Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Apr 16, 2019

Bellyachers, Gripers, and Grumblers

by Robin Kowalski
Four people cover their faces with emoticons of surprise, ill, angry, and annoyed

Oh no! Here she comes. Betty Bellyacher. Maybe she doesn’t see me. Oh, there’s the hand wave…she spotted me. Smile politely. Nod as if you are listening when she launches into her usual diatribe of misery. Resist the eye roll. Whatever you do, DO NOT show disinterest…that will just give her something else to complain about.

Sound familiar? We all know Betty Bellyacher or perhaps it’s Gary Grumbler -- the chronic complainer who seems to be perpetually dissatisfied with everything and everyone. When we walk away from encounters with such people, our emotional energy drained, we might ask ourselves why people complain so much, and, ironically, we may find ourselves ranting to someone else about Betty Bellyacher or Gary Grumbler.

Complaining is something of a mystery. Despite the fact that people often view complaining negatively, everyone complains, at least occasionally. People complain about the weather, the food at a restaurant, the traffic, the wait at a doctor’s office, their heavy workload, politicians, entitled teenagers. The list is endless. Even Goldilocks complained – beds were too hard or too soft, the food was too hot or too cold, chairs were too big or too small.  If we are all doing it, albeit to different degrees, complaining must serve some psychological or social function. But what are the functions of complaining? Why do we do it? 

Research shows that people complain for many reasons.  Sometimes, complaining is simply used as an ice-breaker. The next time you are waiting (forever) in a doctor’s office or the line in a grocery store, listen for how many people begin to complain about the wait time. These fairly innocuous complaints, just like complaints about the traffic or the weather, can serve as a way to strike up conversations with strangers to pass the time.

At other times, people complain purely as a means of venting their dissatisfaction with a person or situation. Referred to as expressive complaining, these complaints are often the most annoying to listeners because expressive complainers rarely want a solution -- they just want to vent. By contrast, instrumental complainers express their dissatisfaction directly to the source of their unhappiness, typically with the goal of achieving some particular outcome. Although expressive complaints may make the complainer feel better, instrumental complaints tend to be more effective in bringing about substantive changes that the complainer desires.

Still other complaints are voiced for self-presentational reasons – to influence others’ impressions of the person. For example, people may complain about the food or wine at a restaurant to convey that they have discriminating tastes. In other instances, the complainer may not actually be dissatisfied with the food or wine but still complain to achieve some desired outcome, perhaps a free dessert at the restaurant or admiration for having a discerning palette. Complaining may also serve as a way to call people to account for their behavior. Complaining about your partner’s chronically late behavior is a way of demanding accountability, if not behavioral change.

Although complaining is sometimes functional, everyone’s best interests would be served by all of us becoming more aware of our own complaining. Most of us don’t realize how frequently we complain until we start paying attention to our own griping. If you see a bit of Betty Bellyacher or Gary Grumbler in yourself, you don’t necessarily have to quit complaining. Instead, you may need to learn to complain strategically and in moderation.

Depending on which function your complaining serves, select your audience carefully. If you need to vent, don’t always complain to the same person. Spread the “joy” around. If you are engaging in instrumental complaining, be as direct with the source of your dissatisfaction as you can be.

And resist the urge to express every dissatisfaction that you have aloud. Complain in moderation. Too often, we complain about things that no one wants to hear about, that won’t produce any desired outcome for us, or that aren’t worth the breath it takes to utter the complaint. So, why complain?

If you have trouble limiting how often you complain, keep a complaint journal. Reviewing this journal periodically may make you realize how trivial and mundane most of your complaints really are.  And, always remember how you feel running into Betty Bellyacher or Gary Grumbler. Do you want to have the same effect on other people that Betty and Gary have on you?

Robin Kowalski is a Professor of Psychology at Clemson University and the author of Complaining, Teasing, and Other Annoying Behaviors.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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