Do you complain too much? (or not enough?)
WHY WE GRIPE SO MUCH
Michael Cunningham, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Louisville,
observes that humans' taste for complaining probably evolved from our
ancestors' way of crying out a warning when something threatened the tribe.
"We mammals are a squealing species. We talk about things that bother us as
a way of getting help or seeking a posse to mount a counterattack," says
Cunningham. True, we no longer have to buddy up in the face of menacing
saber-toothed tigers, but venting our everyday grievances to receptive
listeners (a.k.a. expressive complaining) helps us feel validated and
supported. Says my friend Tracy, mother of two daughters: "All the moms in
our playgroup complain a lot. Venting helps us to feel less alone and less
guilty about our frustrations as our kids go through the terrible
Complaining can do more than just connect you to others in the same boat. A
complaint can be a tool for what Kowalski calls impression management, or
shaping how people perceive us. When a coworker moans about how she's too busy
and always has dozens of projects on her plate, she is employing a subset of
expressive complaining. She might be trying to convince her audience that she
is important and valued at work.
People with healthy self-esteem are more likely than others to register
instrumental complaints, according to Kowalski's research. This is probably
because they are confident that their grievances are legitimate and they
believe that kvetching could make a difference. For some people, speaking out
against whatever bothers them is a way of asserting I matter!
ARE WOMEN THE COMPLAINING SEX?
Cunningham believes that society gives women-stereotyped as the more
sensitive, talkative, and easily offended gender-more permission to engage in
the expressive brand of complaining. On the other hand, groups that are
traditionally male, such as the military and blue-collar professions, encourage
men to suck it up. "There's an ethic of never complain, never explain,"
Kowalski sees it differently-based on her research, she characterizes
complaining as a gender-blind activity. But even she acknowledges sex
differences in the area of pet peeves, a very narrow subset of expressive
complaints. In a study, she asked subjects to write down as many personal
annoyances as they could come up with. Women jotted down nearly four times as
many as the men did. "Women tend to be more likely to freak out about small
things," she observes. "On the other hand, not a single man said, ‘I
can't stand it when she leaves the toilet seat down.'"
There may also be a difference in male-versus-female complaint goals, which
in turn might explain why men favor the instrumental brand and women prefer the
expressive. "If a wife comes home and complains about her work for 15
minutes, her husband might ask, ‘Why don't you quit?'" says Deborah Tannen,
Ph.D., author of You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.
"This will probably upset the wife, who might well respond, ‘But I like my
job!'" Tannen believes women tend to complain in a ritualistic way, as a
means of bonding, whereas men usually don't.