Do you complain too much? (or not enough?)
Why women love to vent. Plus, how to tell when your griping is healthy
and when it's more likely to bring you down.
It started out innocently. I was attending brunch at a friend's house. The
aroma of bacon and coffee wafted through the air; our infants napped
contentedly. But before long, our chatting turned into moaning and groaning.
One friend began complaining about her mother-in-law's behavior at a recent
dinner. Another kvetched about his brother's out-of-control toddler. Yet
another deplored her boss's ineptitude. Soon I was bad-mouthing my own mother,
who had just visited. One small complaint had snowballed into an avalanche of
Open your ears and you'll find that complaining is an integral part of most
people's daily exchanges. "For example, we use complaints as
icebreakers," says Robin Kowalski, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at
Clemson University. "We start a conversation with a negative observation
because we know that will get us a bigger response than saying something
That's just one of the ways in which griping comes in handy. According to
Kowalski, there are two basic categories of complaints: instrumental and
expressive. Instrumental complaints are goal oriented, meaning that we
verbalize the problem in hopes of bringing about change. You rant to your
husband about how messy the bedroom is because you're hoping he'll offer to
help clean it up. You tell the hotel manager that the garbage trucks woke you
up at 5:00 a.m. because you want a better room.
Expressive complaints have a different mission: to let the speaker get
something off her chest. When you call a friend to wail that all three kids
have strep at the same time, you're not looking for medical advice. It's
acknowledgment and sympathy you're after. "Even complaining about the
driver who cut you off can be healthy, provided you feel better once you get it
out," says Kowalski. But here's the downside: Some people abuse expressive
complaining, grumbling incessantly with no real interest in dialogue, problem
solving, or human connection.