Dialogue, Ethics, Philosophy

Go Ahead and Complain

Wednesday, 3rd February 2021


Kate Norlock is in favor of complaining. She makes a pretty good case that it is a social skill, that it can be done better or worse, and that like any skill it can be used badly (or overused), but also underused.

The complaint is itself an interpretive moment. I suspect that what is meant as a descriptive statement to some might be seen as a complaint to others, maybe because there is so much unsaid that can be read into a statement. So a complaint seems to really be in a space between speaker and hearer, at least sometimes (i.e., when the moral language being used is less direct, or even absent). “I feel terrible today” is a pretty clear and direct complaint; “The cup is on the counter” seems descriptive but might be a complaint, if we read in the accompanying idea that it shouldn’t be there, and maybe you should have done something about that already. Or, it might be no more than what it seems, a description of a state of affairs.

I’m totally on board with her idea that complaining should be seen as an interpersonal and social skill, and that it can be done with different levels of skill, and that you can get better with practice. I also feel like the hermeneutic question is essential here – it’s also about the ability to read the social world, the person you are talking to, and further than that, their social world (will your complaint travel and in the long run do you harm, either by getting back to the person you are complaining about or making you look bitter or crazy?). There’s some level of phronesis here, tact, the ability to know the right thing to say at the right time. Sometimes the right thing is a complaint. Sometimes that’s good for me, the speaker, sometimes it’s good for the person I’m speaking to, sometime (contrary to the phrase “complaining never changed anything”) it changes things.

Norlock ends her reflection on complaining by putting it in the context of trust, and I think that’s a good place to end up. And unexpected – we think of complaining as easy and public, and we think of vulnerability as something other than complaining (except perhaps about oneself). And yet, complaining can be a vulnerable act, which can build trust. I know people who have learned to put on a smile when they talk to some (maybe most) people, because they’ve been burned so often in trying to complain about real injustices in the world against them. People might not want to hear all that, and so it’s only the people you trust who you will feel like you can complain to. So this is a good insight, I think.

Now, what’s the overlap between complaining and criticizing? And, if we had to assign a weight to the amount of complaints one has in the first person (i.e., of oneself), the second person (complaints about the person you are talking to), the third person (complaints about another person), and the fourth person (yes, this exists – complaints about the anonymous third person, the collective, the state of the world, etc.), how would it shake out? And is there a correlation between these sites of complaining and the ability to build trust with someone, and the kind of trust built? If, for instance, I mostly complain in the fourth person, and others agree with those complaints, are we closer because we share the same enemies? Might we be further, because the complaints about the system that has treated me badly has actually treated you pretty well, and so now we think we know something about a person’s ability to cope with their social world?

Many more questions to ask about complaining. Too many. Is that a complaint? Maybe.

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