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October 7, 2004 - Lida Baker: Crafting a Complaint - 2004-10-06

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: October 7, 2004

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: a lesson in complaining.

RS: English teacher Lida Baker is with us from Los Angeles to discuss a topic suggested by one of our listeners, an English teacher in Iran. His students would like to know the proper way to complain.

AA: Lida Baker says the first part of any complaint is a factual statement about what the problem is. But there's another part to learn that's more important, she says.

LIDA BAKER: "I'm guessing that there are students from a lot of cultures where this cultural behavior we have in the United States of being very forthright about what we think and what we want -- that's the part that would be a lot harder for them than the linguistic part of complaining, which is just saying 'here is the problem.'"

RS: "It's legitimate in the United States to complain, it's legitimate to take a product back to a store, and I think this is something that a student would have to understand before he or she could actually put the complaint into action. But Lida, how would you put this into context, into a classroom? How would you teach -- I guess it would be kind of an assertiveness training?"

LIDA BAKER: "I think in teaching, the first step is providing that cultural background. What is the return policy of a store? And understanding that it isn't the same from one store to the next. I had an incident a few weeks ago where I bought some clothes for my daughter from a store where I just assumed that if they didn't fit her, because she wasn't with me at the time, I just assumed that if they didn't fit I could bring them back.

"And they didn't fit, and I went back to the store, and to my utter surprise this store would not refund my money. It would only give me a store credit or allow for an exchange. And I was very shocked because I was used to shopping in stores that provided you with a full refund for your money."

AA: "What did you say to the clerk? I'm curious, how did you handle that?"

LIDA BAKER: "I expressed my surprise. But at the same time, I reminded myself that this is not -- you know, the clerks are the people in the first line of fire. But we have to remember that they are not the ones who set the store policy."

AA: "You know what, I have here an example of a complaint letter. This is on the Sarasota, Florida, public school system's Web site, and it was written to this clothing company. And this is a letter about some shoes, and it begins:

"'To Whom It May Concern:

"'On September 20, I ordered (by phone) a pair of brown leather Peace Mules for $36.99, which includes $4.99 for shipping and handling. When they were delivered to my home, the package was wet and the leather shoes were ruined.

"'I am returning the shoes. I realize the shipping and handling fee is non-refundable, but I would like the original amount of $32 to be refunded.

"'Thank you for your attention to this matter.

"'Sincerely,' and she signs it here. So what do you think of that?"

LIDA BAKER: "I think that's a perfect letter of complaint. She states what the problem is. She states what correction she would like the company to make. The tone is neutral; she doesn't come across as angry or demanding. It's short -- you know, there's nothing extra there, so that the person reading the letter doesn't have to go hunting, you know, through the letter. What is it that happened, and what does the person want?

"And getting back to the classroom now, if we wanted to give our students experience learning how to write letters of complaint, we would show them several examples. We would then give them a situation in which there was something to complain about, and we would ask them to write a similar letter using one of the models that we've provided, like the one that you just read.

"What is much harder, of course, is for people to get experience complaining verbally, in person. And so once we have demonstrated, by means of either video or literature, several scenarios in which complaining takes place, and we've analyzed the language and structures that go into complaining, the final step -- and perhaps the most important one -- is to give students practice complaining in a sheltered environment; in other words, in the classroom. And I would do that by means of role playing."

RS: Lida Baker writes English textbooks and teaches in the American Language Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. We’d love to hear from you, even if it is a complaint! Our e-mail address is

AA: And we have all our previous segments with Lida at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.