark R. Vogel

Many years ago my date and I were meeting her girlfriend and her new beau for dinner. When they arrived and I was introduced, the first words out of her boyfriend’s mouth were:  “When she told me you were a chef I said I hope he’s not one of those assholes who sends everything back.” 

 Somewhat dismayed by this unexpectedly hostile greeting, my trepidation began to rise.  I had my doubts about the restaurant to begin with and I could see the writing on the wall. Something was destined to go wrong with my meal, and I would be faced with the decision to accept it, or have my new dinner guest conclude that I was a bodily orifice.  Hear that faint but increasingly loud whistle above?  That’s the bomb dropping. 

            Well, let’s get right to it, because you already know what’s coming.  I ordered the stuffed lobster and when it arrived it was ice cold—not lukewarm—but ice cold.  It tasted like it had been resting in the refrigerator before being served.  So here I was faced with the dreaded conflict I had predicted.  Well, despite the angst the situation engendered, I’m solid in who I am and where I stand on things.  There is no excuse for serving ice cold food and I refuse to consume it to curry favor with anyone.  I promptly returned it and was served a hot stuffed lobster in its place.  It didn’t taste that good but I wasn’t going to push the issue any further.  At the conclusion of the meal I extended an olive branch to my judgmental new friend and paid for dinner.

            Most people seek to avoid conflict and the negative appraisals of others.  I wonder how often these individuals suffer with inadequate food for those exact reasons: they don’t wish to cause interpersonal friction, or they don’t want to be adversely judged.  Obviously some people are meek, and will put up with almost anything.  Conversely, there are the more demanding amongst us who evince no hesitation in complaining about even minor culinary slips. 

            But let’s put the variability of individual character differences aside for the moment and focus on the external reality, namely, the food.  At one extreme are petty flaws that don’t merit confrontation.  Had my lobster been at least warm for example, I wouldn’t have made it an issue.  On the other hand, cold food, spoiled food, well done steaks that were ordered medium-rare, and anything with an insect in it, should never be allowed. 

            The problem arises when mistakes are not blatantly egregious.  How do you accurately determine when a mishap has reached the point of justifying a protest?  Sometimes the error, in and of itself, doesn’t cross the line, but rather has been preceded by a series of oversights which have incrementally pushed you past the limits of your tolerance.  But again, exactly how many little flubs warrant a formal complaint?  The answer to this question returns us to the subjectivity and individuality of a person’s character.  We must ultimately decide what we are comfortable accepting, and what we are not. 

            A final consideration, other than the actual quality level of the food, and the person’s own internal standards, is the context of the situation.  For example, one is less likely to return the inadequate filet mignon on a first date than when dining alone.  To make matters even more complicated, sometimes the context and the individual’s personality commingle.  If you are a regular patron of a certain eatery and know the staff, would you be less or more likely to inform them about the undercooked and greasy fries?  Some folks wouldn’t say anything because of familiarity: they don’t wish to disrupt what has been a smooth and stable relationship.  Other people may think just the opposite: that because they’ve been a loyal customer, and have brought them consistent business, that they have even more right to complain. 

            To invoke my trademark phrase, where does all this leave us?  Ultimately you must consider 1) your personal feelings about when to complain or not to complain, 2) the parameters of the particular situation, and 3) just how inadequate the actual food is.  As for me, I can tolerate personal criticism much easier than I can cold lobster. 

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