Complaint letters used to be seen only by the hapless elected officials, newspaper publishers and corporate complaint departments (the latter renamed “customer service” in a vain attempt to get customers to the point) to whom they were addressed.
Technology has now fixed things so one cannot go a day without seeing a stranger’s written complaints, whether appended as comments to posted articles or blogs, delivered as reviews on sellers’ websites, or forwarded in round-robin emails.
This outpouring of effort has not, unfortunately, elevated the form. It is time for a gentle reminder on how to complain.
The proper purpose of a complaint letter is not, counterintuitive though this may be, to complain. The purpose is to persuade the recipient to solve the problem. (Proper consumer reviews, though equally misunderstood, Miss Manners leaves for another day.)
The letter that begins “Dear Idiot, you ruined my life” serves only a therapeutic purpose, and a pyrrhic one at that. While there is a growing online audience that applauds vitriol, it does not include the object of the customer’s wrath. Everyone with constituents, customers or subscribers has seen enough angry and sarcastic letters to become immune to the usual form.
Therefore, a good complaint letter dispassionately enumerates facts and concludes with one or more solutions that should be acceptable to reasonable parties. Statements about the recipient’s mental acuity or other personal attributes do not fall within Miss Manners’ definition of “facts.” Exaggeration only makes it easy to dismiss the writer as hysterical.
The Industrial Revolution allowed the mass manufacture of not just goods, but also mistakes. If you tell a manufacturer what went wrong, he may well have heard it before — which will, one hopes, encourage him to find a solution before more cases emerge. When the automobile industry saw such a situation, it found that the second thousand reports were harder to ignore than the first thousand. Even if you are the first to report a problem, the company cannot fix what it does not know about.
As to what constitutes a “solution,” Miss Manners hastens to clarify that she is talking about fixing the original problem, not the writer’s resulting mental state. Her preferred solutions do not include violence.
Miss Manners realizes that you are so worked up as to deem it impossible to avoid personal attacks on the recipient and a delineation of your own wrecked emotions. But if the consequences of the mistake that gave rise to the complaint are so terrible that an unemotional response is truly impossible, then it may be one of those times where etiquette must defer to legal action.
However, it may be of some comfort to hear that eschewing violence and emotion does not rule out the thoughtful threat — so long as it is not idle and does not happen too early in the process.
“I’m going to sue you for all you’re worth!” has no impact on those who hear it hourly. Try, “In reference to the attached complaint and subsequent follow-up letters, please be advised that if this situation is not rectified within three days, I will be advising the housing authority.”
Q: Is it rude to have a private conversation in earshot of others in a public place without including them?
A: No, presuming that you have no connection, not even a temporary one, to these people. But Miss Manners would hope that you know how foolhardy it is to assume that you have not handed over private information to strangers.
Judith Martin writes the Miss Manners column with help from her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, and her daughter, Jacobina Martin. Send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, MissManners.com; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.