British people get the majority of their complaining done in private, hours after the offending incident took place. Registering even the teensiest bit of displeasure in a public, sober setting is virtually unthinkable. Back in London, I’d sooner have undergone colonic irrigation on a plinth in Trafalgar Square than let a waitress who’d presented me with the wrong meal know that I’d quite like her to bring me what I ordered. I hurled so many psychic daggers at tourists on the tube who casually stand on the left side of escalators—the side for walkers, not standers—that I ended up with RSI in my imaginary third wrist. I spent 10 years living in London, but did I ever once tap a sightseer on the shoulder and politely ask them to move over? Of course not.
Now, though, after nearly four years in the U.S. spent practicing how to complain like an American, I love to moan and protest. Pity the bartender who pulls me a pint with suspicious flecks of something floating in the foam.
But I can’t take the credit for my refurbished attitude. I was trained by some of the most eloquent and acerbically disgruntled folk on the planet: New Yorkers. And I love them for it. I was on holiday here six years when I got my first wonderful view of the Big Apple complaining scene. At brunch in Brooklyn, I mentioned to my American companion that I thought maybe my orange juice was from a bottle rather than being, as advertised, “freshly squeezed.” Naturally, I wasn’t going to do anything about it. But my friend called over our server and asked whether the orange juice was, in fact, freshly squeezed. It was not. They’d run out. My friend said something to the effect of this not being on. The waitress was sorry. Extremely—sincerely, I might add—sorry. I got my order knocked off the bill. Complaining met by prostration and a free full meal? Mind. Blown. This is how it’s done, I thought. My internship had only just begun, and I was nowhere near ready to try complaining all by myself, but a new path, rich with my objections and resulting recompense, had opened up.
New Yorkers might be the masters, but the rest of the U.S. gives pretty good gripe too. So how are they all able to do something with ease and elegance that most Brits find so cripplingly difficult? Here’s my best guess. They’re trained from a young age to express their hurt feelings articulately and right wrongs when they feel undervalued. Brits are not. We’re told, “Don’t make a fuss.” For us, not getting what we paid for just confirms our cherished belief that we are fundamentally undeserving.
Americans don’t get nervous about making a stink either. Ever watched a Brit get so mad that they actually do speak up? There’s usually a lot of stuttering, unfinished sentences and spittle. We’re terrified, because complaining might just mean that we’re worth a damn after all, and so we lose our bottle. Here, it’s much less of an emotional gesture. If you pay for something and don’t get it, complaining is the next natural step. It’s standard procedure. No one will look at you weirdly for doing it and your friends won’t bow their heads in shame while you’re in the act.
But like I said, I’m over the shame and relishing my newfound hobby. So much so that all this summer I took it upon myself to scold dog owners in the park who had their mutts off leash illegally. This never would have happened in London. Last week I took it a step further and yelled at an owner who refused to clear up after her pit bull, which had decided to evacuate its bowel most gigantically in the middle of the sidewalk. I told her I’d call the police if she didn’t move the poo. I totally would have too. It was a beautiful scene, especially when she’d finished swearing at me and finally did what I’d asked. At one point, I even did that I’m-watching-you thing where you splay your middle and index finger, point them at your eyes, then whip the whole thing around to point at the other person.
Apparently, I’ve graduated from recreational complainer to full-on New York badass. So much fun, Brits. You should try it sometime.
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