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So you want to complain about ageism

Written by Stefan Muller Feb 23, 2006

We’ve all had the feeling at some point. We’ve all seen a sign or been told something by a store employee, parent or school administrator that was just such an ageist injustice that it couldn’t go unchallenged. Even the least argumentative youth rights supporters must have felt the need to challenge a small ageist injustice at one point. For people like me who have to argue with everything, it happens significantly more often than that. Katrina even blogged about it in her December 11 entry, “Pet Store.” I’m not talking about major things, like a city-wide curfew or the voting age. I’m talking about a public place that doesn’t allow unattended youth or a store that voluntarily refuses to sell certain items to people under 18. This even applies to young people who wish to sit down and have a discussion with their overprotective parents or school administrators.

The urge to complain to an employee (parent, school administrator…) about these policies is a perfectly natural one for youth rights supporters to have, and it’s always a great idea to fight ageism wherever you see it, however, there are a few things that I have noticed during my years of complaining about ageism that help, and a few things I have seen on the NYRA forums and elsewhere that do not. So, here’s my official list of Complaining Tips in no particular order.

1. Don’t speak out of anger. If the injustice in question is such a horrible one that it gets you really passionate, maybe it’s better not to challenge it at the moment. Come back later or get a contact address (e-mail or regular mail) or phone number. Give it time, get your thoughts together, and then complain. Speaking on the spot out of emotion won’t help. You’ll just end up screaming or being rude, and you also won’t argue at your best. Anger blocks out the best arguments and answers and you’ll be left using the same reason over and over. It just won’t help. Believe me, I know how tempting it is to complain about it when you’re angry and to just yell and chew the employee out, but it’ll defeat any chance you had of getting the policy reversed. Just don’t do it.

2. Talk to a manager, the school principal, or someone else who is in charge. Yes, you can try yelling at the first employee (teacher, etc.) you see, but I can already tell you what response you’ll get. It will undoubtedly be some variant of, “I’m sorry. I don’t make the rules, I just have to follow them.” This is a very easy response for people to give; it allows them to get rid of you without agreeing with you. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard that excuse. If the first person you ask about the policy uses this excuse, ask him who does make the rules and ask to talk to that person. If this person is not available at the moment, ask what the best time to see him would be or take a phone number or address. If the store is a chain, or the place is run by a central authority and the policy is not local, ask for an address or number to call.

3. Don’t think you always have to complain in person. It’s fine to do so and is often the easiest way, but I’ve found that sometimes a letter or e-mail is the best form to use for these situations. It lets you collect your thoughts and spend time wording them rather than just speaking on the spot. The backspace key is your friend.

4. Be polite. This is especially true if the person who you are talking to did not make the rule, or if you are talking to a parent or school administrator, who can punish you for being impolite. Even if you are talking to the authority figure, this person may have done it for liability reasons, at the request of a customer, at the request of a central authority, or even because of a government regulation you don’t know. Find out the situation before you start yelling. In fact, don’t start yelling at all. Just very politely explain who you are, why you believe the policy is unfair, explain that you understand his position (such as “I know you’re in a difficult position trying to keep your store under control” or “I know it’s for liability purposes”), and then give a reason why the policy is still unfair given his position (like “but you cannot assume that children are the ones responsible” or “but it is unfair to restrict the rights of an entire group because of the actions of a few.”) If you can, end with a suggestion of how the store/place/organization can accomplish its intended goal without resorting to ageism.

5. Be formal. You don’t have to talk like a law book, or use old English. Just avoid slang, speak in a calm and collected manner, and above all, make sure that you come off as respectable and mature, especially if you are a teenager. The best way to show somebody that ageism is unfair is by showing the person responsible that mature teenagers exist. The level of language I’m using to write this entry is fine for a complaint. Above all, don’t curse the person off.

6. Give the person time to defend his policy. I know you’ve probably spent far more of your life than you’d like to have done listening to ageists defending their views. This person’s defense will most likely be the same one you’ve already heard a thousand times. But for the person you’re talking to, this is most likely his first time hearing your position and the first time he’s had to defend his policy. Let him explain himself, and then respectfully answer him. “I understand, but…” is a good way to start a rebuttal.

7. Know when to give up. There’s no sense arguing a moot point. You may have all day to complain, but he doesn’t have all day to listen, especially if you’re talking to a manager or somebody in power, and wasting somebody’s time will just make them angry and more resentful than they might already be. If you’ve sensed that you’ve gotten as far as you’ll get, even if you’ve made little or no progress, or that the person you’re talking to is getting flustered, it’s time to stop.

8. Thank the person for his time. Even if the last thing he said was “I still think all teenagers are scum who shouldn’t even be allowed within ten miles of my store,” end the conversation respectfully. In fact, I’ve always found that the best thing from an antiageist perspective is when the teenager comes off seeming much more mature and respectful than the adult who’s arguing with him. I’ve seen an argument between a second grader and a grown woman where the second grader came out looking better. No joke. In other words, be the better person. Say, “Thank you for your time. I hope you’ll reconsider the policy” or something to that effect. Even if you got nowhere, let him know you haven’t given up your position but that you’re choosing to end the conversation. If you would like, refer him to NYRA or give him your number or something of the sort to let him know you’re still serious.

9. Don’t try to intimidate. Don’t threaten to sue or to call the ACLU. Don’t start screaming out court cases or rights. It won’t get anywhere, and it’s just a turn-off. If you’d like to cite a couple of relevant Constitutional Amendments or court decisions, OK. Depending on who you’re talking to, however, it may be better to not even do that. When talking with parents or school administrators, for example, it is best to leave such things out of the discussion. Just talk from your heart.

Well, those are my tips. Right now, you may be saying, “Oh, that’ll never work. You’ll never get anywhere being polite like that. You have to make a big deal and protest and act up.” No. The best thing to do is to act like the mature adults that they think we aren’t, and work from there. A well-constructed polite argument can be even more effective than an all-out screamed rant. Take it from me: long time complainer, second-time blogger. Remember the saying, you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

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