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Health & Balance

Do you complain too much? (or not enough?)

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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 twos."

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," he says.

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.

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