A complaint is an expressive speech act that can be expressed directly or indirectly.

An indirect complaint is defined as “the expression of dissatisfaction to an interlocutor about oneself or someone/something that is not present” (Boxer, 1996: 219). The following exchange between two graduate students who express their dissatisfaction with a course is an example of an indirect complaint (Boxer, 1996):

A: I sat through yesterday's class with total non-comprehension!

B: Oh, yesterday was the worst!

In a direct complaint a speaker expresses displeasure or annoyance as a result of a past or ongoing action that affects him/her unfavorably.

Unlike other speech acts such as expressions of apology or compliments, the speaker who complains addresses an interlocutor directly and uses various strategies of displeasure that precede or follow a direct complaint.

Although the strategies used to express a complaint may vary with the situation and among languages, complaints are generally realized by means of the following strategies proposed by Olshtain & Weinbach (1988):

  1. Below the level of reproach . The speaker avoids explicit mention of the offensive event by means of various remarks without directly blaming the interlocutor. For example, if someone breaks a wine glass at a party, the interlocutor may mention a remark such as: ‘don't worry about it; such things happen.' Here the speaker does not intend to reprimand the interlocutor too strongly.
  2. Expression of annoyance or disapproval . These are realizations of disapproval by means of indirect or vague indications that something has been violated without holding the interlocutor directly responsible. In these cases, the speaker avoids direct confrontation with the interlocutor and makes general remarks that something has happened expressing some kind of annoyance at the violation. For example, a ‘complaint' such as ‘this is unacceptable behavior' does not hold the interlocutor responsible and makes indirect mention of the violation.
  3. Explicit complaint. The speaker explicitly states a direct complaint holding the interlocutor responsible for such a violation. This is often a direct or unmitigated complaint addressed to the interlocutor's face: ‘you're such an inconsiderate person; you should've consulted with me first'.
  4.  Accusation and warning. The direct action taken by the speaker making an explicit complain carries potential consequences for the interlocutor: ‘Next time, you'll pay for it with your own money'

In addition to the aforementioned classification, a complaint may be realized by means of three additional strategies (DeCapua, 1998):

6. Requests for repair . These include questions that ask the hearer to remediate the problem: ‘Please see if you can fix this as soon as possible'
7. Justifications . These include reasons expressed when complaining to defend or lend support to the speaker's position or request for demand.
8. Criticisms . A person who expresses a complaint may offer an evaluation of the situation that directly affects the interlocutor's face: You've ruined my car!

Complaints across cultures

Research has shown that the realization of complaints varies across speakers from different cultures. For example, when complaining to a professor about an unfair grade, Americans expressed a direct complaint (‘I think …in my opinion, maybe the grade was a little low'), while Koreans learners of English preferred a criticism over an explicit complaint (‘…. You don't recognize my point') (Murply & Neu, 1996). In another study of different situations expressing complaints, Germans showed a preference for requests for repair, justifications, and criticism than Americans who tended to avoid these strategies (DeCapua, 1998).

Complaints in Spanish

Although not much research has been conducted on complaints in Spanish, there is at least one study that examined complaints among female university students in Caracas ( Venezuela ) (Bolivar 2002). Overall, complaints in Spanish incorporate several of the strategies mentioned before, as shown in the examples from Bolivar (2002) (cited in Márquez Reiter & Placencia 2005, p. 73):

(1) To a friend who has borrowed a car and returned it with an empty tank:

Eres un inconsciente! / dame dinero para llenarlo yo / no te lo presto más .

(2) To a stranger whose dog has fouled the speaker's front entrance:

Disculpe pero / este no es sitio para que su perro haga sus necesidades, / por favor, retire eso de mi entrada

Example (1) is realized by means of an evaluation or a justification, a request for repair, and a warning, and example (2) contains an alerter in the form of an apology, a moralizing instruction, and a request for repair.