You know what we Brits are like. We find a slug in the rocket salad and we're more likely to wrap it in a paper napkin and slip it into our handbag than to summon the waiter. "Delicious, everything's fine," we nod sycophantically when he finally sweeps past our table. We'll drink lukewarm soup and corked wine, blame ourselves if the colour doesn't match the picture in the catalogue, and spend hours resewing buttons or gluing back the missing piece. If we do complain, we screech like I do, more madwoman than dissatisfied consumer. What we can't do is the cool, calm, efficient complaining at which the Americans are so good. I used to sit opposite one of these people - unruffled yet devastating. She never raised her voice but I would rather have paid for a replacement myself than swap places with the salesman who had sold her shoddy goods.
The key to this woman's success, of course, was that she actually believed she deserved to get what she had paid for, which is the key difference between the American and British attitudes to spending power. Or was the difference. At last, it seems, we are catching on, according to a survey by the Institute of Customer Service TMI, which shows that today half of us regularly complain about deficient goods and services - twice as many as ten years ago, when only one in four of us complained. The burgeoning free market is partly to blame, or to thank, for this. As Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, points out, complaining is the essence of a free market. "America has always been a private-sector market. Americans perceive that they are paying top dollars so they expect their money's worth," says Cooper, a dual American and British passport-holder. "In Britain there was traditionally a large public sector - the utilities, for example - and the public sector, as we know, is not service-driven." The British middle classes have always complained, he concedes, but in a nice, non-confrontational way, by writing letters to the papers rather than tackling the people directly involved.
Our new-found complaining techniques get us nowhere. We are aggressive but not successful.
It was Margaret Thatcher's mass privatisation that finally Americanised consumer practices. Now that Britons are paying for far more in the free market, expectations have shot up. As a result, and also thanks to consumer programmes such as the BBC's Watchdog, the British have become more efficient complainers. That is the good news. The bad news, however, is that all our newfound complaining techniques are getting us nowhere. We are becoming demanding and aggressive but not successful. You can complain all you like but British organisations just don't get the point. Cooper complained to his bank recently because he couldn't make a same-day dollar transfer. "They sent me a bottle of champagne," he says. "Very nice but that's not the point. What they should have done was to write and tell me they were looking into ways of making same-day dollar transfers possible. "The point about complaints - and British companies have completely failed to catch on to this - is that they are an incredibly cheap and accurate form of market research. Complaints show you the way to develop your products and services to meet customers' needs. "Our organisations are not used to confrontation and can't handle complaints. They see them as a waste of the company's time and something to be smoothed over and forgotten as fast as possible. How often have you complained about something and the person on the end of the phone agrees with you? 'Yes I know, it's terrible, isn't it?' they say, as if the whole thing were nothing to do with them - which it probably isn't. They are probably sitting in a call centre somewhere."
These companies will be in big trouble soon, though, says Cooper. In his view, people over 50 dislike change. They will keep complaining to their bank but are unlikely to move their account; will keep taking jumpers back to Marks & Spencer but still wouldn't dream of shopping elsewhere. The under-30s, however, are a completely different breed and, having grown up in a 24-hour, fast-changing world, think nothing of switching brands and loyalties. Meanwhile, although we have learnt to complain, we now have to learn to do it properly. Screeching and exploding may give us instant satisfaction but to get real customer satisfaction we need more sophistication.
"First, keep cool," says Cooper. "Think what you want to get out of your complaint. Do you want a replacement? An apology? A discount? If your train is delayed for two hours, would a 50 per cent return on your fare satisfy you? "Be specific about what you want. Be logical about the fault. And judge the person you are complaining to - are they senior enough to deal with your complaint? Above all, be tenacious and make it quite clear that this is what you want and you are not going to give up until you have it." Cooper's personal opinion is that it is really rather sad that we Brits are turning into complainers. The stiff upper lip that kept us quiet before was what made us so civilised. But in today's frenetic, constantly changing, time-driven world, the ability to be tolerant is no longer a useful tool. Now we can stamp our feet and get what we want along with the best of them - but the cost is that it puts us into a state of constant conflict with others. "Sadly," says Cooper, "those who remain admirably relaxed and civilised and British are just going to be taken advantage of."