Sunday, 8 January 2017

Why we complain

My name is Benjamin and I am an inveterate complainer!

I never used to be. I don't really know what's happened to me, but I put it down to a shift in society, succinctly summed up by my father who suggests that "we all know what our rights are these days, but very few of us are actually aware of our responsibilities."

The complaint complains because he knows his rights. The complainee gets shirty because he knows his rights, which include not having someone rail at him unnecessarily. He greet the complainant with sarcasm and disinterest and so the vicious vortex begins to spin. The complainant gets increasingly stressed, his complaint gets escalated, management is brought in, and sooner or later someone who is paid to make apologies gives the apology which, frankly, should have been offered at the coal-face by a person who should have been aware of his customer-facing responsibilities! Everyone's time, in the meantime, has been wasted.

The shift towards a society which knows its rights is largely, of course, a positive one. In the olden days we put up and shut up. Mysterious things happened behind closed doors which we were helpless to alter. People pulled rank. Whistle blowers were demoted. People disappeared. Men marched off to war. My parents' generation are far less likely to complain when things go wrong, and actually get quite embarrassed when they witness people rocking the boat unnecessarily.

I sometimes wonder whether this approach to life is more liberating because it means there's no point in getting our knickers in a twist about the things we perceive we can't control. Maybe our collective responsibility is not to complain as much because by complaining we're triggering the aforementioned vortex and bringing more anger into the world.

That said, I have never personally felt guilty for complaining. I have a very strong sense of my own responsibilities and if something I'm doing or have done is causing distress, it's vital I'm told so I can try to make sure it doesn't happen again.

There is, however, one instance in my life where I utterly regret not causing an absolute stink. My degree at York University was very much compromised by a personality clash with one of my lecturers. I said nothing at the time because I thought, if I did, the other lecturers would pull rank and things would turn nasty for me.

I actually went to university woefully unprepared for anything even remotely resembling musicology. I very carefully chose units which I knew would play to my strengths as a composer and performer, but came entirely unstitched when faced with an entire term studying the music of Sibelius. In the early days of this particular set of lectures, utterly confused by what was going on, I inadvertently asked one or two really stupid questions, which the lecturer thought so dumb, he concluded I could only have been messing about. His response made me feel so stupid that I immediately started goofing about to save face, and thus a class clown was born. Unsurprisingly, I tanked my Sibelius unit, and was handed a somewhat legendary report which was framed on my wall for many years. I've never blamed the lecturer for failing me on this particular unit. It was a disaster which I think we all needed to move on from...

Anyway, that all feels like a massive digression, but the point of the story is that I subsequently did a chamber music unit as part of my degree. Unsurprisingly, I didn't do very well on the essay part, which was worth 40% of the mark, but I worked very hard performing as part of a string quartet by Samuel Barber, which would account for the remaining 60%. Anyway, the professor who marked my essay, a lovely bloke, called me into his office to tell me, politely, that he thought my essay stank. He could see that I was upset but told me that I didn't need to worry because the performance of the Barber quartet had been terrific and he was certain I'd be getting a really high marks. Unfortunately, the chief marker on the practical side of the unit was the same lecturer who I'd so royally pissed off on the Sibelius course. When the marks came in, he'd given the violinists firsts, the viola player a 2:2 and me a 3rd because he said he'd heard that the two of us had "spoken in silly accents during rehearsals." It was fairly shocking to discover that he'd opted to judge me, not on the performance I'd given, but the way I was rumoured to have conducted myself in rehearsals. It was plain, from the big smile on his angry face, that he was avenging a past grievance, for which I'd already been punished.

These days, of course, I would have marched straight to the vice chancellor of the university and vociferously complained. Back then, of course, I simply skulked away. I felt helpless. I felt perhaps my 'cello playing hadn't been up to scratch. I pulled out of the university orchestra, swapped to being a first study singer and never played the 'cello properly again.

I often wonder what happened to that lecturer and whether he ever realised how close he'd come to changing the course of my future. And if he had, whether he'd have cared.

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