The strategic art of complaining

The other day I was bitterly disappointed with my colleague’s response to a barrage of complaints I threw her way. My Diet Coke tasted funny and on investigation, it’s use by date was that very day! She suggested I return it to the store from where I had bought it and get my money back! Can you believe it? As if I was going to do that. I just wanted to whinge about it. To her!

Yes, this is a very first world issue. But more importantly, this is a very ineffective complaint.

In general, I’m not a huge fan of people who complain a lot. Having said that, I really enjoyed Seinfeld. And it’s been argued that 90% of that show was people complaining.

Most of us would agree with the old adage that “nobody likes a complainer”. But then most of us seem to love to complain. We really do. Quite a lot. Let’s not forget, us humans are born crying.

Today we complain more than ever before in history. An average person is said to complain nearly 15-30 times a day. Our complaints come in all shapes and sizes. I have been known to mutter to myself about the incompetency of other drivers on the roads or tell long stories about customer service interactions gone wrong. And I like to complain about myself a lot. That’s why I go to therapy. And let’s face it, right now I am writing a long complaint about complaining. It’s relatively easy to find things to complain about it.

Despite all of this whingeing, few of our complaints get us the results we want. Instead we usually find ourselves repeating the same tales of woe or dissatisfaction to one person after the other in an effort to rid ourselves of our frustration.

Of course, even if the person is compassionate enough to validate our emotions, we typically find ourselves reliving the same feelings of aggravation every time we tell the tale.

One problem is that often we associate the act of complaining with venting more than we do with problem solving. As a result, we complain simply to get things off our chest, not to resolve problems or to create change, rendering the vast majority of our complaints completely ineffective. Even when we do address our complaints to the people who can do something about them, we tend to be unsuccessful far more often than not.

Studies show that when we're dissatisfied with certain products, 95% of us fail to complain to the company because we fear doing so will be annoying and time consuming, and we're unlikely to get the response we want. We are equally avoidant when it comes to complaints to our loved ones. We fear voicing them will only lead to an argument and resolve nothing. Instead, we reach for the phone, call our friends and vent to them instead.

And the issue with venting over our funny tasting Diet Coke, as opposed to taking it back to the shop and getting a new one, is that it might just change our brain. And not for the better.

Neuropsychology has taught that the neurons which fire together, wire together. What this means is that groups of neurons connect in our brain as a result of particular life experiences. For instance, whenever we think a thought or have a feeling or physical sensation, thousands of neurons are triggered and they all get together to form a neural network. The brain learns to trigger the same neurons with repetitive thinking.

Basically, if we keep our mind focused on criticism, worry, and victimization, our mind will find it easier to bring up those same thoughts for similar situations. Our thought patterns wire our brains to react positively or negatively to the situations we are presented. We get very, very good at what we practice. So the more venting I do, the more natural it becomes.

Studies have also showed how complaining is bad for your brain. Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocronologist at Stanford, found that even listening to someone else complain for 30 minutes resulted in elevated cortisol (stress) levels. According to Sapolsky, complaining is bad for your brain region called the hippocampus. This results in reduced cognitive functioning and a lower ability to learn and adapt.

Having said all of that though, research has shown that when done properly, complaining can have some psychological advantages. Apparently if we learn to do it right we might just be able to get the sympathy and attention we’re seeking!

A recent study, published by Kowalski and her colleagues in the Journal of Social Psychology, examined relationships between mindfulness (focusing one’s attention on the present moment), happiness, and expressions of annoyance. The study participants, 410 male and female college students, listed the pet peeves they had with a current or former relationship partner. They also completed a questionnaire to measure their happiness, positive and negative affect, depression, mindfulness, relationship satisfaction, and overall life satisfaction. Those who complained with the hope of achieving a certain result, the study found, tended to be happier than those who simply did so for its own sake.

Turns out it’s just about making the best choice – knowing when to complain. And to whom.

According to Kowalski (and a whole lot of other very smart people), there is a positive relationship between happiness and mindfulness, or the ability to focus on one’s thoughts and emotions in the present moment. A 2006 study found that approximately 40 percent of happiness may be determined by intentional activities, like consciously adopting an optimistic attitude and seeking out new adventures.

Like happiness, mindfulness is connected to a sense of deliberateness—more mindful people tend to be more aware of how their current actions can affect future outcomes. Kowalski postulates in her pet peeves study that happier, more mindful individuals may be better at modulating their complaints, preferring to complain only when it serves a purpose. By contrast, she says, people who are less mindful may complain more often, but to lesser effect.

There actually might even be a benefit to superficial griping when that complaining helps you connect with others. Studies by Jennifer Boson show that when two people realize they both dislike the same person they will immediately like each other more! In fact, this appears to be a more powerful bonding strategy than sharing something positive. There is also a ton of psychological evidence that mood is highly contagious. And negative emotions are more powerful than positive ones. So, it may actually help to get people a bit fired up about someone you both dislike (!).

Turns out that complaining can be effective, but to do that we need to use facts and logic, understand our desired outcome and be mindful of who has the authority to make it happen. In essence, it’s about complaining with a purpose.

Next time, I’ll probably just consume the funny tasting Diet Coke in silence.


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