18 January 2011

the art of ritual complaining

In modern America, much of our daily conversation is founded on complaints. We complain every day, but not because life sucks: rather, we complain because we don't know how else to talk to one another. On the bus to campus in the morning, a girl drinks a chai latte and complains that it's too hot for January; her acquaintance replies that she's wearing too many layers, but doesn't take off her scarf. In coastal California, we any chance to bundle up is a blessing.

This is America, though, and the process of complaining isn't the same everywhere else. In Sweden, for example, you only complain when you really have something to complain about. Otherwise, people think you're a whiner. Which you probably are - but probably not any more so than anyone else from the U.S. When I came back to the States from Sweden - and also when I returned from Denmark - I found it really obnoxious how much my friends, family, and acquaintances complained about everything. We'd be out hiking on a beautiful, sunny afternoon, and they would bitch about how hot it was. My Scandinavian-trained mind would think, first of all, At least there is sun, and then, then do something about it. Take your shirt off. Drink more water.

But, like I said, this is America, and in America - unlike in Sweden - we like to talk for the sake of talking. When we complain with each other, we are indicating that we care about each other. We complain to establish solidarity - "My parents suck." "So do mine." - as well as trust and intimacy. If your coworker trusts you enough to bitch about her boyfriend to you, then, well, you must be on good terms. We complain to start conversations, to validate our emotions, and to be social. In some situations - say, on the bus at 7 AM before your morning coffee - it's more socially productive to complain with someone than to not say anything at all. If you're trying to establish a relationship, it's better to initiate contact by saying something negative than to leave the gap between you well enough alone by not saying anything at all.

As I so often do when considering Europe and America, I stand somewhere in the middle - figuratively, I guess, in the middle of the Atlantic; maybe I ought to try Greenland - on all of this complaining business. I hate listening to people complain, yet I can't function in my day-to-day life here without partaking in some ritual complaining. I choose to spend my time with people who aren't big complainers, but in some cases - the morning after a good party, periods of shitty weather - ritual complaining is culturally expected, in which case I bare my teeth and smile.


geneviève bjargardóttir said...

this is wonderful
and true
and i am guilty

Anonymous said...

I agree! I'll take a moment to complain about complaining :P. They suuuuck! Let's enjoy the good things and turn our cheeks to the bad things.

maya said...