The Sunday Magazine

How complaining can actually bring us closer together

Complaining is seen as undignified, weak, tiresome and contagious. But philosopher Kathryn Norlock argues that done well, it can bring us closer together.
Even complaining about the weather can be a way to get to know each other better, argues philosopher Kathryn Norlock. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

For something that's so much a part of the human experience, complaining has a bad reputation. It's seen as undignified, weak, tiresome and contagious.

Great philosophers like Aristotle and Kant frowned upon it. So, in all likelihood, did your parents, who probably complained about all your complaining.

But philosopher Kathryn Norlock argues that complaining, done well, can bring us closer together. 

We complain in order to find each other, in order to find out if we have company.- Kathryn Norlock

Norlock, a professor of philosophy at Trent University, told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright that even the recent outpouring of post-election complaining can be a way of seeking out connection and solace. 

"I had so much fun watching social media, where we complain in order to find each other, in order to find out if we have company … and so that we perhaps can look forward to a better world where we're together on the winning side," she said. 

"Even if you'll never win — and there are those of us who support candidates that are never going to be leaders of majorities — you want to know that there is somebody else who sees what you see. The best thing you can do to make someone hopeless and frustrated is to tell them you don't acknowledge their complaints.

"Acknowledging each other's complaints is a way to keep certain kinds of hope alive, to remain engaged in the world, even if you don't think you'll win."

In a piece for the Journal of Moral Philosophy called "Can't Complain," Norlock makes the case for both the complaining we do to change the world, and what she calls "quotidian whinging" —  our everyday griping about sore feet, snarled commutes, incompetent bosses and uncaring acquaintances. 

Although there is a danger of "mood contagion" when serial complainers regularly dump their frustrations on friends and co-workers, she said the most productive response is often to acknowledge kvetchers, rather than tell them not to complain.

"We don't have to agree with 100 per cent of their perceptions, but if we even acknowledged, 'You sound like you are having a hard day,' I suspect that ... would make them less contagious," she said. 

"It would possibly forestall further dumping, because it gives them the thing they're probably seeking most — to have somebody recognize that they're suffering in ways that may otherwise be invisible."

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview. 


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