‘Terrible weather, eh?’ You hear complaints like that a lot, don’t you. But is it really? Is the weather actually bad? If I tell you that, do you think I want you to believe it is, in fact, deplorable, or have I merely used a turn of phrase, an idiom, whose collective words have a meaning different from any one of them alone? Am I testing you, in yet other words? Hopefully, a moment’s reflection will allow the metaphor to bloom.
It’s an interesting, if rather abstruse thought. And yet complaining is sometimes like that: not meant to be taken literally, but merely as an opener to start a conversation with a friend, or maybe with stranger at a bus stop. It’s not really a complaint; that should be clear from how you do it.
Actually, I’d like to think that if I complain well, it opens people up. The subject should be something uncontroversial, and which, no matter the side chosen, could be accepted by the recipient without loss of face, or embarrassment. I would never complain about their breath, for example or suggest that they were not properly dressed for the occasion. And anyway, that would not be a complaint but an observation, a criticism which could circle back on me.
The type of complaints to which I am referring do not circle; they just sit there in silence, inviting either agreement, or an alternate yet more colourful response. It’s a game we play with others. It is not a challenge -a gauntlet thrown; it is more like a hankie, dropped.
Still, much like the boy who kept yelling ‘wolf’, I think it can be overused. Overstated. I think a complaint about the weather would be greeted with a smile and a reply in kind if you were to find yourself sheltering in a doorway from a snowstorm with a shivering elder, but if he happened also to be a priest and you had complained about weather emanating from an uncaring God, you might unleash a passionate rebuttal. The objective of a complaint should be commiseration, not collateral damage.
I discovered there really was a difference between a commiserative complaint and a combative remonstrance in a busy store last year, unfortunately. Of course, I suppose I shouldn’t have chosen one of those bargain stores that ignore provenance and forsake quality, but I was a tourist; how was I to know? The price was right, and even if the box it came in was damaged, and I couldn’t understand the instruction caveats on the crumpled bit of paper shoved into it, the electric razor it contained seemed undamaged. I assumed the crushed box was why they’d put it on sale, and felt quite proud of my acumen -I’d found it hidden on the back of the shelf in the hair-drier section… Don’t ask.
Although I had worn a beard for many years, its colour had gradually parted company with that of its compatriot on my head -to wit, my beard was grey; it no longer matched its former friend and had abandoned any pretence of renewing the contract. For years, ever the mediator, I had compromised by keeping short, barbed remnants of it much as someone might wear an unshaven face in the morning. But it was a permanent 5 o’clock shadow that didn’t actually leave much of a silhouette except viewed in profile under dim light. Travel, however, engenders bravery. I mean, who would know a newly ungarnished chin was actually terra incognita for me?
But, when I charged the razor up that night in the motel, and tried it the next morning it stopped working after sputtering over only one cheek.
I took it back to the store in the same box it came in, but the clerk at the returns desk eyed me suspiciously.
“Box is damaged, sir,” she said after I handed it to her.
I smiled and told her it had come that way.
“So why’d you buy it then?”
I shrugged. “It was the only one you had… and it was on sale.”
“You get what you pay for, eh?” she smirked at me and held up the box and the bill I’d stuffed inside fell onto the counter.
“Whatever. But I did pay for it anyway, and I want my money back.”
Her eyes narrowed as she pulled the razor from its box. “You charge it up like it says?”
I nodded as she suddenly inspected my face.
“Looks like it worked for a while, sir,” she said sarcastically, and pointed to my semi-shaven cheek. “Did you drop it in the sink?”
I shook my head. “It just stopped working mid-cheek.”
She inspected the blades on the razor and pointed at some green fluff. “You practice on the sofa before you tried it?”
“The sofa -did you try shaving it to see how it handled?”
My eyes narrowed at the accusation. “I may have put it down on the sofa while I got dressed, but…”
She turned to a fellow clerk working with her and handed her the razor. “What d’you think Ethel?”
The other woman looked at it for a minute and shrugged. “Dunno… He shave the sofa or somethin?” They both giggled.
“Look, I just want my money back. You sold me a defective razor…”
Her turn to narrow her eyes. “Sir, I did nothing of the kind.”
I rolled my eyes in frustration. “The store did then. Who cares? I just want my money back.”
I grabbed for the razor box. “It says the charge should last for 6 hours,” I said, trying to read the small print on the front. “That’s false advertising!”
I must have raised my voice, because she stepped back from the counter to distance us a little more. “You are being aggressive, sir, and we do not tolerate that here.” I don’t think she liked my accent.
“Fair enough. Let me speak to your manager.” I tried to modulate my voice a little.
She took a deep breath and clenched her jaw. “I am the manager, sir.” She placed the razor and it’s broken box on the counter in front of her and glared at me. “And this,” -she picked up the bill that had fallen onto the counter- “…This is a bill for some toothpaste and…” She looked at it more carefully. “And a toothbrush from another store…”
I must have looked surprised because she handed the bill to me to prove her point.
“Oh damn… I’m sorry, I must have…” I searched through my pockets and then my credit cards, and sure enough the bill dropped out. “I… must have…”
But they were laughing now -although more from relief than amusement, I think.
“We thought you were trying to pull something on us,” she said, glancing at her friend. “Look, we both got off on the wrong foot here. Tell you what,” she added, picking up the razor and examining it. “This razor is crap. I’ll give you a better one, a more expensive one in exchange…”
I shook my head -but politely this time.
She stared at the cut and bruised part of my face for a moment. “Or… maybe you should go back to straight razors again, eh?” she said, and processed the refund on my credit card when I smiled.
“Sorry I messed up the bill… Complaining’s not my thing,” I added when she handed me the return slip.
“Neither’s shaving,” she said and nudged her friend