Tomorrow, someone will ask me about the recent trip I took to visit my sister and her six-month-old twin boys in Houston, and I will say, “Oh my god, what a nightmare,” and I will proceed to explain in excruciating and somewhat exaggerated detail how I was forced to check my carry-on bag on the first leg of the flight, thus losing critical access to a sweater and a pair of old sneakers, (albeit briefly) and how the airline then lost my luggage (also briefly) upon arrival. Instead of waxing poetic on the sheer joy it was to hold my baby nephews in my arms, and reconnect with my family, I will describe how on the way home, my flight was cancelled and I was forced to spend a grueling night in a Holiday Inn Express. Without a bar, even!
Initially, I will politely refrain from mentioning the name of the airline, but once pressed, will admit it was US Airways and quickly relate the recent revelation that almost everyone I know who has flown them in the past three years has had problems (as I continue to relate this fact, the number of people affected and number of years will grow). I will shake my head and sigh at the abysmal state of customer service in every industry these days. Finally, after finishing a virtually endless litany of gripes and grievances, complaints and criticisms, I will roll my eyes and say, “But, other than THAT, I really had a nice time.”
Why do I feel the need to focus on the negative? What condition do I suffer from that prevents me from simply describing all the wonderful things that happened on my trip rather than focusing intently and descriptively on the terrible? I know I’m not alone when I say that for some odd reason, I love to complain. I do have a couple of theories on why humans, and especially we women, feel compelled to launch into the depressing and downbeat rather than the cheerful and contented:
1. It Makes for Better Story-Telling. It’s much easier to tell an engaging story of drama or comedy than one of well, contentedness. I love telling a good story and entertaining an audience – how can I possibly spin a yarn on how un-remarkably pleasant something was? Nothing wants to hear that boring sh*t. But relate a harrowing tale of delayed flights, tornado warnings and baby vomit, and you’ve got a captivated group of listeners. Throw in some food poisoning and a run-in with the police and you might get a book deal.
2. Nobody Likes a Bragger. “Let me tell you what a FABULOUS time I had with my gorgeous sisters and my perfect nephews. Everyone was so well-behaved, the cuisine was to die for and I had great hair every day.” Rolling your eyes yet? Obviously I’m exaggerating for the sake of humor (again), but how annoying is it to listen to someone boasting about an amazing weekend getaway or an incredible concert or tear-free first day of school, while you try to remember the last time you had a moment to yourself in the bathroom or your hands weren’t sticky with someone else’s food/vomit/poop/fill-in-the-blank. “Must be nice,” you mutter to yourself, as you mentally remove the child of this attention-seeking show-off from your kid’s next birthday invite list. You might not have read ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People,’ but it will come as no surprise that bragging is not the way to do it. We want amusement or commiseration from our audience; never irritation.
3. But, Everyone Loves a Martyr. The idea of expounding on one’s own suffering as a way to prove one’s moral worth is as old as the Bible (Story of Job, anyone?) and perhaps a glimmer of that strategy weaves its way through when we lament our trials and tribulations. We are trying to connect with people instead of alienate. “Hey, I knew I just spent two weeks on holiday in Hawaii,” we want to say, “But, instead of being jealous of me, you should feel bad for me because my lei was too short and the pineapples not ripe enough – it was really awful.” Of course, that tactic can sometimes backfire – no matter how many times Kelly LeBrock told me not to hate her because she was beautiful, I still did.
4. It’s Cultural. Get a group of women together and you’ll hear a lot of complaining, explaining and self-criticism. Instead of accepting compliments, we feel the need to pass them (‘You think I look good? No, I look terrible. But YOU look great!’), downplay our accomplishments, (“Oh, well, it’s not like it was the Nobel Prize for Peace; only Chemistry!”) and start most sentences with “Sorry, but actually…” Sadly, I think we’re still more comfortable communicating in this way, lest we be seen as something that rhymes with ‘witch’, but I’m hoping all those girls fighting for the right to go topless in public will help to change the way women’s accomplishments and attitudes are viewed in this country.
5. It’s Genetic. I come from a long line of complainers. Almost every older relative I know takes ‘How are you?’ as an invitation to rattle off the negative results of all the doctor appointments they’ve had in the past six months. I’ve been to family events during which everyone attempts to one-up each other on how bad they have it. (“You think your climate is inclement? My tulips look like crap this year!”) I also think, as we get older, we feel more entitled to kvetch, especially out loud. We’ve earned it!
Maybe that’s really what the need to complain is all about – it’s a way of saying, “No matter what Mother Nature (or US Airways) throws my way, I survived and I’m still here. And, I’m going to tell you ALL about it.”