By Hagar Scher
RISMEDIA, Feb. 9, 2007-(MSN.com)-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 positive would."
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 their 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.
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.
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.
"In our society, we're supposed to smile and have a nice day and pretend everything's OK even when it's not. That's unreal," says Barbara Held, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Bowdoin College. She believes that this emphasis on always seeing the bright side can encourage people to mask their unhappiness and swallow their gripes-but that can be toxic. "It's important to learn how to tell friends and family when you're upset-if you don't, you end up alone in your pain. Complaints can be healing," she says.
Held argues that constructive complaining is an essential life skill. Her guidelines: Be up-front about your need to complain (rather than try to pretend you're just having a regular conversation), limit your kvetch time, and don't act as though your gripes trump everyone else's. Above all, select an appropriate listener.
If your problem is solvable-for example, you're offended that your single friends never invite you to their girls' night out-talk to one of them directly and try to reach a happy resolution. But with expressive complaints that aren't serious and can't really be fixed-you abhor your husband's prized bobblehead collection-griping to a third party spares your marriage a lot of wear and tear.
"I love my husband, but some of his habits annoy me. I know he won't change, so I complain to a friend," says Jennifer. "I feel better once I get things off my chest-and, oddly enough, I also often feel closer to my husband."
Unhealthy complainers bellyache to anyone who crosses their path and don't pick up on people's cues that they've had their fill of negativity. "Chronic complainers get stuck in victim mode, and that irritates the people around them," says Cunningham. Plus, these types love to talk but rarely listen. "They'll take hours of your time telling you their problems-then they reject your help and don't take one piece of advice you give them," says Kowalski.
Bad complainers are annoying at best, depressing at worst. They spread negativity and give griping a bad name. But if you really need to complain, go ahead. Because for most of us, behind the grousing is a basic human need: We're looking for connection.