Paying for the Right to Complain

I’ve noticed something that people do: they complain endlessly about some situation they’re in, and then when you provide them with a solution or way out – they refuse.

In fact, sometimes they suggest the way out themselves, only to never act on their words.

A woman I knew complained vociferously to me that the TV channels she was paying for sucked. That in 10 years, she had barely watched any of them. That only a couple were even remotely passable, and that she downloaded everything online to watch on her Mac anyway. For more than 5 minutes she whined about how she paid a lot of money for a service she never used, and then herself said “I should probably cancel my subscription”.

This is a rant I was subjected to within half an hour of meeting her. Ranting to people about her TV subscription has become a common routine – a habit. So if it’s such a bother to her, why in the past 10 years of dissatisfaction has she not just cancelled her subscription?

The answer is deceptively simple: she’s not paying for TV channels – she’s paying for the right to complain. And she probably doesn’t even consciously realize it.

Complaining is something some people absolutely love to do. I’m sure that she gets more than her money’s worth in complaining hours from her subscription.

Clearly, such people complain not to find a solution, which seems to be the productive way of going about things, but rather they complain for the sake of complaining. It gives them some kind of satisfaction. But what is it?

So why do people do it?

With some help, I’ve come up with two reasons so far.

The first is that complaining is a way of transferring feelings of annoyance and anger to somebody else. If the complainer is annoyed and angry about whatever they’re complaining about, then incessantly whining about it to someone else, while rejecting any solutions, is an excellent way of making them annoyed and angry, too.

Note that we’re not talking about seeking out empathy here. After rejecting solutions and proving that they have no interest in doing anything about the problem, the victim, let’s call them the complainee, will be annoyed and angry at the complainer, and not at all at their problem.

The second reason is that complainers may simply enjoy complaining. Why this is the case, I’m not sure.

If you have any other ideas about why people may do this, please share in the comments!

Legitimate reasons to complain

I don’t want to jump the gun here and say that all complaining is bad – this isn’t true at all. Complaining to find a solution is one legitimate reason; but even simply to vent your frustration at something bad that happened to you is therapeutic. One of my friends has several times offered to listen to me vent about some bad situations before.

The difference is in how often this is done. When I started complaining about my first workplace, I promptly found another job within a couple of weeks. In the case of the woman above, this seems to have become a habit for her. She complains about the same thing for 10 years while making zero effort to alleviate the source of the complaint.  I think there’s a difference here.

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