I Have a Problem with That: Teaching 7 Situations When Complaining Means Something Else

I Have a Problem with That
Teaching 7 Situations When Complaining Means Something Else

Devon Reeser
by Devon Reeser 19,929 views

English speakers probably seem to complain a lot to EFL learners. What we natives may not realize is that we do complain more often than other cultures.

We do not realize because we are not always complaining but using complaint language to express an opinion, a concern, or to relay another concept. Here are 7 fun ways to illuminate your learners on the particularities of complaining, critiquing, and euphemizing with situational activities for your conversation class.

Teach These 7 Situations When Complaining Means Something Else

  1. 1

    But I Didn’t Want Pickles with That!

    Native English speakers like food to be perfect, and they are quick to comment if it is not so. These critiques are not necessarily complaints, but they sound like complaints to non native speakers who might think it is rude to criticize food! Emulate restaurant ordering and complaining with a role-playing activity. This will practice restaurant ordering dialogue as well.

    • First, show a short video clip of someone sending their food back at a restaurant or act out a scene in front of the class.
    • Ask students to work in pairs.
    • Provide a menu where students have to pick a very specific order, like three toppings for a pizza that also requires selection of one of five different crusts and four different sauces. One will play the waiter and the other the customer, and then they can switch roles.
    • Instruct the waiter to bring the wrong food, and role play placing it on the table and naming different pizza components than what the customer ordered.
    • The customer should then practice complaining by critiquing the food, i.e. “I wanted cheese, pepperoni, and onions, and this pizza you brought has olives.”
    • The waiter should apologize and take the food away.

    You can use a similar role playing game for other service industries, like hotels. The learning objective is explaining the formula that when a customer complains about something not being exactly how she wanted, the other person should be polite and apologetic and look for a solution to change the situation to the liking of the customer.

  2. 2

    My Blasted Mother in Law…

    Many cultures would not dream of criticizing or complaining about family members, but English speaking natives do so on a daily basis! Most native English speakers learn to be independent and think freely from their parents and siblings early on, so they clash often with family, especially in laws that think differently than their family.

    • Construct an “I can’t believe she” activity to explain lightheartedly what bothers natives about their in laws or family.
    • Put scenarios on papers/cards such as “said I…”, “ate all…”, etc.
    • Ask students to complete the sentences. “I can’t believe she said I was fat.” “I can’t believe she ate all the turkey.”

    This is a great way to practice complaining behind someone’s back as well as simple past tense verbs!

  3. 3

    It is So Cold!

    Bad weather makes people grumpier, and native English speakers live mainly in fickle climates and hence grumble about gray skies frequently.

    • Use complaint language like “I hate, bothers me, annoys me, I find” to talk about snow, ice, rain, wind, and all of the other bad weather most natives know so well.
    • Have students pick a weather condition and tell why they hate it.
    • For example, “I hate the snow because I cannot drive my car.
  4. 4

    I Can’t Believe He Made Me Wait!

    Waiting annoys most born with the English tongue. Practice “waste of time” language in your conversation class.

    • Give scenarios on papers about situations where one has to wait, and then ask students to apply an idiom supplied on the other side of the paper in a sentence.
    • For example, a paper might read: you have a 10:00 am doctor appointment and it is 10:30 and you are still in the waiting room, with “testing my patience” on the back.
    • This doctor is really testing my patience for making me wait.”
  5. 5

    My Boss Made Me…

    We complain about our bosses and about work. It is good to teach the specific situations that annoy English speakers so that ESL students understand the derivation of such anger in the workplace.

    • Work long hours: “I had to stay until 8:00 at night and cancel my plans!
    • Not giving credit: “He told the board members that ‘his’ team designed the plan, when I did all the work!
    • Makes you do something “below” your ability level: “She made me get coffee for everyone at the table! It was my meeting!

    Create scenarios on a list or hand out on pieces of paper to each student and have them read the sentence and try to guess why it would make the speaker so mad. You can discuss how cultural values drive annoyance.

  6. 6

    That Is So Unfair…

    Native English speakers will actually complain to their bosses or other people that seemingly have control over them to change a situation they view is unjust, which is somewhat unique in a generally order-taking world. Teach what situations are considered unjust and how to complain about them politely to try to change the situation by passing out scenarios and having students try to create a complaint. They can write their complaints or verbally discuss them. Teach soft complaint language like “I would like to discuss an issue with you; a situation happened that bothered me a bit; I think maybe you overlooked this detail”. Scenario examples include:

    • Money: You are paid less of a bonus at Christmas time than a colleague on the same pay scale and think it is unfair. What do you say to your boss?
    • Family favorites: Your Dad takes your brother out to dinner one night and you were not included. What do you say to him?
  7. 7

    He Drives Me Nuts!

    The romantic relationship is the source of the most confusing complaint language in English. While a whole article could be devoted just to this subject, try a simple conversation exercise where students talk about love gone wrong or things their partners do that irritate them.

    • What bothers you the most about your wife?
    • What is the thing you and your husband fight the most about?
    • What is your biggest complaint about your ex-boyfriend?

Complaining and complaint language can be negative and depressing, but, if handled the right way, it can conversely be a fun way to energize your conversation sessions!

By including it in your EFL lessons, you will be providing a service to your students as well, as it is critical to understand the values that drive irritation, annoyance, and criticism within English speaking cultures.

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