Part 1/2: The Art of (not) Complaining

I often remind myself of the British adage, ‘Never Complain, Never Explain.’ I was first introduced to this concept by this article, which I saw on Reddit. I have a few thoughts on each of the two parts of this adage, which I’d like to share here in two separate posts.

1. ‘Never Complain’

We’ve all done it at some point, and some like doing it a whole lot more than others. What exactly constitutes complaining anyway? I think the line between making an observation and complaining can be crossed in at least a few ways:

(a) By making the same observation multiple times without making any discernible effort to remedy the situation (assuming, of course, that there is one).
If you can do something to fix the situation, kindly do so. But what if there is no remedy? Maybe you’re bothered that it gets dark at 5 PM in the fall but it doesn’t quite bother you enough to motivate you to move. Well then it’s not really a problem, is it? As French cartoonist Jacques Rouxel once said, “If there is no solution, it is because there is no problem.” So, people who repeatedly remark on the sun setting early are either making small talk or complaining and both can be extremely annoying.

(b) By making the same observation multiple times to the same audience.
Regardless of whether or not there is a solution to whatever someone is “discussing,” being repetitive is just… bad. We’ve probably all encountered someone who seems to have the same problem(s) year after year and still feels the need to paradoxically update you on a situation that has no new components to it. Tsk tsk.

(c) Having bad energy.
I’ve encountered a few people who, no matter the situation or topic of discussion, just have bad energy; you could talk about adorable puppies and you’d still feel the weight of their plight. These are people who bring an unnecessary level of heaviness to a conversation either by one-upping someone else with their woeful stories or consistently failing to reciprocate enthusiasm (Text: “Hey! How are you?” Response: “I’m ok.. you?”). These aren’t people having a bad day or going through a rough patch; for whatever reason, they’re just heavy most (if not all) of the time. This is a form of indirect complaining; their tone says more than their words do but the message is still pretty clear.

I’ve been thinking about why people (myself included) complain and I think there are some valid philosophical/psychological reasons:

  • Expressing discontent regarding a shared experience is a way of connecting to other people:
    Ranting about the things that piss you off with someone who is also pissed off at the same things ironically seems to help us reduce stress, at least for a little while. It may not be the best coping mechanism but it’s hard to deny how satisfying it can be to go on a tirade about something and have someone acknowledge and validate your sentiments.
  • Expressing discontent can be a subtle plea for help:
    We can change some situations ourselves but others, although fixable, are in someone else’s hands and/or require the concerted efforts of multiple people to successfully enact a change. So when someone starts complaining about something to someone else, a part of them just might be reaching out, saying, “I think this is a problem but I know I can’t fix it alone – do you agree and are you willing to help me change the situation?” When someone agrees with the complaint and joins in on the complaining, it implies that that person may be willing to help change the situation. Oftentimes, however, this ends up being false hope because, in reality, enacting change often comes with consequences that not everyone can afford.

I’ve been more conscious about complaining – what I complain about and to whom – and I try to think it through: Is there a solution? If not, why am I complaining? Am I just connecting with people or am I running a fool’s errand and creating false hope? If there is a solution, is it something I can do myself? If not, am I willing to put in the effort to reach out to others to initiate a positive change or support someone else trying to make a change?

It takes time and patience to think through these questions but it also helps me become more conscious of myself and whatever situation I am facing. I have not mastered the art of not complaining just yet but I do think twice before voicing discontent and, when applicable, use my dissatisfaction as a platform for constructive criticism.

© Leila Chammas, November 14, 2016