The art of complaining explained by an ombudsperson

Author Amy Fish

When most people think of seeking justice and making the world a better place, they despair that the task is just too great for them – but not Amy Fish.

She argues that knowing how to complain the right way about even relatively minor everyday irritations is the path to, not only personal happiness, but an improved quality of life for everyone.

She argues that by speaking out, those who experience similar situations will benefit in the future, as will the transgressors, be they governments, businesses, institutions or bothersome co-workers, neighbours or even relatives.

I Wanted Fries With That comes with an endorsement by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Fish is the author of the new book, I Wanted Fries With That: How to Ask for What You Want and Get What You Need, which launched in October at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal.

Don’t be fooled by the title – Fish is dead serious and, while she might advise compromising in some situations, the book is not about settling for less than you deserve.

She believes anyone can be taught how to complain effectively, even the most conflict-averse. In a humorous, often self-deprecating tone, Fish cites real-life scenarios and offers practical ways to deal with them.

She has years of professional experience to draw upon.

Since 2016, she has served as an ombudsperson at Concordia University. Her office typically sees nearly 500 students, staff and others each year. Prior to that, she was the ombudsperson at the Maimonides Geriatric Centre and the Jewish Eldercare Centre.

She leads workshops and speaks around North America on how to kvetch in a calm, clear manner. She’s even coached corporations on how to improve their customer service.

She’s also been a complainant herself. As a 14 year old in 1982, Fish received an object lesson in what happens when one isn’t forthright about what she wants.

She allowed her friend to place her order at a diner counter. The server returned with no French fries on her plate. The shy friend said that maybe they hadn’t heard her when she placed the order.

Right then and there, Fish writes, she vowed to teach others “how to make sure that when any of us asks for something, we are stacking the odds so strongly in our favour that we have the best possible chance of getting what we want.”

That does not mean being aggressive. Making an ally of the person who may be able to solve your problem is usually the best strategy – at least as a first step, before you go to a higher-up.

And honesty is always the best policy, according to Fish, even if you are, technically, in the wrong. Persistence, but not being a nuisance, is also key.

I Wanted Fries With That is divided into three sections: “I Want My Problem Solved” (common consumer headaches), “I Want You to Change” (how to broach delicate personal issues) and “I Want Justice to Be Served” (short of seeking legal action).

Fish comes naturally by her role of educator and arbiter. Her late mother was a teacher and her father is a retired Supreme Court justice. They are both referred to in the book, as are Fish’s husband, three children, sister, uncles and aunts. It’s a close-knit family and the author brings readers into their world.

The cases in the book are all real, although the details may be altered. They range from the trivial, like hunting all over town with her teenaged daughter to find a Starbucks that still had a Unicorn Frappuccino, to the heart-rending, such as the elderly man who could not cope with his institutionalized wife’s deterioration.

Despite the disparity of these two extremes, Fish takes lessons from each outcome that can be applied more generally.

Fish’s Jewishness is a proud aspect of the book and she admits to being “self-conscious about writing this book knowing Jews are often portrayed as aggressive bigmouths.”

The moral: religion, race, age and even appearance can bear on how your complaints are handled.

In the chapter, “How to Get Bacon Out of the Synagogue Refrigerator,” Fish relates the case of a Jewish community agency that kept a kosher fridge. (A second appliance was available for staff bringing in non-kosher food.)

One day, an administrator discovered a package of bacon in the kosher refrigerator. In Fish’s assessment, he overreacted, immediately emailing a photo of the offending product to everyone associated with the organization, thereby upsetting them and getting no closer to finding out how it happened, or how it could be prevented in future.

It turned out that a new employee mistakenly put the pork product in the wrong fridge.

Fish’s advice: get the facts before flying off the handle, and that means asking actual people relevant questions and not jumping to conclusions – at least, not out loud.