Complaining about complaining

Enya Eettickal, Staff Writer

I’m sure we all have certain fables from our childhood that have stuck with us over the years. One of my favorites went like this: a painter presented a piece of his to a king and his court. But upon doing so, many court members complained about different parts of the painting. As an experiment, the king’s adviser put the art out in front of the steps of his palace with the instructions, “mark whatever part of the painting you think needs to be better.” By the end of the day, the entire painting was covered by the various marks left by the people. But the next day, the advisor kept the painting out and changed the instructions to, “now make the part you marked better.” When he returned the next day, the painting remained identical—covered with marks of what needed to be improved, but none of the improvements made. 

I can’t say I think about this fable often (my butchered details are probably a reflection of this). However, I was recently reminded of it when my roommate was explaining something she, as a camp counselor, said a lot to the kids, “at the root of every complaint is a request.” Once I realized she was right, my immediate follow-up question was, if that’s true, why do we often hear complaints but not the requests they are alluding to? 

It is necessary to understand both the distinction between the word complaint and complaining, while also addressing the restrictions each of these words have. Complaints are defined as statements of dissatisfaction. Complaining, on the other hand, is the act of outwardly expressing that dissatisfaction. But connotatively, there’s more to what complaining actually looks like. 

We all complain to some degree. People broadly have issues with classes, professors, assignments, living arrangements, friends and other people. Frequently, the critiques they have are well-founded. There are often genuine concerns linked to these aspects of life, and complaining can be a method of communicating the issue at hand. That, however, is contingent on the way complaining is approached. While there are productive ways to complain, there are some which are more detrimental than helpful. For example, persistent complaining can become annoying for listeners but it also builds a negative environment. Complaining breeds more complaining, and when a space is filled with critique from all parties involved, it can be difficult to shift the energy. 

The easiest solution is going back to “at the root of every complaint is a request.” If there’s something worth complaining about, something can be changed. In this way, complaints can be good if they are used as a tool for a solution, rather than a lament of existing problems.

For instance, my roommate’s solution is to allow yourself a set amount of time to complain. This can either be a literal timer, or it can just be a time frame, so for example, a day. And after that time frame elapses, stop complaining and try to make the request or take action to find a solution to what you were complaining about. 

However, there’s a distinction between complaining and venting. While complaining can be a cause for concern and needs to be addressed, I want to validate venting. I think venting can be very productive. In some situations, venting may just be the solution if it’s a one-off scenario. If verbalizing your feelings to someone else allows you to process your frustration and reorient yourself, that’s great. But if you feel the need to do it over and over without changing the circumstances, re-evaluate whether you’re venting or really just complaining. 

I’ve never really understood when people complain in closed spaces for extended periods of time, then proceed to refuse the solutions posed to them—especially when pertaining to other people. And I’m sure you probably know someone who is like this as well. Nothing good can come from complaining about someone, especially when the opportunity to communicate your concerns is viable. Often, problems are easier to address than you would think, and there is nothing another person can do to help manage your issues unless you let them know how you’re feeling. 

At the end of the day, complaining is really easy to do. I get it, and I’ve definitely done it a bunch, and I still do it sometimes. But taking my complaints and doing something about them is a surefire way to ensure my circumstances don’t stagnate. Taking action is the only possible way for things to get better. If there is no solution I’m willing to look for, then there’s no point in complaining. Just like how if I don’t know how I can make a painting better, you won’t find me marking the canvas.