Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Culture of Complaining

This article also appears in odwyerpr.com.

The Message in Misery
We have all engaged in complaining about something at some time. A bad meal. A crazy boss. A broken gadget. An outrageous bill.

Then, there's competitive complaining. In "Misery Poker: It's One Game Worth Losing," Elizabeth Bernstein wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal that "stressed to the max and desperate for everyone to know it, many of us are trying to trump each other with our carping." She went on to note that "instead of sharing our misery, we seem to be using it as a competitive weapon. ...there are those who use stress as a measure of success."

Perhaps we're seeing complaints in a new light or at a new level with this recession but I've seen this "out-martyring" routine many times before. I remember one notable example that I overheard during a bus ride in Chicago in the late 90s -- one guy said proudly that he had a heart attack at 45, the other guy scoffed and said that's when he had his second heart attack. He had his first at 42.

As a communicator, though, I'm looking for some deeper meaning in our complaints. After all, complaining is a form of communication and, like any exchange, we need to know our audience. Here's my attempt at categorizing complainers:
  • Attention Seekers. This may be the largest category of complainers -- those who may have some unfulfilled emotional need for attention. If there's an unmet need, it might be worth exploring what caused the void, why it may not be getting filled and what it might take to make a permanent (or at least a long-lived) repair.
  • Terminally Annoying. My sense is that there are some people that are just hard-wired to whine. They have to gain some insight, recognize the behavior and devise some tactics to overcome the impulse. Otherwise, we have to cope with it or tune it out.
  • Clinically Complicated. Some complainers would be better categorized as patients with neuroses. Guiding them toward some medical or psychological intervention might be indicated.
  • Pressure Cookers. It can be a scary situation to witness a usually even-keeled person erupting into a complaining rant. It's unexpected, it's out of character. These complainers lack a relief valve that can episodically vent some steam. They need to understand that providing feedback in a timely manner will not diminish their likability and will, in fact, create better relationships.
  • Crowd Followers. Due to a lack of confidence or an eagerness to fit in and be accepted, some people will take the lead of others and join in on the complaining. They need to think more about which crowd they want to be aligned.
  • Signal Senders. In my experience, there is an under-appreciated group that may be making actual attempts to communicate an issue or send an alert but the message is interpreted as a complaint. Rather than brushing it off, it may be worth investigating their motivation or intent.
Sure, complaining can alienate. It can brand us as disloyal. It can lead to stress and, some say, even shorten your life. (According to my mother, however, this was not the case for her mother-in-law. Decades ago when I told my mother that I hoped grandma wouldn't die, she said, "Don't worry. She has so much more complaining to do that she'll probably live forever.") We could and should be reading more into the whines, moans and carping we hear each day but, as Freud might have said, sometimes a complaint is just a complaint.

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1 comment:

Adrienne said...

I have a 90 year old mother that lives with me. It is her only form of communication. I have the tiring job of weeding out which complaints are ligitimate and which are for the sake of 'energy release'. I love your description of the different types of complaining. Im wondering if it is a generational thing. My mother was a small child during the depression. She rarely likes something. If her whole conversation wasnt complaints I often wonder if she would have anything to talk about.
The sad result is that none of her grandchildren call her because they dont want to have to listen to her complaining. I've seen my mother wear out several relationships with friends because they just got tired of trying to please her.