Brian Viner: The tricky art of effective complaining

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On Saturday evening my wife Jane and I went out for a pub meal and as usual I laboured under the delusion that she only had ears for me; in fact, while looking at me fixedly over her fishcake, she was eavesdropping on a conversation at the next table, where a woman was complaining quietly but vigorously to the landlady at what she considered to be inexcusably slow service. The landlady's response was that they had arrived 15 minutes late for their table, and were simply suffering the consequences. She was polite, but hardly apologetic, and the more indignant the woman became, the less apologetic she got.

I should think that a similar scenes unfolds across Britain most Saturday nights, with neither the complainant nor the complained-at yielding much ground. As a nation we are dreadful complainers, either too histrionic or too easily placated, and we are dreadful at being complained at, especially in the service industry, where, in the event of a justifiable grievance, scarcely one restaurant or hotel manager in 10 seems to understand that a bottle of wine on the house or even a free night's accommodation is worth at least treble its value in goodwill.

A new book, The Joys of Complaining, addresses this peculiarly British area of ineptitude. However, its author, Jasper Griegson, insists that in the complaining arena, the written word is by far the most effective medium. "Complain without delay, but do it in the old-fashioned way," Mr Griegson advises. "The written word is much more powerful than the face-to-face row, the telephone conversation or the email." He also recommends that anger should be suppressed. "You will be surprised how often a cheerful, even humorous letter will achieve a far better result than a vitriolic, rambling rant," he asserts.

I can see his logic, although if our neighbours at the next table had swallowed their frustration (in the continuing absence of fishcakes or anything else to swallow), and resolved to write a letter when they got home, they almost certainly would never have got round to it. Some complaints have to be issued on the spur of the moment. On the other hand, their complaint got them nowhere anyway, and maybe the landlady, removed from the stress of Saturday-night service, might have written back offering them a bottle of house white on their next visit.

I doubt it, though. She didn't seem like the sort of person to relinquish a bottle of house white except in exchange for £9.95, which is why I think there is another book to be written, for the benefit of the complainee. There is no point the British getting better at complaining, unless we also get better at being complained at.

As a local newspaper reporter years ago I had the best possible training in how to deal with a complaint, having visited upon the paper a potential libel suit that could have brought it to its knees. My libel was contained within the TV listings, where I described a yachtswoman as a transsexual. My feeble defence was that I thought she was. But she wasn't. And when she found out, she phoned the news desk in a state of highly litigious agitation. Happily, the news editor, an experienced South African newspaperman, took her call. And he was so repentant, practically pleading with her to sue the paper to kingdom come, and assuring her in ever more shrill tones, all his Afrikaans vowels resurfacing, that the wretched miscreant would be hung out to dry, that she ended up trying to calm him down, saying that a printed apology would suffice. It was a brilliant strategy, disarming the complainant by commandeering her own indignation. And if the landlady had been savvier, it might just have worked in the pub the other night. As it is, those people won't ever go back.

Intern opens the book on JFK's antics

There has been what can only be described as a tumescence of interest in the sex life of President John F Kennedy these past few days, first with the revelation that Hjordis Niven, the beautiful Swedish wife of the film star David Niven, on a visit to the White House in 1963 and to punish her husband for his own infidelities, submitted to the President's desire for "a quickie". Unfortunately he gave her chlamydia in return, but that's by the by. Kennedy also had a long affair with a White House intern, now a 66-year-old retired church administrator called Mimi Beardsley Alford, who most unfashionably in this day and age had hoped to keep the relationship secret until it was rudely exposed six years ago by a JFK biographer.

Anyway, Ms Alford has at last signed a six-figure book deal to tell her side of the story, including the detail that she used to hide on the floor of the presidential limousine as it left the White House. She was also meant to go with him on his celebrated trip to Berlin in 1963, and Kennedy almost fired her boss in the press office when it turned out he hadn't let her travel. As always with these stories, I am left wondering how JFK found the time to get legislation through, so busy was he getting his leg over. But there are no end of therapists knocking around now who tell us solemnly that his was a classic case of sex-addiction, although I am minded to defer to Clive James on this subject.

James has been hooked on cigarettes, booze and marijuana in his time, but doesn't believe in sex addiction, which he considers to be "a very big phrase for bad behaviour".

The delight of childbirth, and how it confounds

Nuala Conway and her husband, the County Tyrone couple who have just become the proud, if somewhat apprehensive, parents of sextuplets, are by all accounts very keen for people to know that the multiple birth was not the result of IVF, making it all the more extraordinary.

What is just as remarkable, though, is that they thought they were expecting twins until only a month before the birth, when doctors dropped the bombshell that there would be four more babies than they had expected.

It never fails to astonish and, frankly, delight me that in the 21st century, with some scientists refining cloning techniques and others working out how to land a man on Mars, something that happens every second of every day – childbirth – can still confound all the scanners, all the doctors, all the textbooks, in all the world.

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