How to Complain Politely—and Get What You Want
Turn your grumbling into your gain! With these expert-backed tips on how to complain, you'll get what you want without ruffling feathers.
“This steak is too well-done. I asked for you to cook it to medium.”
“My boss is such a jerk. He always schedules meetings for 4:30 p.m. on Fridays.”
“Why do you always leave the kitchen cabinet doors open? Then I have to close them.”
Whether at work, in relationships or when buying goods and services, you’ve no doubt complained about something. And although griping is often seen as a negative activity—no one likes a whiner—if you know how to complain correctly, it can actually be a useful tool for rectifying unsatisfactory situations.
“Complaining is a universal behavior. Everyone does it to different degrees,” says Robin Kowalski, PhD, a psychology professor at Clemson University who’s spent more than 20 years researching complaining and other aversive behaviors. “Clearly, we wouldn’t continue to engage in this behavior if there weren’t some benefit to doing so. Sometimes it does make us feel better to express our dissatisfaction. Sometimes it can bring about desired change.” But how can you tell if your kvetching is actually useful or just annoying?
There are certain times when you have to complain (in a polite way!) to get things you need or want. Sometimes, those are legal rights, such as disability etiquette that prevents discrimination or accommodations that should be met at work. But you can resolve smaller issues and pet peeves just as effectively by voicing your concerns—without becoming a chronic complainer.
We talked to experts about how to complain in a way that won’t irritate people and instead will help you get results. You’ll learn how to be polite in challenging circumstances (along with the things polite people always say), the etiquette rules to follow when complaining and the etiquette mistakes to avoid making if you want a good outcome. After all, the squeaky wheel gets the grease!
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Choose the best way to complain
People complain for a variety of reasons, says Kowalski, some more beneficial than others. “Broadly speaking, there are two types of complaining: expressive complaining and instrumental complaining,” she says. “Expressive complaining is venting—people who are complaining just to get something off their mind.”
People tend to do this with friends, co-workers or even by complaining on social media. We might also complain for social comparison purposes, Kowalski says. Students may complain about how hard a test was in order to gauge how difficult other students found it. Or we may complain to give others a certain impression of us—for example, complaining about a restaurant’s food may show we have discerning taste, she says.
But although acknowledging negative emotions is mentally healthy, ruminating on our gripes by replaying complaints over and over doesn’t accomplish anything, and it can harm your mental health.
To really get what you want, use the second form of complaining. “Instrumental complaining is designed to accomplish a very specific outcome—calling the department of transportation and complaining about all the potholes in the road,” Kowalski says. Or “perhaps you find it impossible to work with a particular colleague. By complaining about how your productivity at work is affected by the dynamic between the two of you, your boss reassigns you or the other person to a different work team, and everyone is happier.”
Instrumental complaining is useful in relationships too, she says. Complaining to get others to account for their behaviors can sometimes provide reassurance and restore harmony in the relationship.
Yes, you should complain
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If you view complaining more as voicing your opinion or speaking up for your needs with a specific goal in mind, it can become a useful tool for empowering yourself, strengthening your relationships and improving a toxic workplace.
“Many of us accept dissatisfaction because we are worried about being seen as ‘too demanding,’ especially at work,” says Amy Fish, author of I Wanted Fries with That: How to Ask for What You Want and Get What You Need. “The truth is, you are not only complaining for yourself but for everyone else in your office who has had to deal with the same unfair sick leave policy or unreasonable dress code. When you speak up, you are opening the possibility to improvement, and things will get better because of you.”
When complaining about goods or services received, businesses might actually welcome the opportunity to improve—if your complaint is presented respectfully. “Anytime a service or product is not up to quality standard, letting management know of the situation is in order,” says etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life and owner of The Protocol School of Texas. “Posing the complaint as ‘constructive feedback’ allows the retailer or business owner to correct the situation or make a bad situation right for the customer. When a complaint is handled considerately, most often a business owner appreciates constructive feedback.”
There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it
Understanding how to complain effectively comes down to the way you present your complaint, especially when you talk to people you disagree with. If you start becoming aware of your own complaining (and how much you do it!), you can strategize about when it’s most effective, Kowalski says.
“When I first started doing research in this area, I heard complaining everywhere—my own and everyone else’s,” she says. “When we are aware of something, we become more mindful of the behavior and can exert more control over it to become more strategic in our complaining. We carefully select the audience to our complaints, and we complain in moderation.”
So, how do you do that? Focus on two key things: your goal and your attitude.
Know your goal
First, identify the specific goal you want to accomplish.
“If you know what you want as the outcome to your complaint, you stand a better chance of getting it,” Fish says. “For example, saying to your spouse, ‘I would like you to empty the dishwasher tonight’ is probably going to be more effective than, ‘You never empty the dishwasher; you never do anything around here’ and escalating to the point of conflict.”
As the saying goes, you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. “Tone of voice and a pleasant facial expression go a long way when it comes to delivering the correction or complaint,” Gottsman says. If you experience a dissatisfaction in service, “the right way to complain would be to ask for the manager or talk to the sales associate directly and let them know that, for example, the price on the register is not the sale price and you would appreciate them looking at the item for you.”
Gaining sympathy from others will make it more likely they’ll want to help you.
Avoid common missteps
If you go in with guns blazing, the other party is likely to get defensive and will be less likely to be accommodating to your complaint. “The wrong way to do it is by ranting, making a scene or creating turmoil over something that could have been easily taken care of with a quick conversation,” Gottsman says.
Of course, “if you say nothing, nothing is ever going to change,” Fish says. “In my opinion, the only wrong complaint is the one that goes unsaid, as long as you are calm and respectful.”
The downsides of complaining
When you know how to complain effectively, it can lead to greater satisfaction. But if you complain too much or without real purpose, you may start to see yourself as powerless or as a victim, or you might feel constantly irritable, short-tempered and cranky.
“Too much complaining can be damaging to our own mental health—if we wallow too much in the negative—and to our relationships with others,” Kowalski says. “Complaining incessantly to my neighbor about some company and its pitfalls may, in the short term, make me feel better but is going to do nothing to solve the problem. It may, however, lead my neighbor to start turning down my requests to walk together.”
We don’t want to always turn to the same person for our complaints, she says, or we’ll be seen as a chronic complainer.
Picking your battles and letting some things go can help you avoid the negative effects of constant complaining. “There are times you may want to skip the complaint when it is really insignificant in the big picture: It’s a holiday, and the restaurant is packed. You like your steak medium-well, and they brought it well-done, or you asked for extra ketchup, and they never brought it to the table,” Gottsman says. “Sometimes it’s best to give the associate grace while pointing out the situation before you leave so they are aware but don’t feel chastised.” If you use proper dining etiquette and avoid the so-called polite habits restaurant staffers dislike, you’ll have a much more pleasant meal, even if there are some hiccups in the service.
When to avoid complaining
There are some other circumstances in which you might need to reign in your complaining—or at least use a bit more tact. If you take out your anger on the wrong person, it will only cause them to not want to help you, making your goal more difficult to accomplish.
“Keep in mind that the situation may not be the fault of the person who is delivering the service,” Gottsman says. “So do not take it out on the individual but rather ask to speak to someone who can fix the situation.” When placing a call to customer service, for instance, don’t get angry with the phone rep—it’s not their fault! Instead, a pleasant request for assistance is more likely to get them on your side.
In addition, when complaining about a colleague professionally, try addressing gripes directly and amicably with your co-worker before going to the boss, Gottsman says. “For example, if someone is speaking loudly on their cell phone, and it distracts you, rather than going over their head to the boss, let them know in a casual but firm voice, ‘John, would you mind lowering your voice? I’m having difficulty concentrating,'” she says. “When something cannot be taken care of, or is more serious, seeking the help of a supervisor is in order.”
And what if it’s your boss you want to complain about? Some research has found that commiserating about work can strengthen bonds among co-workers; but science shows that too much talk of unfairness can also create more anger and a worse working environment.
“If you have a complaint in the workplace, you need to use discretion,” Gottsman says. It’s best to avoid gossiping about your supervisor, even if common complaints seem like the perfect conversation starters with your co-workers. Either be transparent with your boss about the problem or, if there are legal violations at play, go to HR.
How to complain politely
It’s not always easy to figure out how to complain in a direct, respectful, effective way. For the best results, follow the three steps to making a complaint: Explain the problem, state your feelings and ask for action. Using this formula, here are some tips from our experts on what to say when you complain.
Practice your complaint in advance
To perfect the proper tone of voice and settle on the most courteous way to phrase your complaint, go over it ahead of time. “This could include speaking out loud to yourself in the car or writing down key points before the meeting,” Fish says.
In addition, make sure you’ve already identified a potential solution to your problem or a goal you’re aiming for. “In my experience, taking a few moments to think it through offers the chance to prioritize the most important aspects of the complaint and helps us focus on what we really need as an outcome,” Fish says. It’s a smart strategy whether you’re asking for a raise or asking for help with a customer-service issue.
Be selective about your complaints
If you gripe about every little thing, you’ll become the boy who cried wolf, and no one will take your complaints seriously. “Be mindful of your own complaining, and complain in moderation,” Kowalski says.
Complaining strategically means deciding which complaints deserve attention, and which can roll off your back. Kowalski suggests journaling to gain clarity on this. “Things that seemed so upsetting and so large in our heads seem much smaller and more manageable when we write about them,” she says.
Before tackling a big problem, test the waters by learning how to complain about a smaller pet peeve. “Complaining effectively is a muscle that can be strengthened over time,” Fish says. “My advice is to practice on the smaller issues and build your way up to the more complex or difficult ones.”
Figure out who to complain to
“Carefully select the audience for your complaint,” Kowalski says. This way, you won’t overload one person with too many frequent complaints (and won’t become annoying).
Plus, you can strategically direct your complaint to those who have the power to do what you need.
“Make sure you are complaining to the right person,” Fish says. “For example, if you are dissatisfied with the way you were treated by a health-care provider, you may be able to complain to their professional order, as well as to their boss. I suggest keeping records of everyone you spoke to and what they said to make your follow-up easier.”
Time your complaint just right
You may want to hold your complaint for the proper time and place, Fish says. “Timing is important. You don’t want to complain to your kids the night before a big exam or try to speak to your neighbor about the hedges while they are hosting a garden party,” she says. “I would spend a few minutes reading the room before I jump into my complaint.”
Try a complaint sandwich
Once you’ve picked the perfect time, use the perfect delivery. A complaint sandwich—a term coined by psychologist Guy Winch in his book The Squeaky Wheel—will do the trick.
Simply sandwich your complaint between two positive thoughts or compliments. For example, try saying to your partner, “I love how you cook dinner for me every night. I’m wondering, though, if you could be a little neater with the prep process. A quick cleanup for me means we can have time to enjoy a movie on the couch afterward!”
Complain to the person’s face
If you’re having an issue with a friend in social situations, it’s tempting to bad-mouth them to others behind their back, but it’s best to avoid this type of complaining if you want to maintain your friendships.
“Rather than complaining to another person that your friend is rude, handle the situation directly,” Gottsman says. “Temper your emotions and speak firmly but respectfully. If someone is giving you the silent treatment, say something like, ‘Have I done something to offend you? I can’t help but notice you are visibly upset. I would like to make it right if I knew what was on your mind.'”
Never feel bad for speaking up
It’s not rude to assert yourself—actually, it’s one of the things polite people don’t apologize for. Gottsman gives an example of what to say to turn around an unsatisfactory situation while still maintaining civility: “Excuse me, I have been waiting for 15 minutes, and I have noticed that you and the other sales associate have been engaged in conversation the entire time,” she says. “I appreciate the camaraderie with your peer, but I am on a time schedule, and I would like to try on this pair of shoes. Would you please help me?”
Stay open-minded when it comes to solutions
Complaining isn’t useful if you’re just looking for validation for your viewpoint, or if you prefer to stay mad and won’t accept help to fix the situation. If you are going to complain, be open to solutions, others’ perspectives and different ways of thinking about the situation that others might present to you.
It’s a tactic supported by research. A 2018 study in The Academy of Management Journal found that the negative effects of complaining at work were negated when the listener offered suggestions that reframed the unfair situation for the complainer.
Accept others’ complaints as well
Complaining can be a two-way street: If you want people at work or in your relationships to address your complaints, you’ll have to be receptive to theirs. “Be a good listener to others’ complaints so they will want to reciprocate,” Kowalski says. If you maintain an open mind, don’t get defensive and focus on solutions, others will be more responsive to your complaints when the tables are turned.
About the experts
- Robin Kowalski, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Clemson University, author of Complaining, Teasing and Other Annoying Behaviors and one of the foremost researchers on complaining. Her work—including the Journal of Social Psychology study “Pet peeves and happiness: how do happy people complain?”—focuses on aversive interpersonal behaviors.
- Amy Fish is the author of I Wanted Fries with That: How to Ask for What You Want and Get What You Need and ombudsman (the person faculty and students can go to with complaints) at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.
- Diane Gottsman is an etiquette expert, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life: Master All Social and Business Exchanges and owner of The Protocol School of Texas.
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: “The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: Laboratory, diary and longitudinal evidence”
- Behaviour Research and Therapy: “Prevention of anxiety disorders and depression by targeting excessive worry and rumination in adolescents and young adults: A randomized controlled trial”
- Organization Studies: “Griping and Joking as Identification Rituals and Tools for Engagement in Cross-Boundary Team Meetings”
- Academy of Management Journal: “Pacification or Aggravation? The Effects of Talking about Supervisor Unfairness”
- Guy Winch: “The Squeaky Wheel”