Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Does Humor Make A Complaint More Effective?

The risks and rewards of using humor to voice dissatisfactions

Many of us have tried making a complaint more effective by using humor. The question is does humor increase or decrease the likelihood of our getting the result we want.

Humorous Complaints Are a Double Edged Sword

The trick to using humor successfully when complaining is to strike just the right tone. Ideally, humor should take the edge off our criticism so our complaint is more palatable to the recipient. When we do it correctly, humor can provide the spoonful of sugar that makes our complaint go down. However, it is also possible to strike the wrong tone when using humor to complain.

1. If our humor is too heavy handed, our complaint won’t be taken seriously.

2. If our humor is too offensive it can make the recipient even more defensive than they would have been if we just told it to them ‘straight’. The line between funny and offensive is not only thin it is also subjective. What some people consider funny, others might find insulting.

3. If our underlying tone is too condescending, angry or sarcastic it will cancel out the ‘funny’ and we are unlikely to get the result we want.

4. The biggest danger we face when using humor to complain is that our efforts might come across as simply—not funny.

How to Use Humor When Complaining

Let’s use a complaint letter as an example. The goal of a humorous complaint letter is to make it stand out and get a response. However, to do so, the letter must include all the traditional elements of a complaint; a clear description of the problem or incident, the necessary details and the request for redress. Including all these particulars and doing so in a way that is genuinely funny is truly no easy task. Here are two examples of complaints about airline food (a complaint worthy topic if ever there was one).

Unsuccessful Complaint Example

In 2010, a man traveling on Ryanair was served a chicken sandwich which suffered from being “Too rubbery”. The sandwich also appeared markedly different than it did in the menu photo (apparently, as many of us tend to do, the sandwich used a photo that implied it was better looking than it was in reality). I am not sure whether the man intended to use humor when voicing his ‘rubber chicken’ complaint but I do know the result. His complaint came across as so angry he was arrested by sky marshals as soon as the flight landed.

Successful Complaint Example

A passenger on a Virgin Atlantic flight in 2008 was so appalled by the meal he received he wrote to Sir Richard Branson (President of Virgin) and included pictures of his meal (see link). After a polite and respectful opening, he said:

"Look at this Richard. Just look at it. I imagine the same questions are racing through your brilliant mind as were racing through mine on that fateful day. What is this? Why have I been given it? You don't get to a position like yours Richard with anything less than a generous sprinkling of observational power so I KNOW you will have spotted the tomato next to the two yellow shafts of sponge on the left. Yes, it's next to the sponge shaft without the green paste. That's got to be the clue hasn't it?"

The man went on to describe the second dish: “On the left we have a piece of broccoli and some peppers in a brown, glue-like oil, and on the right the chef had prepared some mashed potato. The potato masher had obviously broken and so it was decided the next best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird.”

Lastly, he described the shrink wrapped desert: “I needed a sugar hit. Luckily, there was a small cookie provided. It had caught my eye earlier because of its baffling presentation: It appears to be in an evidence bag from the scene of a crime. A crime against bloody cooking. Either that or some sort of backstreet, underground cookie, purchased off a gun-toting maniac high on his own supply of yeast.”

While the anger is evident in the letter, it is far overshadowed by the humor. As a result, the complaint was so effective the passenger received a personal call of apology from Sir Richard Branson himself.

The bottom line is that we should use caution when using humor to complain. I have complained many times in my life but I tend to use humor sparingly. Recently, I attempted a humorous complaint letter when writing to Tony Hsieh the CEO of and I risked doing so only because my complaint was not exactly…real. You can read the letter and the response here.

Have you had success using humor when complaining? Feel free to share your story in the comments section.

Copyright 2013 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch