Complaining in english and german: a comparison of complaint strategies in context of power and gender

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

21 Pages, Grade: 3+ (C+)


Table Of Contents

Introduction (R.R.)

1. Research Questions (R.R.)

2. The study (R.E.)

3. Results
3.1 Explicit vs. implicit complaints (R.E.)
3.2 Supportive Moves (R. R.)
3.3 Use of apologizing expressions as downgraders (R.E.)

Conclusion (R.E.)


Introduction (R.R.)

This research on speech acts was carried out at the University of Muenster during a linguistic seminar on cross-cultural communication. As already expressed in the title, this paper deals with complaints and furthermore with complaint strategies. A more detailed description of the circumstances and method of the research will be given further below.

In order to find out about different complaint strategies the context in which complaints are uttered will be closer looked at and also the way in which complaints are expressed. It seems therefore necessary, after an outline of what is going to be discussed in this paper, to provide the reader with a short introduction on complaints. Furthermore, an overview of the research field on complaints will be presented in the introduction. The main part of this paper will include the formulation of two hypothesis which form the basis of this project and therefore will be tested throughout this paper. In a next step, the context of this project will be closer looked at and also the method of collecting the data. Furthermore, the different scenarios of the applied “Discourse Completion Test” (DCT)(Appendix 1 and 2) are going to be presented and commented for a better understanding of this project. By then, the reader will have been provided with all necessary background information on this research project and the actual analysis of the collected data can be advanced. With the three formulated hypothesis in mind, our six scenarios will be examined and evaluated according to several categories, such as the level of directness in the headact, the use of downgraders and the number of supportive moves applied in the complaint strategy. The different numbers will be illustrated by help of several tables and figures in order to point out relations and differences between the chosen categories. After this, the results will be discussed on the basis of the earlier formulated hypothesis which will either be confirmed or falsified. Here, we will also try to compare our results to previous findings. Finally, a conclusion will provide a brief summary of what was found out and possibly provide some aspects for further research. If possible, since the project was carried out in the context of teaching English at school, conclusions for the language classroom will be drawn.

After this general outline of our proceedings, the topic of complaints can be approached and illuminated for the reader. First of all, a short definition of complaints as speech acts will be given. Rader understands the term ‘complaint’ as “utterances or sets of utterances that identify a problem or trouble source and seek remediation, either from the person responsible for the problem or from a third person who has the power to affect the situation.” (Rader 1977:107)

Additionally to what has been said above, one also needs to know that the persons who utters a complaint (the complainer), is referred to as speaker (S) while the persons who caused it is known as hearer (H). Consequently, a complaint does not stand alone but is connected to a previously performed action. Complaints are therefore generally carried out as reactions to a past or ongoing actions performed by H, either by speaking or acting, that is somehow perceived by S in a negative way. Linguistically speaking, H carries out a ‘socially unaccepted act’ (SUA), since this act is contrary to a “social code of behavioral norms shared by S and H.” In the following, S takes the SUA as “having unfavourable consequences of herself and/or for the general public” and either refers to it in her “verbal expression” in a direct or an indirect way. According to Olshtain and Weinbach, S can perceive the SUA in two different ways, namely (a) as “freeing S from the implicit understanding of a social cooperative relationship with H” by choosing to express her frustration or annoyance and (b) as “giving S the legitimate right to ask for repair in order to undo the SUA either for her or for public benefit”. The second one is aimed at “changing things that do not meet with our standards or expectations” while the main goal is certainly to “make H perform some action of repair”. (Olshtain and Weinbach 1993:108) If we now turn to the linguistic realization of complaints, we first have to take into consideration, that depends on the degree to which they threaten ‘face’. Goffman described ‘face’ as the “the positive social value a person effectively claims for herself by the line others assume she has taken during a particular contact. Face is an image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes (…)”.( Goffman 1967:5) Although the term ‘face’ in this context is based on the everyday usages ‘losing face’ and ‘saving face’, it goes further in treating almost every action (including utterances) as a potential threat to someone’s face. But since everybody has face needs, people generally cooperate in maintaining each other’s face.(Holmes 1995:5) Brown and Levinson some years later added a distinction between ‘positive face’ and ‘negative face’ to Goffman’s idea. They defined ‘positive face’ as “the positive consistent self-image or ‘personality’ claimed by the interactants” and ‘negative face’ which for them was “the basic claim to territories, personal preserves and rights to non-distraction”.(Brown and Levinson 1987:66) Holmes writes of ‘positive and negative face needs’ and describes ‘positive face needs’ as “the need to be liked or admired” while ‘negativ face needs’ is the “need not to be imposed on”. Accordingly ‘positive politeness’ consists of “sociable behaviour expressing warmth towards towards an addressee”, while ‘negative politeness’ “avoids imposing on others or ‘threatening their face’” Consequently any utterance, that could be interpreted as making a demand or intruding on another’s person autonomy, may be perceived as a potential ‘face threatening act’ (FTA), even including suggestions, advice and requests. Obvious FTAs would be insults or warnings, unavoidable ones are requests or warnings. (Holmes 1995:5) By taking all this into consideration, complaints may be classified as “acts that intrinsically threaten face.” (Geluykens and Kraft in press:251)

1. Research Questions (R.R.)

Before we introduce our hypothesis we briefly want to establish the aim of this study. A part from differences in the reaction to an FTA between English and Germans we also wanted to show those between men and women. Consequently we chose to work with the categories gender and power and not to pay any attention to social distance or other categories. Since it had already been found out in several studies that women and men in fact do react differently in similar situations we decided to take this fact as prerequisite. Holmes for instance found out that women are more polite than men and that they use language differently. (Holmes 1995:1) Chambers even states that women are in advantage over men in terms of language usage whereas men are more likely to stutter and suffer ”aphasic speech disorders.”(Chambers 1992:199-200) We therefore chose to aim at finding out whether the behaviour of people from two different cultural backgrounds was likely to resemble that of their own sex from the other country or whether their behaviour was closer to that of their countrymen of the other sex. However, we decided to approach our aim by taking a close look at cultural differences first and agreed on testing the well-known prejudice that English people were very polite while Germans were always looked at as a very rude people. While the English are said to be very indirect, Germans are often adjusted with the adjective direct. In order to find out about typical complaint strategies for both countries, we decided to establish two categories for the complaints, namely direct and indirect. Our first hypothesis was consequently formulated as follows:

Hypothesis 1: English native speakers’ complaint strategies differ from the German native speakers’ complaint strategies: A) English native speakers are more polite than their German counterparts and therefore use more supportive moves than German native speakers and b)German native speakers are more direct than English native speakers and consequently chose more explicit complaints than the English native speakers.

In a next step we ignored the cultural differences and concentrated on gender. Same as in the formulation of the first hypothesis we chose to take the prejudice that men are more direct than women under a close look. We also agreed on men giving less explanations than women for their carried out actions but that they were at the same time being more rude and impolite than women. These assumptions led to the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis 2: Men are more direct than women and thus use more explicit complaints and less neutral supportive moves such as reasons but express themselves more confrontional ones.

As has already been mentioned several times, we are faced with complaint strategies which are also called ‘FTA strategies’. These strategies generally consist of several units of utterances, one of them being the actual complaint, namely the ‘head act’. These ‘head acts’ can again be subdivided into ‘direct’ or ‘explicit’ and ‘indirect’ or ‘implicit’ ones. An example of a ‘direct’ complaint would be: “I’m not happy with the style and cut of my hair.” The same complaint expressed in an ‘indirect’ way could be: “ Could you maybe even it out a bit?” Further more, a ‘head act’ is mostly surrounded by several ‘supportive moves’ which can serve to intensify or soften the degree of face threat, the latter one being more often the case. ‘Supportive moves’ can preceed as well as follow the ‘head act’ as the next example shows:


Excerpt out of 21 pages


Complaining in english and german: a comparison of complaint strategies in context of power and gender
University of Münster  (English Department WWU Münster)
Speech Science
3+ (C+)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
562 KB
Complaining, Speech, Science
Quote paper
Regina Everinghoff (Author)Rebecca Rhode (Author), 2003, Complaining in english and german: a comparison of complaint strategies in context of power and gender, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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