Complaints Or Statements Of Dissatisfaction English Language Essay

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Students in a writing team discuss the work that they are going to compile for a class presentation. Rachell reminds her teammates which parts they are supposed to do: she will write out summaries for their presentation; Chris will finish a PowerPoint presentation they have been working on; and Doug will write up their research findings in a proposal format. In response to this delegation of tasks, Doug replies, "I hate writing." However, when Rachel responds by offering to switch tasks, he says "No, I'll do it [write the proposal]." Is Doug's complaint "annoying" and, if so, what makes it annoying? What is the function of Doug's complaint? These are just a couple of the questions that arise when studying complaints in student writing teams. Consider, too, this complaint, also made in a writing team. The students here are reviewing and peer critiquing a proposal draft that one of the team members wrote:

Leah: Okay, I think this first sentence. Okay, this is just me being grammatical person

Geoff: Right

Leah: "With all of the websites located on the World Wide Web ... " Instead, maybe we should write how many of them are reliable. Geoff: Okay, either way, it doesn't-

Leah: But, that's just me being picky.

In this transcript, Leah is critiquing Geoff s draft, pointing out a grammatical error. However, instead of criticizing the writer (Geoff) or the sentence, she goes on to express dissatisfaction about herself: "that's just me being picky." She makes an interesting rhetorical move here-by complaining about herself (her propensity for being picky), she shifts attention from Geoff's grammatical errors and softens her criticism of his draft. In a way, she is using this expression of dissatisfaction to apologize to Geoff for finding errors in his writing. Is this a common strategy employed by women? Do complaints like these-indirectly stated and emphasizing the speaker's shortcomings (Leah's pickiness) over the listener's (Geoff's grammatical errors)-cause others to construct a negative perception of the speaker? This study is going to discuss these questions by analyzing trends of perceptions of complaints by men and women in academic setting in Iran.

1.2. Statement of the Problem

Some scholars have mentioned instances of complaints or statements of dissatisfaction that shed light on pedagogical issues. For example, students have complained about their teachers' classroom policies (Thelin, 2005). They have negatively evaluated classroom activities (Brooke, 1987) and complained that assignments were a "waste of time" (Nelson, 1990, p. 323). Scholars have found these examples of student discourse useful for understanding their students and for improving their pedagogy. Complaining, if studied systemically, could help us understand conflicts within student writing groups as well.

Much of the focus on sociolinguistic patterns in discourse communities has been on English-as-a-second-language (ESL) instruction; for example, ESL teachers have sought to teach complaining conventions to non-native speakers. One very interesting example of this can be found on the U.S. Department of State's website for teaching pragmatics to ESL learners. This website offers a lesson on "Complaining Successfully," providing explicit guidelines for performing the speech act. The directions state that a complaint should include "a statement of the problem, a request for redress, and a statement about future intentions" (Reynolds, 2003). These guidelines suggest that complaints have clear conventions. One can speculate that there are also consequences for those who do not follow those conventions; for example, violating the conventions could result in the complainer not getting a satisfactory response to his complaint.

But pragmatics lessons such as these do not really address the varieties and subtleties of complaining behavior. While a formal, direct complaint may seem straightforward and formulaic, it can easily misfire. Complaining scholarship has not focused on misfires within native speakers' conversations, but we can see a potential for misfires within American speakers' speech events from research that contrasts native speakers' and non-native speakers' complaint strategies. For example, Murphy and Neu (1996) document a misfire in their study of Americans and Koreans. They asked their participants to complain to a hypothetical teacher about a grade. Americans phrased their complaints by placing partial blame on themselves, while Koreans placed blame and criticism solely on the teacher; the Korean speakers were perceived as overly aggressive in how they complained in this hypothetical situation.

Not only do non-native speakers of English, such as the Koreans in Murphy and Neu's (1996) study, require instruction for direct complaints, they also need to be taught norms for indirect complaints, which are much more common. Boxer (1993) documents findings from a semester long study of conversations between pairs of Americans and Japanese. Americans used indirect complaints more than Japanese, and they were more likely to commiserate if their speaking partner complained. The English speakers in this study performed complaints as a way to strike up conversation, and they used commiseration to continue a conversation. This discourse strategy was absent from Japanese speakers' conversational styles, and the absence caused stilted or underdeveloped conversations.

Complaints might in particular have negative consequences for women who have been traditionally stereotyped as complainers. Several researchers have confirmed that negative terms associated with complaining-such as nagging, bitching, and whining- are stereotyped as female behavior (Stubbs, 1983; Sotirin, 2000). Take this excerpt from a self-help book:

Men tend not to complain, at least not about little things. They've been taught, since they were little boys, to be tough, to endure, to be stoic, to be unemotional, to hold it in, to be MEN. Basically, they've been taught that it's not manly to complain. Consequently, they have little tolerance for any kind of complaining, especially whining. (Oh, 2005)

The excerpt above reveals a popular stereotype: women complain more than men'. Even when complaining is discussed as a positive interaction (for instance, complaining to communicate solidarity or empathy with another's problems), women are still perceived as complaining more than men (Boxer, 1996) or as more lenient on complainers than men.

Based on these popular stereotypes of men's and women's contrasting uses and attitudes toward complaining, this speech act may function as a barrier to women's success. In fields that are male-dominated, like engineering (McIlwee & Robinson, 1992), women's verbal style often influences how they are perceived. It has been found that women who talk in a stereotypically female manner are perceived negatively by their team members (Ingram & Parker, 2002). For example, in a study of teamwork in technical settings, a female student who asks a question about how to do technical work (underscoring the stereotype that women are technically insecure) is perceived by a male team member as ignorant rather than "positively as showing initiative" (Wolfe & Alexander, 2004, p. 26). Similarly, women who complain in technical settings may be misunderstood or perceived negatively because men and women have different discourse norms. What women see as establishing rapport, men may see as communicating incompetence.

By considering the above-mentioned discussion, the present study is going to find out about norms of complaining, a behavior that is prevalent in everyday talk. This study wants to determine how men and women are perceived when they complain. The complaint speech act is more complicated than other, more conventional speech acts like the promise, and is more likely than a promise to misfire, causing negative repercussions for students trying to communicate about a project.

In order to help women successfully enter fields dominated by male-discourse norms, teachers can benefit from studying differences in men and women's complaint strategies. Similar studies have been conducted to complicate language stereotypes and provide women with the knowledge they need to negotiate different discourse communities. For example, it was once commonly believed that women were more loquacious than men. However, research in mixed-gendered, formal settings has challenged this popular perception by finding that men speak significantly more often and are less likely to be successfully interrupted than women (Anderson & Leaper, 1998; Graddol & Swann, 1989). These studies have helped women see the need to interrupt in male-dominated (public) settings so that their voices can be heard and their work valued. A study of complaining in mixed-gendered writing teams might likewise help women understand how to be more communicatively successful in technical fields.

1.3. Significance and Purpose of the study

It is possible that women are perceived more negatively than men when complaining, even when making the same complaint. I will also investigate whether or not variables such as gender of the observer will have an influence on perceptions.

The gender of the complainer may influence whether or not a complaint is perceived negatively. Language and gender research has shown us that there exists a double-standard in language use (Andrews, 1992; Woodfield, 2000). When women, for example, employ a "male" discourse style (direct, aggressive, competitive), they may be perceived negatively because they are transgressing the norms of their conversational style. It is possible that women who employ "male" complaints, such as excuse and superiority, will be perceived more negatively than their male counterparts. It is also possible that men who employ "female" complaints, such as call for accounts, will also be perceived negatively.

Because male and female discourse norms differ (Kramarae & Treichler, 1990), it is also possible that the gender of the perceiver (in this case, the participant answering a questionnaire) may influence whether or not a complaint is perceived negatively. Tolerance for certain complaint objects and functions may differ for a man and a woman. Men, for example, may be more tolerant of superiority complaints than women because men are more likely to employ this complaint function. Women, on the other hand, may be more tolerant of indirectly stated complaints such as call for accounts.

This study can help us better understand trends in how complaints are perceived, especially in relation to the gender of the complainer and to the gender of the perceivers. For group work in writing classes, this has important implications: if we can determine patterns of perceptions of complaints, we can help our students better manage their group dynamics. If, for example, women are more likely to be perceived as incompetent when making a certain complaint than men, students can be made aware of their biases toward language use in order to alter their perceptions.

1.4. Research Questions and Hypotheses

Based on the above-mentioned objectives of the study, the following research questions are raised:

Q1: How does the gender of the speaker influence the perception of the complaint?

Q2: How does the gender of the listener influence the perception of the complaint?


Review of Related Literature

2.1. Speech Acts and Direct Complaints

Speech act theory, developed by philosophy of language scholars (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969), posits that utterances are rule-governed actions. To describe speech acts, Searle (1969) initially provided a list of conventions defining the promise, arguing that these conventions could be adapted to describe any type of utterance. One such speech act is the complaint. Though speech acts like the apology and the promise have been studied by linguists and sociologists, complaints have had little research. Yet, the complaint is an illocutionary act (a speech act that performs) with perlocutionary intents (having an effect on the listener) (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 2003). A complaint states a problem in order to change a situation and/or to alleviate a feeling of personal dissatisfaction, among other functions. As with apologies and promises, the complaint follows certain conventions that vary across gender, race, and culture.

In the relatively small amount of research conducted on complaining, scholars have described two types: direct and indirect. Most people think of the direct complaint when asked about this speech act (Boxer, 1993). A direct complaint is an expression of dissatisfaction made to the person who is perceived as responsible for that dissatisfaction (either who caused it or who is obligated to fix it). Some examples of direct complaints include the following: a student complains to a teacher about a grade, a patient to a doctor about a health problem, and a consumer to a sales representative about a faulty product.

The indirect complaint, the more common of the two (Boxer, 1993), is an expression of dissatisfaction not made to the offending party. Some examples of indirect complaints include the following: a person complains to a stranger about the weather, a student to a peer about coursework, a person to a friend about a headache.

The following direct complaint was posted on "," an online database where consumers can voice their complaints about products in order to have their problems directed to those who can provide solutions. This consumer states that her email account no longer functions:

I am having problems with my Yahoo mail account. I have tried everything on the help page, but the standard questions are not applicable to my case. My e-mail simply stopped working and not due to an incorrect password or id. It is extremely frustrating because I am a paying member and I cannot access my account, nor can I get any assistance from anybody at Yahoo! All I get are those automated responses. (Towsley, 2005)

Again, this complaint was posted in a specific forum for consumers to let companies know that they are dissatisfied with their products in order to gain some solution to the problem. Much like a patient provides a doctor with a list of symptoms in order to obtain effective treatment, this consumer states her problem in order for her email account to be fixed. What makes a complaint like "My email account is not working" different from a more conventional speech act, like the promise, is that, as can be seen by comparing conventions for both, the power of the complaint resides in the hearer. What this means is that for a promise, the speaker controls the subsequent action (follow through of what was promised). If a person promises his spouse he will pick up the dry-cleaning, it is up to him to do so. However, after a complaint is uttered, the hearer is obliged to solve the problem causing the dissatisfaction; or the hearer can fail to provide any response at all. This makes the complaint a much more rhetorical act than paradigmatic speech acts like promise.

Consequently, a complaint is more likely than a promise to misfire (fail to achieve its illocutionary force). For example, if the writer of the above complaint (about the email account) uttered it to a party unwilling (or unable) to solve her problem, her complaint would misfire.

When the power is in the hearer rather than the speaker, misfires are more likely to occur and negative repercussions affect the speaker, especially when complaining occurs between people in a hierarchical relationship. Complaining misfires documented between institutional authority figures can be found in two studies that look at complaining conventions across cultures and between doctors/patients. These studies illustrate why complaining can be such an enigma. Murphy and Neu (1996) found that in the formal situation of complaining to a teacher about a grade, Korean students were more likely to express a complaint directly than American students. The Korean speakers placed blame on the professor while the native speakers accepted partial blame. The appropriate way to complain differed for these students based on their cultural backgrounds. Further, the native speakers perceived the Korean speakers' complaints to be inappropriate. The Korean speakers' complaints misfired, not because they violated any of the speech act's conventions, but because they violated manners seen as appropriate for speaking to authority figures (professors).

Candlin, Coleman, and Burton (1983) found that dentists and patients had different discoursal sets-ideas about when it was appropriate to complain. The dentists in their study would ignore or dismiss a patient's complaint if it was not directly solicited. Thus, a complaint made about one's health to a health professional (such as a dentist) does not violate the speech act conventions (see Table 1); however, it misfires when it is not deemed appropriate by the authority figure (in this case, the dentist). The Korean speakers' and patients' complaints violate expected norms of communicating with authority figures. These violations create negative consequences for the complainers: being seen as inappropriate and being ignored.

2.2. Speech Acts and Indirect Complaints

As shown above, the direct complaint is a complicated speech act. Its conventions contrast with those of paradigmatic speech acts, like the promise, in that the speaker lacks control over the reception of the complaint and must rely on persuasive strategies for the illocutionary force to meet felicity conditions (to be successful). The complications are exacerbated when a complaint is phrased indirectly. The majority of complaints, however, are indirect. These complaints are expressions of dissatisfaction about oneself (e.g., "I have the worst headache!") or someone or something not present (e.g., to a classmate, "This teacher gives too much homework). While indirect complaints are not statements of dissatisfaction against the talk's current recipient (Boxer, 1993), they are still speech acts. In other words, they still perform and call for some action. For instance, indirect complaints can build solidarity, such as when strangers complain about the weather in order to start up a conversation or when students complain about the difficulty of a class as a way of establishing camaraderie. These examples show that indirect complaints can have positive consequences.

Figure 1. Transcript for "I hate writing."


• Rachel: an African-American female in her early twenties

• Doug: a white male in his early twenties

• Chris: a white male in his early twenties

Context: Students are preparing a PowerPoint presentation of their research for the collaborative writing project on which they are working. They are in a scientific and technical writing class. The project on which they are working is a proposal to change the University of Louisville's website.


Rachel: Right. A summary of each slide, so that way we can talk about it in our presentation. You [Doug] can do the paper, you [Chris] can do that [the technology work], I can do that [a summary of each PowerPoint slide]. That way we'll all have something to do this weekend, so hopefully on Monday, when we meet again, we'll have more stuff accomplished, and that way we can practice more and rehearse so that way on Wednesday, we'll be ready to go.

Doug: So, you're [Chris] doing the tech stuff, you're [Rachel] going to summarize on index cards or whatever you use what he is doing.

Rachel: Right.

Doug: And then I'm basically taking everything that you guys have.

Rachel: And putting it into the six and a half page proposal form. If you don't want to do that I will. Doug: No, I'll do it, I'll do it

R: No, you don't have to. 'Cause, I will happily put it together. D: I'll do it ... I hate writing. But 1--

R: Then if you don't want to write it, I will do it. D: No, I'll do it. No. I'll do it. Because--

R: Okay. Because I don't want you to feel that you're being left with anything or being saddled with it, because I'll do it.

Indirect complaints can also have negative consequences for the speaker, however. If, for example, the speaker is a habitual complainer, his classmates may label him as a "whiner." Another reason indirect complaints often have negative repercussions is that it is often unclear what act the speaker actually wants accomplished. Take the following complaint, "I hate writing" (Figure 1). Figure 1 shows the transcript for this complaint which occurs within a mixed-gendered writing team in a scientific and technical writing class at the University of Louisville. These three students are preparing There are several things going on in this transcript (Figure 1). Rachel divides up tasks for the presentation between herself and her team-members: Doug is responsible for writing up the paper; Chris is responsible for creating the PowerPoint slides; Rachel is responsible for writing summaries of the slides that they can use in their presentation.

Doug repeats Rachel's instructions, but then he says "I hate writing." The question arises: what does he hope to achieve with this indirect complaint? In the context of the discussion, he seems to use this complaint to indirectly request his team members to perform some action. Yet, when Rachel offers to write the paper instead, he refuses. This type of indirect speech act with obscure functions often has substantial negative consequences for the speaker. In this case, outside observers who were asked to evaluate the complainer considered Doug to be "a whiner".

2.3. Components of Speech: Role of Gender and Technical Settings

The analysis of the direct complaint, "My email account is not working," shows us that this speech act is complicated because the power is in the hearer rather than the speaker. "I hate writing's" analysis demonstrates the potentially high risk of misfires for indirectly phrased complaints, misfires caused because the burden of interpreting the complaint's future act lies in the hearer. Interpretation can be aided through analysis of speech components. Hymes (1974, 2003) developed the mnemonic SPEAKING for a heuristic which includes the following speech components: act situations (S), participants (P), ends (E), act sequences (A), key (K), instrumentalities (I), norms (N), and genres (G). This framework allows us to see what might cause a complaint to misfire.

2.3.1. Act sequence

Message form and content which make up the act sequence can help us determine the function of a complaint. Let us once again visit the complaint, "I hate writing." In Rachel's first line, she is delegating tasks for the group project. Next, Doug summarizes what she says and places emphasis on the task that falls on him: "I'm basically taking everything." His emphasis makes his task seem more onerous than either Rachel's or Chris's. His comment is perceived by Rachel as a statement of dissatisfaction which we can see through her next comment, "If you don't want to do that I will." Realizing that Rachel perceived his emphasis as a complaint, Doug responds to her by saying he will do it (write the paper). Yet, his tone (key) is still dissatisfied, and the form of the message provides evidence for this dissatisfaction when he repeats himself: "No, I'll do it, I'll do it."

2.3.2 Participants

The participants include all those involved in the speech event (here, the conversation taking place in a team meeting). Participants' knowledge of one another, various experiences, and belief systems impact group dynamics and help create the context for complaints and reveal possible reasons behind a complaint. For example, the exchange between Rachel and Doug may reveal a culmination of prior experiences within that team. Doug may be a habitual complainer, leading Rachel to interpret the summary of his tasks as a complaint. Rachel, on the other hand, may have done little work throughout the project, and Doug's complaint is a result of resentment.

2.3.3. Purposes

Purposes include ends and goals and can help to determine a complainer's intent. What ends are expected for a team meeting? Usually, team meetings have a certain agenda that ultimately results in the completion of a collaborative project. Rachel's delegation of tasks would seem appropriate for such an end. Doug's statement that he hates writing is more likely to be perceived as a complaint because it goes against the ends. Goals are more situational and personal. Rachel's goals are straightforward: she wants the conversation to end with each team member ready to take on his and her tasks. "I hate writing" seems to interfere with these goals. Instead of focusing on what it will take to finish the project and instead of negotiating tasks with Rachel, Doug focuses on his personal share of the work and his personal dislike for writing. Doug's intent with the complaint is frustrating to interpret because it runs counter to the group's overall purposes.

2.3.4 Situation

Situation is closely related to purposes. It includes both physical time and place and the scene for the conversation. In "I hate writing," the situation is a team meeting that takes place outside of class. It cannot really be divorced from purpose: the team meeting is taking place in order for the group to accomplish its ends and goals. Certain speech acts are inappropriate for certain situations (for example, making jokes to your neighbor while taking the GRE); it is possible that Doug's complaint is deemed inappropriate because it does not reflect the professional atmosphere that should be cultivated in a collaborative writing group.

2.3.5. Norms

Norms are both norms of interaction and norms of interpretation. What one group may perceive as appropriate speech acts in a technical setting (norms of interaction), another group may perceive as inappropriate. For example, in a professional setting, some people may perceive personal information as inappropriate while others may see it as an opportunity to bond. Doug's statement(s) of dissatisfaction throughout the transcript seem to violate the norms of interaction for a team meeting.

2.4. Complaining research

Prior research on complaining has sought to understand functions and characteristics of complaints. Kowalski (1996) has defined the complaint as a statement of dissatisfaction resulting from a disconfirmation of expectancies, and she has theorized that complaints have various functions, including to vent and to create solidarity. From observations and analysis of everyday talk, Boxer (1993) has categorized complaints into direct complaints and indirect complaints. In addition, she has identified three foci for complaints: the self, the situation, and other people. Through his analysis of conversations between couples, Alberts (1988) has identified categories of complaints including complaints about others' behavior and complaints about others' personality traits. He also categorized responses to complaints, developing a taxonomy including responses of agreement, disagreement, dismiss/minimize, and others. Alicke et al. (1992) investigated college students' complaints. The participants recorded all complaints they uttered over a 3-day period in diaries, as well as the functions for those complaints. These researchers found that students most often complain to vent. These studies have been very helpful in beginning to describe complaint behavior. What is needed is a study of complaints occurring in a more specific context so that we can understand aspects of complaining behavior such as the interaction of norms of interpretation and interaction.

Scholars have also looked at differences in how different groups complain, but there is little evidence shedding light on gender differences. Alicke et al. (1992) did find that women used complaints more than men to seek information and to coordinate behavior; yet, most studies do not systematically study gender. Much of what we know about gender and complaining derives from beliefs, not empirical evidence.

2.5. Previous research on gender and complaining

My study focuses on how gender influences successful complaint speech acts in two ways: gender of participants and gender's conversational norms. Because the complaint speech act is so dependent upon the hearer's interpretation, and because this interpretation depends so heavily on conversational norms, outsiders to a culture may be particularly susceptible to complaint misfires. My study seeks to understand differences between male and female complaining norms.

Conversational norms for men and women have been traditionally seen as differing, according to gender and language research. Multiple researchers have found that women prefer a collaborative style of communication while men prefer a competitive style of communication (Coates, 1998; Kramarae & Treichler, 1990).

The gender of the participants, therefore, will likely impact the form and content of complaints and the interpretation and perception of complaints. A woman, for example, may complain to create solidarity between her and her teammates, since women supposedly prefer a collaborative style of conversation. A man, however, may complain directly to an offender, or he may complain to make himself look superior, since men supposedly prefer a competitive speaking style.

How complaints are perceived also depends on gender of both speaker and listener. A woman may complain to establish rapport, but a man may misread her purpose. His response will reflect the misfire. Deborah Tannen provides an example from her popular book, Talking 9 to 5. Women and Men in the Workplace: Language, Sex, Power (1994), of how a man and a woman in a professional setting have different complaining norms. A woman tells Tannen that she came to an impasse with a male coworker when she expressed dissatisfaction to him about someone or something not present. She would complain to understand a problem better, but her office-mate (a male) responded by telling her how to improve her situation, leaving her "feeling condescended to and frustrated", since her purpose was not to ask for a solution.

As this example suggests, even though it is likely that men and women complain the same amount, it is also likely that the form and content of their complaints will differ. Perhaps the difference in complaining norms influences the stereotype that men complain less than women.



3.1. Participants

One hundred students studying Teaching and Translation will be selected randomly in ………………. They will be both man and woman. A TOEFL proficiency test will be used to select homogeneous participants.

3.2. Procedures

In this study, I will create two sets of identical surveys with transcribed scenarios of students complaining; the only difference in each set is the gender of the complainer. For example, in set A, the following transcript is used

Scenario 1: [Students are reading instructions in their course book for writing a proposal.]

Geoff: Yeah, and then you try to follow the outline of the book and it's like, well, I know how I would write a proposal, and it would not be anything like that.

Leah: But the more you go through it, the more sense it starts to make. Like, the other night, when I did the progress report, it just kind of put everything together.

Geoff: Well see, the thing is though, see, I'm used to seeing proposals at work, and they set it up on a memo, and there is no little headline that says "introduction"; there is no headline of "this." It's just a simple "here's the problem, here's the task, here's the ... " Leah: It is kind of weird that it is separated like that

Geoff: That's not a proposal, that's a book report. [Leah laughs.] You know what I'm saying? I mean, that's not a proposal, it's a book report.

In set B, the same transcript is used, but the complainer is Kate instead of Geof..2 Likert- scale items will be provided to elicit perceptions of the complainers in both sets. In addition to asking the participants to evaluate the scenarios, a background questionnaire is used to get information such as age, gender, and major, year of study. These demographic items will be asked in order to help the researcher determine the interaction between demographic variables of the observer (major and gender) and the gender of the complainer.

The surveys in both version A and version B will be distributed among the selected participants. Survey transcripts are chosen based on the connection between gender and function/object of complaint.

3.3. Data analysis

The survey data will be analyzed using simple ANOVA analyses. The analysis is conducted to determine whether or not there is a relationship between the gender of a complainer and the perception of an outside observer. The analysis is also conducted to determine if there is a relationship between the gender of the perceiver and his/her perception of the speaker.