Thinking About: Could you, Should you stop complaining?

“Nothing unites people more strongly than a common dislike,” says Trevor Blake, author of Three Simple Steps. “The easiest way to build friendship and communicate is through something negative.”

I read this a few years ago, when Jessica Hullinger, in Fast Company, wrote about her month-long trial of the Complaint Restraint project: she would stop venting about things she couldn’t change for one month. And it came right around the time I was also noticing an uptick in what I’ll call gratitude-language on social media (#grateful).

But ever since then, I’ve started to recognize that this advice seems to come in waves. On the one hand, too much negativity can fuel more of it: “Complaining replays the event in your mind, and thinking about events where you got hurt, humiliated, or disrespected, even in your imagination, elicits negative feelings almost as strong as if the negative event were happening in real life.” And, let’s face it, there’s the risk of becoming a real Debbie Downer.

On the other hand, it can be a powerful way to build trust and bond. Just last week, in The Cut, Katie Heaney wrote about the pleasure of transitioning from generic ‘Oh, I’m so busy’ to true gossip and complaints with a colleague at work: “It is at this moment that you know you’re getting somewhere, socially, with someone: Maybe you are not quite yet real friends, but you are no longer just co-workers.”

Indeed, I confess that one way I would judge whether I am close to someone is whether (and about what) I feel comfortable complaining. But it’s not always a good measure for whether the feeling is reciprocated. For example, if someone replies with the positive “but at least…” rather than commiserating, how much do you read into that? It can all be very fuzzy.

Does venting make you feel better? Or do make an effort to focus on the positive? How do you feel about friendships predicated on common dislikes? Or about friends who complain? 

P.S. Hudson’s first best friend, and a post about making friends as an adult (which happens to be about that little girl’s mother). Related: I think it can still be really hard to make new friends! Also, sparking conversation.

[Photos from previous posts: top is mine and bottom is by Susan Yee]

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