Americans seem to complain about anything and everything. They see injustice everywhere and are determined not to be victims of it. They think it is standing up for themselves and what they deserve. To me it often seems like picking fights needlessly, or making a big deal over things that matter little. But, how much do I need to adopt this complaining culture while I’m here?
I had three problems recently that made me think about my answer to that question, and possibly adjust it as well.
1. The cashier who dropped my change
I was in a busy burger shop in New York, at a loss for words, with a long line behind me waiting to pay for their burgers. My change had just fallen behind the register, and it was quite clear the cashier was not going to help.
It was partly my fault, because I had not been ready to get coins back. But the cashier had been talking with her colleague and almost threw coins towards my hand. I didn't want to be sassy so I said, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t catch the coins. They dropped into the gap here. Is it possible to give me my change again?” I offered this polite apology, expecting her to admit the mistake on her side.
To my surprise, the woman turned me down flatly. “It’s your fault,” she said, telling me that she had already given me my change and so “there’s nothing I can do.” I was stunned by the unexpected impoliteness and harsh words.
I could only manage to say, “Oh okay, I’m sorry” and head back to my seat. I was embarrassed to quarrel with her, and I didn’t want to bother others in the line. After all, it was just 80 cents lost, I said to myself.
Enjoying my burger (it was actually said to be one of the best burger shops in the city), I recalled what my American friend has told me before: Do not say I’m sorry so easily. Whenever I bump into a person, for example, I immediately apologize, even if I had the right of way. My friend once got irritated with this and said it implies I am admitting my fault and gives an advantage to the other person.
For me, it’s fine if I can manage to avoid further trouble and can part in safety and peace. Especially for something as small as 80 cents, there’s no reason for me to be aggressive and offensive.
However, on the way from New York back to school, I encountered a bigger loss that I did have to fight for.2. The bus ticket that didn’t get me home
My plan was to take a bus from New York to Boston and then transfer to another bus to get me from Boston to Lewiston, where my college is. But the bus to Boston was running behind and heavy traffic made it even worse. We eventually arrived an hour late and I missed the connecting bus that I needed to get to my college town.
Luckily enough, I found two other students from my college, and together we went to the ticket desk to find alternative means of getting back to campus. We talked to the ticket clerk, who gave us replacement tickets. There were no more buses until the next morning, and we couldn’t stay in Boston overnight, but the clerk was adamant that we could use the ticket to get a seat on a bus from another company. That bus would be leaving soon and would drop us off in Portland, about an hour’s drive from my college. It wasn’t the best solution – I was nervous about whether I could find a cab to get from Portland to campus, and about the extra expense that would entail – but it was still a solution.
When the bus showed up, however, they turned us away, saying they wouldn’t accept tickets from another company (which makes sense!), especially not when their bus was already full with ticketed passengers. So it was back to the ticket counter.
At first I took an initiative to argue our situation but the clerk looked so fatigued and harsh that I was about to give up after the first attempt. But my friends were persistent and determined, and knew how to complain on and on. Thanks to them, eventually we got a cash refund for our tickets, which we were able to use to purchase seats on the next bus leaving that night for Portland. From there we split a cab back to college.
You can usually get things here in the U.S. if you are persistent enough about it. One attempt is not always enough, because the person you are complaining to expects you would complain and is ready to fight back.
That time I was still leaning on someone else for help, like I have been throughout my year in the U.S. After getting back to campus safely, I began to think I needed to win something back on my own at some point. The chance came sooner than I had expected.3. The unexpected phone bill
The very next day, I received my credit card statement for that month. I had been charged an unexpected $25 for two phone calls I had made during a layover in Canada. I had made the calls from a payphone using my credit card, but the person I was calling didn’t pick up either time, so I didn’t expect any charge, and certainly not that high a charge.
I looked on Google and found that other people had had the same problem, and many of them had been able to get a 70% refund after they called to complain. Still, I was hesitant about complaining. Was it worth spending time and energy for 70% of $25? The phone call to make the complaint would cost me additional money, negating some of the refund I stood to receive. Why should I devote my time and energy to such a small gain?
When I told my friends about this, all of them, even international students, insisted that I must call and ask for a refund. With a supportive push by the events during my trip to New York, I decided making a complaint would be another good experience in the U.S., even if I didn't end up getting any money back.
To my slight disappointment, it didn’t actually take much time or energy to get a refund, and I even got refunded all my money, not just the 70% I had expected. The operator just calmly provided me a full $25 refund, even while insisting it was my fault and that I hadn’t read the directions on the payphone properly.
I was surprised that the operator was so well-prepared to be complained at by customers, and so willing to address the complaint. It’s almost as if being overcharged and then complaining for a refund is the normal procedure, rather than complaints being saved for unusual situations where one side has made a mistake.
I was still excited after hanging the call up though, because I felt a sense of accomplishment for getting the full $25 back in less than a 10 minute call.I used to think it’s too much that some Americans keep complaining anytime anywhere - at an entrance of a crowded bus, in front of a busy cashier, or even in intimate small gatherings, - for nothing or tiny little things. It seemed so inefficient and even annoying for me. However, after all those troubles and successes to avoid troubles, it has come to make more sense for me. It is not only about numerical losses and gains: it’s more about claiming your rights, building up justice, and taking responsibility to stand up for yourself.
For international students who are new to such a complaining culture, keep in mind:
1. Don’t hesitate to complain if you feel you’ve been treated unjustly, and don’t retreat easily if your complaints are not addressed after your first attempt.
2. You can be polite even when you are complaining to someone. Be respectful but firm and authoritative, and build your English so you can choose right words.
3. Friends are helpful, but don’t lean on them too much, or you will not learn to do anything by yourself.
I’m still learning to use these suggestions in my own life, but I believe developing my comfort with making a complaint will build up my confidence of living in the States, and anywhere in the world.