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To Complain or Not to Complain

FOOD FOR THOUGHT - August 10, 2005 - Mark R. Vogel - [email protected]  - Mark’s Archive


Last night we were meeting another couple at a restaurant for dinner. I already knew the woman but hadn’t yet met her boyfriend.  When they arrived and we were introduced, her boyfriend proclaimed: “When she told me you were a chef I said I hope he’s not one of those A**holes who sends everything back.” Somewhat taken back by this unexpectedly hostile greeting, my trepidation began to rise. I had my doubts about the restaurant to begin with.  Fate loves to stick it to me whenever it gets a chance and here was an exquisite opportunity to twist the knife.  I was doomed.  Something was destined to go wrong with my meal and I was going to be faced with the decision to accept it or have my dinner guest conclude I was a bodily orifice. Hear that faint but increasingly loud whistle above? That’s the bomb dropping. 

     Well, let’s get right to it, cause you already know what’s coming.  I ordered the stuffed lobster and when it arrived it was ice cold. Not lukewarm, but ice cold.  It tasted like it had been resting in the refrigerator before being served.  So here I was faced with the dreaded conflict I had predicted. Well, despite the angst the situation engendered, I’m solid in who I am and where I stand on things. There is no excuse in the world for serving ice cold food and I refuse to consume it to curry favor with anyone.  I promptly returned it and was served a hot stuffed lobster in its place.  It didn’t taste that great but I wasn’t going to push the issue any further. Instead, I extended an olive branch to my judgmental new friend and paid for dinner.

     Generally speaking, people seek to avoid conflict and the negative appraisals of others.  I wonder how often individuals suffer through inadequate food for just those reasons;  because we don’t want to make a “scene” or because we fear others will see us as a pain-in-the-ass, (or an even worse part of the hindquarters anatomy), if we take issue with the food. Obviously some people are meeker and will put up with almost anything.  Conversely there are the more aggressive and entitled amongst us who evince no hesitation to complain about even minor culinary slips.

     But let’s put the variability of individual character differences aside for the moment and focus on the external reality, namely the food.  At one extreme are minor flaws that don’t merit confrontation. Had my lobster been at least warm for example, I wouldn’t have batted an eye.


  On the other hand, ice cold food, spoiled food, well done steaks that were ordered medium-rare, and anything with an insect in it, should never be tolerated.

     The problem arises with the almost endless series of gradations in-between the extremes.  The proverbial “gray zone.”  How do you detect with precise scrutiny when a mishap has crossed that elusive “ah let it go” line into the realm of intolerability and justified protest?  Sometimes the error, in and of itself, doesn’t cross the line, but rather has been preceded by a series of blunders which have incrementally pushed you past the point of no return.  But once again, exactly how many sequential little flubs warrant a formal complaint?

     Unfortunately the answers to these questions return us to the subjectivity and capriciousness of the individual person’s character. When the situation is not a no-brainer because it doesn’t lie at one extreme or the other, we must then decide what we are comfortable accepting and what we are not.

     A final consideration, other than the actual quality level of the food, and the person’s own internal standards, is the context of the situation. For example, one is less likely to return the inadequate filet mignon on a first date than when dining alone.  Then, to make the matrix even more complicated, sometimes the context and the particular personality commingle.  For example, if you are a regular patron of a certain eatery and know some of the staff, would you be less or more likely to inform them that the fries arrived undercooked and greasy?  Some folks wouldn’t want to say anything because of familiarity. They don’t wish to disrupt what has been a smooth and stable relationship. Other people may think just the opposite.  They feel that because they’ve been a loyal customer and have brought them consistent business that they have even more right to complain. 

     To invoke my trademark phrase, where does all this leave us? Ultimately you must consider 1) your personal feelings about when to complain or not to complain, 2) the parameters of the particular situation, and 3) just how inadequate the actual food is. As for me, I can tolerate personal criticism much easier than I can tolerate cold lobster.

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