Complaint

September 11, 2008

Some years ago, I found myself having a drink with a young woman who had recently taken up a job as researcher on a well-known Radio 4 programme. She seemed more confident than most people at that stage of their career, so I pressed her about her ambitions. At first she tried to change the subject but then admitted that she was really a fraud. She had wheedled her way into the BBC so that she could undertake a sociological study of the values of the organisation.

She told me that the first few weeks had been profoundly frustrating. She had sat with her notebook by her side and tried to write down any comments made by her co-workers that might throw light on their views of the organisation. But when she got home she found that all she had assembled was a long list of complaints. The researchers and producers alongside her had spent most of the day moaning about some aspect of their working lives. They had moaned about the office being too hot or too cold. They had moaned about the slowness of their computers, the lack of studio time, the tastelessness of the canteen food, the amount of work they had to do compared with others in the building, the way in which life in the modern BBC compared unfavourably with life there in days gone by.

At first she had been inclined to think that all she had to do was exercise some patience. Eventually the values would emerge. But after three more months of watching and listening, she realised that she had already uncovered the essential culture of the place. It was a culture of complaint. Complaining was what bound people together, gave them a sense of solidarity. When newcomers arrived full of cheery optimism, they were soon socialised into complaining and learnt that this was the way to obtain admission to the group.

But there was something else. Nearly all the complaints she heard were addressed to people who had no power whatsoever to change the situation. So, for example, complaints about the overheating of the office were never made to maintenance staff but to colleagues who had no say in the matter. She realised that complaints were so important to the working culture that anything that might resolve them had to be avoided at all costs.

My counterfeit researcher left the BBC shortly after our conversation and went in search of more profitable sociological subjects. A pity. If she had stayed longer she might have had a chance to read this fascinating book by Julian Baggini and realised that an analysis of complaint was a subject in its own right. She would have learnt to distinguish between the character of the complaints she heard, between Impossible Complaints, Contradictory Complaints, Self-defeating Complaints, Nostalgic and Luddite Complaints, Paranoid Complaints, Conformist Complaints and Empty Complaints. She would have learnt that "complaint has a noble history" and recognised that there is something of a travesty in its present association with "inconsequential moans and frivolous legislation". She would have learnt about how complaint can be constructive and how our ability to complain "is part and parcel of what makes us human".

Baggini would also have lifted her thoughts about the significance of complaint above the immediacy of office culture. He would have shown her that an analysis of complaint throws new light on familiar debates about cultural relativism, political correctness, and our aversion to taking responsibility. Above all she would have learnt - as will all other readers of this funny, accessible, acute study - that recognition of the difference between right and wrong complaining can help to improve our lives. It can stop us moaning about that which can't be changed and help focus our attention on that which should and ought to be challenged. And no one could possibly complain about that.

Laurie Taylor is a fellow of Birkbeck, University of London.

Complaint.

By Julian Baggini. Profile Books. 224pp, £12.99. ISBN 9781846680571. Published 5 June 2008

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