Complaining in English
When you have a problem and you need to complain, there are ways of expressing yourself politely as you look for a solution. Being too direct is considered rude and will often lead to the staff in the shop being less willing to help.
Imagine you have just bought a new mobile phone, but when you get home and open the box the screen is cracked. When you go back to the shop, which of the sentences below is best to say?
A. This is broken. Give me a new one or a refund.
B. I hope you can help. I have just bought this phone, and the screen seems to be cracked. Would you be able to replace it or provide a refund?
Hopefully you would have selected the second sentence (B). There are a number of reasons why this is a better sentence, as explained below.
Tip 1: Avoid giving commands
‘Give me a new one’, ‘Fix it now’, ‘Give me my money back’ – these are all commands which are less likely to end well. It is much better to phrase your request as an indirect question. In the examples above, the command ‘Give me’ in Sentence A has changed to ‘Would you be able to…?’ in Sentence B.
Tip 2: Start in a friendly way
When complaining in English, it is common to start your sentence with a friendly expression like ‘I hope you can help’. In fact, it is even common for English speaking people to apologise before they start to complain! ‘Sorry, but this phone seems to be broken’. Here are some other expressions that are commonly used when complaining:
- I’m sorry, but this doesn’t seem to be the correct change.
- Excuse me, but I don’t think you gave me the correct change.
- I’m afraid that there may have been a mistake with my change.
- Sorry to bother you, but I don’t think you gave me the correct change.
Tip 3: Don’t be too dogmatic (too strong)
In our example sentences at the top of the page, the speaker is sentence A says ‘This is broken’, while the speaker in sentence B says ‘The screen seems to be cracked’. Clearly, the screen is either cracked or not – how can it be ‘seems to be cracked’? The reason is that when complaining in English, we tend to avoid being too dogmatic, softening the sentence with words like:
The screen seems to be cracked.
- The screen appears to be cracked.
- It looks as though the screen has cracked.
- I think the screen may have cracked.
So what happens if you have politely expressed your point of view and you still don’t get a suitable response? For example:
Customer: I hope you can help. I have just bought this phone, and the screen seems to be cracked. Would you be able to replace it or provide a refund?
Shop assistant: It’s your fault. It’s not my problem.
At this point, it’s important not to start aggressively arguing. You need to state your case calmly and clearly. For example:
Customer: Actually, I didn’t open the box until I got home, and it was in this condition before I even touched it. I understand that I have the right to request a replacement or a refund. If you are unable to help, I would like to talk to your your manager or supervisor.