Complaining in Brunei English

"I would like to express my dissatisfaction about…"

Scientific Study, 2019

28 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Background
2.1. Relevant Concepts: Complaints, Directness, Politeness
2.2. Complaints in Brunei English (BrunE)

3. Methodology
3.1. Data
3.2. Data Collection Procedure
3.3. Coding Scheme

4. Results
4.1. Complaint Move Components
4.2. Level of Directness
4.3. Level of Politeness

5. Discussion

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Companies, businesses, governments or anyone else offering a certain kind of service, experience a new kind of transparency when it comes to people complaining about their service online. As complaints are in itself extremely delicate and confrontational, the anonymity of the internet is readily exploited to vent on one’s anger. They can easily destroy reputations, but may also be used by complainees (i.e. agent of complaints) to improve the complained about situation. In a country like Negara Brunei Darussalam complaints seem to be especially precarious as "confrontation in any form is considered not only to be rude but also aggressive, a trait quite alien to a generally peace-loving nation like Brunei" (Henry & Ho 2010: 840). It is, thus, especially interesting whether this valuation can be extended to complaints as, if Brunei really is a nation that uses non-confrontational ways of communication.

Although Brunei has not received much linguistic attention on the matter, surprisingly several studies have reported discordant findings on how (in-)direct and (im-)polite complaints are realized by Bruneians in online digital newsprint (cf. McLellan 1996, Ho 1998, Haji-Othman & McLellan 2000, Ho 2009, Henry & Ho 2010). As to the knowledge of the author no further study, the last one being the study by Henry and Ho (2010), has been conducted to gain new insights into the matter in the light of these contradictory findings. This present study tries to add to this research gap by investigating recently issued complaints in the same newspaper by firstly investigating the general complaint move components, secondly, assessing the level of directness using the scale provided by House and Kasper (1981), thirdly, assessing the degree of politeness also taken from House and Kasper (1981) and lastly investigating whether a change of complaint behavior can be found in the data compared to the study conducted by Henry and Ho (2010).

By analyzing 30 complaints lodged on the online webpage of the English-medium newspaper Borneo Bulletin, this paper aims to gain greater insights into the complaining behavior of people living in Brunei. For this, 15 complaints were gathered from the years 2017 and 2018 each. The study aims at finding out how Bruneians lodge complaints in online digital print media and whether the complaining behavior has changed compared to earlier studies on the matter, strongly referring to the findings from the study by Henry and Ho (2010).

The paper starts with the theoretical background providing a comprehensive overview giving general accounts on complaints, directness and politeness and then reviewing findings of complaints in Brunei English. The methodology chapter will present details on the data, the data collection procedure and the coding scheme used to classify the data. The fourth chapter includes most important findings which are relevant to answer the research questions. The discussion chapter will be used to look at the results in the light of previous findings and theories. At last, the paper will close with a summary of all relevant and noteworthy findings and will offer an outlook and ideas for future research worth investigating.

2. Theoretical Background

2.1. Relevant Concepts: Complaints, Directness, Politeness

Before discussing previous studies done on complaints in Brunei English, the question of what a complaint actually is needs to be clarified. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a complaint as an "expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction", the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary online defines it as "a reason for not being satisfied; a statement that somebody makes saying that they are not satisfied" while the online Collins dictionary describes it as "a reason for complaining". All three definitions describe scenarios in which some act or situation leads to dissatisfaction which is then expressed by a speaker. It implies that some act or situation has previously been unacceptable for the complainant which then becomes the reason for the complaint to be lodged.

Looking at definitions from a pragmatic point of view provides a clearer and narrowed- down picture of the matter. There, complaints are described to belong to the group of expressive speech acts which are used by speakers to express their feelings and attitudes (cf. Searle 1976). This definition, however, suggests isolated appearances of complaints. Several researchers (e.g. Cohen & Olshtain 1993, Murphy & Neu 1996) have indicated, that complaints frequently rather occur in combination with other speech acts such as warnings, advice or threats which make them part of a larger so-called ‘speech act set’. This means that a speech act can naturally either be realized by using a single strategy or by combining two or more strategies including other speech acts as well. Murphy and Neu (1996: 214) explain that "[...] it is often the case that one utterance alone does not perform a speech act", meaning that for some speech acts "several utterances are necessary for the illocutionary act to be accomplished". This is also true for cases in which speakers want to add force to their utterance. In cases of complaints this could be done by adding criticism, requesting corrective actions or threats. Thus, it makes sense that complaints usually consist of different moves and sequences which are part of a larger speech act to make a redemption of the unacceptable situation more likely.

For a complaint speech act set to occur, it must meet several conditions. Olshtain and Weinbach (1993:108) state that a complaint is a speech act set in which,

"the speaker (S) expresses displeasure or annoyance - censure - as a reaction to a past or on-going action, the consequences of which are perceived by S (the speaker) as affecting her unfavourably. This complaint is usually addressed to the hearer (H), whom the S holds, at least partially, responsible for the offensive action."

This definition includes several conditions that have to be met. First of all, there needs to be an action by another person which leads to dissatisfaction. The key component in this part is that of expectation, because naturally if expectations are met logically no reason exists to raise a complaint. Most importantly, however, is the part in which the speaker holds the hearer responsible for this dissatisfaction as it adds a justification and motivation parameter to the situation. If there is no guilty party people can hold responsible for a dissatisfactory situation it could be claimed that this would be rather ‘nagging’ than complaining. The hearer must actually be responsible or the speaker accuses him or her to be responsible. The negative action affecting the complainant is further described by Olshtain and Weinbach (1993: 108) to be a "socially unacceptable act" to which the complainant responds. This emphasizes the personal and interactive characteristic which complaints hold which are of importance for the classification of complaints.

Raising a complaint is, however, in itself critical as it might threaten the ‘face’ of the hearer. Originally coined by Goffman (1967), Brown and Levinson (1987: 61) define ‘face’ as "the public self-image that every member wants to claim for himself". Humans’ public self­image is distinguished between the negative face which includes the desire for freedom of action, and the positive face which includes the desire to be appreciated and liked by others. Our ‘face’ can thus "be lost, maintained, or enhanced and must be constantly attended to in interaction" (Brown & Levinson 1987: 61). This ultimately means that if someone raises a complaint the complainee’s positive face might be threatened by the complainant. If an act is indeed face-threatening, Brown and Levinson (1987: 70) claim that they usually include redressive language aimed at compensating for or avoiding the face-threat by using for example apologies or hedges. This means that it is actually in everybody’s best interest to not violate the interactant’s face wants. Complaints, however, are exemplary of being intrinsically face- threatening and by their nature "run contrary to the face wants of the addressee and/or of the speaker" (Brown & Levinson 1987: 65) as they show that the complainant has a negative evaluation of the complainee’s positive face. Based on Brown and Levinson’s (1987) theory, redressive language is also expected in complaints as complainants try to lower the potential face-threat. This observation is strongly connected to politeness and how humans convey meaning in terms of lexis, syntax or pragmatics. It must be noted, however, that although ‘face’ may be mutually known by members of a speech community, it is undeniably culture-dependent (cf. Brown & Levinson 1987).

It is not only the degree of politeness which determines the impact a complaint might have, but also the degree of directness that is equally important. It has been further suggested that it is the level of directness from which we can deduce the degree of politeness (cf. Henry & Ho 2010), a point which depicts a strong connection between these notions. However, claiming that a complaint is most impolite when it is most direct may be misleading. It may even be that in some cultures, it is more impolite if it is not straightforwardly produced. Thus, the level of directness does not seem to be the most representative and reliable to find out about the degree of politeness. In their study on complaints realized by speakers of English and German, House and Kasper (1981) found modality markers to be additional indicators for politeness. Not only did modality markers determine the degree of politeness, but also gave deeper insights on the degree of implicitness or explicitness. However, House and Kasper’s (1981) theory is heavily speaker- oriented and does not include a hearer perspective. For a full picture it is important that "the analysis of interaction includes both speaker intention and hearer evaluation" (Decock & Depraetere 2018: 36) an argument which is undeniably important but de facto not always viable.

When investigating complaints online, participants are typically, not co-present which is why a hearer perspective is usually delayed or not present and it has been claimed that "online complaints are quite different than face-to-face complaints" (Vasquez 2011: 1715). Participants most likely do not know each other which is why it has been suggested that while face-to-face complaints require delicacy and implicitness, it might run quite contrary in online complaints (cf. Vasquez 2011: 1716). Vasquez’ (2011) assumption is supported by her results from a study on online complaints posted on TripAdvisor in which she found that one-third of the complaints did not include any redressive language to lighten the face-threat. As complainants are mostly anonymous, they might not feel a sense of vulnerability which is why more explicit and direct realization strategies occur in this kind of settings (cf. Vasquez 2011). So far, few studies have looked into complaints lodged and posted online. How complainants negotiate what they are trying to say or imply with politeness and directness is, thus, especially interesting due to the blending of spoken and written features in computer-mediated communication.

2.2. Complaints in Brunei English (BrunE)

The independent Sultanate Negara Brunei Darussalam, from now on abbreviated as Brunei, is a Malay Islamic monarchy on the North coast of the island of Borneo (see picture 1). It has little over 400,000 inhabitants out of which the majority are Malays and Chinese (cf. World Population Review 2015). Once a powerful kingdom in the 16th century, Brunei lost almost 90% of its territory by 1905 due to territorial expansions from surrounding countries (cf. Martin 1998). In order to not be obliterated, Brunei became a British Protectorate in 1888. The status as a British Protectorate ended in 1984 when Brunei gained full independence. The relationship to Britain has, however, had significant influences on Brunei, which is especially true for the inclusion of the English language in everyday Bruneian life (cf. Martin 1998).

Picture 1. Map of Brunei

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(Source: File:Bomeo2_map_english_names.svg)

Malay is, nevertheless, the official language with the national dialect being Brunei Malay while English is becoming more and more important ever since the British Protectorate and the introduction of the bilingual education system in 1985 (cf. Martin 1998, McLellan, Haji-Othman & Deterding 2016). Although English is still crucial for career advancements, it is no longer reserved for the Bruneian elite and is also frequently used at home, governmental institutions, private-sector offices, employment as well as with family and friends (cf. Martin 1998: 15).

As a World English, Brunei English can be sorted into the ‘Expanding Circle’ of Kachru’s (2005) classification of Asian Englishes (see picture 2). Kachru (2005) distinguishes three circles in which Englishes spoken in Asia can be sorted: (i) the inner circle which includes countries where English functions as a first language, (ii) the outer circle in which English is used as an official additional language and (iii) the expanding circle where English is primarily a foreign language (cf. Kachru 2005). Kachru (2005) emphasizes that the confines of the expanding circle are fluid, dynamic and fast changing meaning that countries’ affiliations may easily change and become part of the outer circle.

Picture 2. Three concentric circles of Asian Englishes

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(cf. Kachru 2005: 16)

Additionally, all three circles share some characteristics, namely that all varieties of English are transplanted which means that they "comprise formal and functional distinctiveness of the diaspora varieties of English in various degrees" (Kachru 2005: 15). Brunei English is substantially influenced by indigenous languages, such as Malay, which might cause the variety to change and adapt (cf. Deterding 2014: 421). It has, for example, been found that irregular forms of English are often eluded due to the straightforward spelling system of Malay (cf. Deterding 2014: 421). It is not only grammatical, but also pragmatic features which have been discussed to be influenced by other Brunei languages which is why Brunei English is different from other neighbouring Southeast Asian varieties (cf. McLellan & Haji-Othman 2012).

So far, Brunei English has not received much linguistic attention, however, one genre that has been looked into several times is the letter of complaint in Bruneian online print media. Intriguingly, the findings of these studies seem to be rather contrary. In an initial study, McLellan (1996) found Bruneians to avoid confrontation by using buffering moves before posting the actual complaint move. This was done, for example, by saying something positive first. A later study by Haji-Othman and McLellan (2000) has approved these findings and has found that 82% of letters of complaint published in 1999 included a buffering move as their introductory strategy. Henry and Ho (2010) cite a contradicting early study by Ho (1998) on the same matter reporting results that Bruneians make use of a rather straight-forward tone which "could be both direct and confrontational" (Henry & Ho 2010: 843). In a study on modal verbs used in requests by Ho (2009) the non-confrontational view proposed by earlier studies has been further questioned as reports Bruneians to rather use direct approaches. Needless to say, request behavior does not extend to personal complaints and a comparison of results have to be treated with caution. However, both requests and complaints as speech acts are face-threatening on different levels which may demand interlocutors to adapt their degree of politeness and directness in order to achieve their communicative intentions.

The latest study on the letter on complaint has been conducted by Henry and Ho (2010) and has aimed to clear up some of the confusion of the contradictory findings. By compiling a larger corpus than previous studies they investigated letters of complaints posted in the Borneo Bulletin from 1988 until 2005. In their study they investigate the components of a complaint’s speech act set and analyze whether there has been a change in the level of directness and politeness throughout the years.


Excerpt out of 28 pages


Complaining in Brunei English
"I would like to express my dissatisfaction about…"
University of Bonn  (IAAK)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
complaining, brunei, english
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Katja Grasberger (Author), 2019, Complaining in Brunei English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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