I just want to complain!
Have you ever received the wrong order in a restaurant? Or perhaps you’ve arrived in a hotel room after a long journey to find it smelling like wet dog and not knowing how to deal with the reception staff.
Complaining is an art form and it’s important to choose when to complain carefully because no one likes a diva. So no screaming, “Why is there no soufflé on the menu?” in a fast food restaurant, or “The sheets on the bed are not pure silk” in a £10 a night hostel (though you might get away with this in Los Angeles).
However, sometimes things can go badly wrong, so it’s important to know how to complain effectively. Here are some general tips for complaining in English. By learning these, you won’t get stuck in a tricky situation, and will be more confident as a result.
Keep calm and apologise
Apologise for what? Well, for the fact that you’re about to complain. It’s common in English speaking countries to begin a complaint with, “I’m sorry…” or “I apologise but…”. Weird I know, but it reassures the person you’re complaining to that you’re going to be polite and that you’re not attacking them.
Use indirect and polite language
Another way to make sure no one feels attacked is to use phrases such as, “I think” and “I feel”. You can also use modal verbs politely, like “Would you mind checking…?” or “I think something might have gone wrong.” By doing this, you won’t sound so aggressive when asserting your concerns.
Questions can be helpful when showing what you want to happen, like “I’m sorry, but could you check my room again please?”. And the classic, “Can I speak to the manager please?”. This one is bound to get you what you want in a tricky situation!
Here are some more specific situations when you might need to complain and the phrases you can use to do so. Lingoda has some great lessons on complaining at work or in writing, so if you need to have a serious grumble, check them out.
In a restaurant
Perhaps you’ve been waiting for hours and you’ve become ‘hangry’ (when you’re hungry and it leads to anger): “Excuse me, would you mind checking on my order? It seems to be taking rather a long time.”
Maybe your food arrives cold: “I’m sorry but my food is cold. Could you warm it up for me please?”
Or the traditional English cuisine you ordered lives up to its… reputation: “I apologise but I thought this dish was something else. Could I try the pasta instead?”
What not to say: “English food really is gross. Waiter, bring me some pizza now.”
At a hotel
Hotels rarely look exactly like they do in the pictures, but sometimes the difference is so big, you’ve got to complain.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but the bathroom is a little dirty. Would you mind sending housekeeping up?”
“Sadly, my husband and I don’t really like each other; that’s why we booked two single rooms. The double isn’t acceptable, so please could you move us?”
What not to say: “Excuse me, the pillow mint I received was slightly melted. Could I have another?” or “The sunset from this room doesn’t quite live up to my expectations, could I be moved to the executive suite?” (diva alert).
At the hairdressers
There’s always a chance that a haircut in a foreign country can go wrong. But, if you’re sure you asked the hairdresser to give you an Audrey Hepburn pixie cut and you end up looking like Kim Jong-un, you’ve got a right to complain (though do remember, hairdressers can’t work miracles…).
“I’m sorry, I might not have been very clear when I told you what I wanted. Can you make me look more like the picture?”
“Actually, I’m not completely happy with the result. I’m not sure the mullet has made a comeback yet.”
What not to say: “Woah, woah, hang on there Edward Scissorhands!”
Finally, the response you get depends on the country. Don’t expect Brits to fall over themselves when you complain; you’re much more likely to hear a slightly sarcastic, “I’m terribly sorry.” Meanwhile in the US, the land of tipping, complaints are often met with genuine consternation: “Oh my, I’m so sorry, let me sort it out right away.”
Be polite. Be persistent. And never let anyone cut your hair like Kim Jong-un!