Everyone, it seems, has a complaint. Now and again. Some people complain more than others. You likely know someone who fits the bill. We all do. No matter how we trim back our relationships, Facebook pages, and socializing, we find ourselves in a situation or next to a person who complains bitterly about not getting a backstage pass to Lady Gaga’s dressing room.
Some cultures are complaint infested. Other cultures are complaint adverse. Men complain about women. Women complain about men. People complain about restaurant service, hotel rooms, the size of airline econ seats, their boss, their spouse, their neighbors, their weight, their hair, their teeth, small dogs, religion, cold food, sex, bad diets, boredom, dating, noise, taxes, the weather, the government, TV news, foreigners, genital warts and, of course, other drivers.
Prince Philip once said, “Everybody was saying we must have more leisure. Now they are complaining they are unemployed.”
To illustrate the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, Prince Charles: recently said, “It seems to me that a degree of this criticism stems from a culture which is nowadays too often concerned with complaining – the culture not of freedom linked with responsibility, but of everyone demanding their ‘rights’, whatever they may be, and blaming others when things go wrong.”
In England the complaint is a birthright. In fact there are UK websites that offer the services of an peculiar British consultant: Complaint Experts. These experts help you get the hang of the fine art of complaining in England. They might even have something to say about freedom, demanding rights and bagging your own groceries.
We spend a great deal of our lives divided between listening to other complain and finding others to listen to our own. It becomes a mutually dependent relationship where the main bond is based on sharing complaints.
In Thailand the tradition has been not to complain. No one places adverts as a Complaint Expert unless they are looking for trouble. The Thais appear to understand what the rest of us neglect to take into account: that complaints are a slippery slope to be avoided. Complaints don’t nest alone. They breed. Here’s a worrisome offspring—call him Mr. Blame You. You can hardly complain without blaming somebody. Someone, somewhere has to take the wrap. Mr. Blame You raises the ugly possibility that someone—namely “You”—must take responsibility for the complaint. The cobra at the bottom of this complaint nest is Mr. I’ve Lost Face and Must Kill You. Otherwise anything could happen. For example, additional costs and expense, the fuss and bother of changing, improving, or—banish the thought—firing the offender; like screaming monkeys invading your living room, making a mess of the carpet, furniture and wallpaper. At this stage anything could happen. Someone held responsible might be stripped of his rank. Or sent into the wildnerness without mosquito repellent.
Complaining translates into lots of baggage. And the Thais don’t let those bags get checked in. If one slips by, it soon gets lost. In a committee usually, or the cone of silence left over from the Big Bang.
Saying that you are unhappy, disgruntled, critical or dissatisfied with just about anyone can land you in a cauldron of boiling coconut juice. Of course, on the flip side, not to complain is not to let off steam and that can also have its explosive downside. It is often said (and with some validity) that the time elapse between the smile ending and the weapon discharging is measured in seconds. At least in a culture where complaining and arguing is the norm, in theory, you can see the anger rising and figure the getaway time before the knife flashes.
Last evening, in Bangkok, I had attended the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand where I heard a panel complaining about censorship in Thailand. Most people in the audience agreed this complaint had legs. The people complaining on the panel were Thais. What was nice about the evening is that the people doing the complaining smiled the whole time. If there were hard feelings their broad smile censored them.
On the way back from panel discussion I took a motorcycle taxi from near the Exchange Tower for the 1-kilometer journey home. Two hundred meters from my condo, there is an intersection. It was filled with police with flashlights. One pointed the flashlight in my face and pulled over my motorcycle driver. He searched through my pockets. Keys, cell phone, an ATM withdrawal slip. Then the young policeman asked to see my wallet.
Did I complain? I ran through my options.
“Sir, do you know who I am?” The indignant form of complaining. “Crime Fiction Author.” But this cop didn’t look like a reader.
“Sir, you have no right to stop me. I’ve done nothing wrong.” Self-righteous, upstanding citizen complaining. Right and wrong have nothing to do with it. Being the end of the month, though, might just have something to do with it.
“Sir, do you know who I know?” The push-back, friends in high places as a form of complaint. Foreigners, by their nature, rarely know someone with sufficient mojo to help them in such a situation. [Some Thais have the show stopping line: “Sir, do you know who my father is?” this works particularly well if your dad is a politician, general, warlord, or Hi-So Bigshot. Unfortunately it only works as a “get out of jail free card” for a handful of Thais.]
“Sir, you’re not stopping any Benz or BMW.” The social justice complaint turns me into a communist and worth working over to see if I will rat out the rest of my radical sleeper cell.
I decided to pass on the possible complaints not because I didn’t want to complain for two reasons. None of the complaints stood a snowballs chance in a Bangkok April of not melting down. I would have been a complainer, a whiner, a grumbler, one of those foreigners who causes trouble. That may be against the law in Thailand. I am not certain. In any event, there is a State of Emergency in Thailand, which means anyone who complains about or to the police, the government, or the army is in big trouble. The electricity, cable companies: ditto. Hospitals, insurance agencies, banks, brokers, massage parlors, real estate agents, travel agents, bars, street vendors, taxi drivers operate as if the State of Emergency protects them, too. The whole lot view complaints like a steely-eyed bureacrat who hasn’t had a bowel movement in a couple of days.
Samuel Johnson said, “Man alone is born crying, lives complaining, and dies disappointed.” I bet he’d never been stopped at eleven at night by a bunch of Thai policeman in a dark intersection in Bangkok.
I thought it better not to say that I had just returned from a panel on censorship where four distinguished Thais had spent the better part of two hours complaining. Guilt by association with complainers can get you into big trouble in Thailand. Being a lawyer, I know it is best never to volunteer information, always be polite with police on a dark street when they pull you over, and never speak anything other than English.
I showed the policeman my wallet. I opened it. Showed my Thai driver’s license (you don’t need one to be a passenger on the back of a motorcycle taxi) but he his flashlight was aimed at the top of my gold American Express card. My Thai motorcycle driver was slightly amused, then annoyed. I thought he was about to complain but instead he opened his mouth and said in Thai that he saw me every day, and I lived here. The policeman looked me over again before he gestured for me to go.
I remembered the panel on censorship and smiled at the policeman. He smiled back. Meanwhile large queues of other people were being pulled out of taxis, off motorcycles, and other lesser forms of transportation. It caused a mini-traffic jam. But as far as I could tell from my fast moving motorcycle, none of them were complaining.