Making Complaints in English

How to Address Disagreements for ESL Students

Conflict in family
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Politeness is universally appreciated, even when making complaints, no matter what language a person speaks, but in learning English as a Second Language (ESL), some students may struggle with formulas and functions of certain English phrases meant to politely start a conversation involving a complaint.

There are a number of formulas used when complaining in English, but it's important to remember that a direct complaint or criticism in English can sound rude or aggressive.

For most English speakers, it's preferred that others express their dissatisfaction indirectly, and introduce the complaint with an amicable introductory clause such as "I'm sorry to have to say this but..." or "excuse me if I'm out of line, but..."

It is important to note, however, that these phrases don't directly translate into Spanish so understanding the basic function of words like "sorry" go a long way to introducing ESL students to the polite way to go about making complaints in English.

How to Start Complaints Amicably

In Spanish, one might start a complaint with the phrase "lo siento," or "I'm sorry" in English. Similarly, English speakers typically start their complaints with an apology or indirect reference to propriety. This is largely because politeness is a major element of English rhetoric. 

Some phrases that English speakers may use to start complaints politely:

  • I'm sorry to have to say this but...
  • I'm sorry to bother you, but...
  • Maybe you forgot to...
  • I think you might have forgotten to...
  • Excuse me if I'm out of line, but...
  • There may have been a misunderstanding about...
  • Don't get me wrong, but I think we should...

In each of these phrases, the speaker begins the complaint with an admission of error on the speaker's part, relieving some of the assumed tension between speaker and audience by letting the listener know that no one involved is blameless.

Whether it be because of contrasting ideas or just because a speaker wants to  say "no" nicely, these introductory phrases can be helpful to maintain respectful rhetoric in conversation.

Forming a Polite Complaint

After ESL students understand the concept of introductory phrases to complaints, the next important element of conversation is keeping the complaint itself polite. Although being imprecise or vague does have its benefits when complaining, clarity and good intentions go a lot further in maintaining the cordiality of conversation.

It's also important not to come across as attacking while making a complaint, so the complaint itself should start with phrases like "I think" or "I feel" to indicate that the speaker isn't accusing the listener of something as much as he or she is starting a conversation about the disagreement.

Take, for instance, an employee who is upset at another for not following the company policy while working at a restaurant together, that person might tell the other "Excuse me if I'm out of line, but I feel like you may have forgotten that closing waiters need to refill the salt shakers before leaving." By introducing the complaint with an apology, the speaker allows the listener to not feel threatened and opens up a conversation about company policy instead of scolding or demanding that person do their job better.

Redirecting focus and calling for a solution at the end of a complaint is another good way to address the issue. For instance, one might say "Don't get me wrong, but I think it might be better if we focus on this task before doing the one you're working on" to a coworker who is not working on the right part of a project.