Let us begin with the obvious: Complaining is great. It is the backbone of human civilization, complaining. “To exchange dissatisfactions is to acknowledge another person’s existence, and to share rueful mutual sympathy at the sometimes tremendously irritating predicament of having been born,” wrote the Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman on the subject. Yes. Do not be fooled by the cult of positivity. A satisfying complaint-exchange tells you that you are not alone in the world: Your feelings are valid! Your insights are interesting! It is indeed annoying that the buzzer to your apartment has been broken for a month and also your dog has developed acid reflux. Yes, it is.
Complaining sparks friendships; complaining sparks joy. It is not a scourge to be eliminated, but an art to be cultivated. Done well, complaining is not whining — it is social analysis. What is up with children on scooters? I don’t know, either, but aren’t we closer for having had this talk?
As with all good things, though, one must tread carefully. Complaining, well done, is a force for good. Done poorly, and you’ll find that no one returns your texts. The line between amusing frustration and tiresome self-pity is thin, and you’re best served to walk it with class.
If your “complaint” is actually an indirect request for help, it is probably best to frame it another way—for example, as a direct request for help. Don’t waste time recounting the horrifying details of your terrible job if what you really want from the person you’re talking to is a job lead. Similarly, lamenting your romantic frustration could be taken as a strong indication that, perhaps, you want advice or would like to be set up with someone. But, as a longtime practitioner of this strategy, I have discovered there is just one problem with it: it does not work.
People—even nice ones—are bafflingly bad at mind-reading. To be human is to be kind of dense. “Ugh, that sucks!” they’ll say. They will tell you about their own sociopathic former bosses and that time they also once felt lonely. This is good. Good complaining, like sex, or hostage negotiations, is all about the give and take—if what you want is a satisfying mutual wallow, by all means, proceed. However, if you’re really angling for a concrete favor, save yourself from the needlessly long, unsatisfying conversation that will ultimately leave you feeling worse. The sooner you follow up your complaint with a request, the sooner everyone can get back to eating dumplings and talking about something else.
The converse is also true. If what you actually want is is sympathy, and not a pro-bono life coach, it is fine to admit that you just need to vent. You deeply appreciate the person who is putting up with you, but advice is unnecessary at this juncture.
Let’s assume your complaint is actually a complaint. Gauge how important it is to complain about, because you’ll have to firmly plant yourself behind it. The most underrated rule of complaining is: If you complain about something for an extended period, and you allow your companion to sympathize with you in excruciating detail, you cannot then — after you’ve both agreed that whatever you’re upset about is indeed an outrage — decide it’s “actually not a big deal” or “really fine.” No no no. It is not fine. Being annoyed or upset about dumb shit? That is fine. If we did not spend our lives ranting about trivial things, the world would be eerily silent and we’d all do yoga. Disproportionate outrage is great! What is less great is ranting about your traumatic trip the Apple Store to a sympathizer, only to make them feel like a chump for caring in the end.
Should you become suddenly embarrassed about the relative triviality of whatever you’re incensed about, it is totally acceptable to acknowledge, with a charming-yet-self-deprecating smile, that you feel kind of silly being so annoyed about your job/your partner/your computer. Do not, whatever you do, point out that your problem is small potatoes compared to Important Things, such as ISIS. Your friend is already aware of this, because they are sentient.
Choose the right person to complain to. If you want to lament how long renovations are taking on your swanky multi-million dollar house, it is likely that your down-and-out, recently fired best friend is not the right person to discuss it with. Differing life circumstances are not automatic disqualifiers—maybe your recently dumped coworker does want to hear about the difficulties of choosing a wedding cake; wedding cake is great—but be aware of who you’re talking to. You don’t need to avoid topics because you’re afraid you might be hitting a sore spot, but you want to be sensitive to the reactions you’re getting. If your friend has a wistful look in their eye and hasn’t spoken in twenty minutes, it is likely time to change topics. When in doubt, “So, what’s new with you?” is a perfectly serviceable segue.
When you are listening to someone complain, it’s tempting to respond with a complaint of your own. This is called “mirroring”—I mean, I think it is? I’m not a psychologist—and it signals that you, too, are a victim of the human condition. Mirroring can be a slippery slope, and it is dangerously easy to find yourself—intentionally or not—one-upping the original complainer. “I’m sorry you had a bad day” you say, immediately countering with a story about the death of your cat, or 9/11.
Again, this is a case of good intentions executed poorly. If you must talk about yourself, the simple acknowledgement that what you’re about to say is A) not the same thing, but B) on-topic goes a long way toward making the original complainer feel listened to, valued, and commiserate with, rather than shushed.
You are probably very busy, but complaining about just how busy you are is, at best, unoriginal, and at worst, an insidious sort of humblebrag. In the middle, it is just plain boring. Also, it is generally wise to assume the person you are complaining to is at least as busy as you are, even if you know first-hand that they are not. (I say this as a person who is not very busy.)
The problem with lamenting your oppressive schedule is that it (almost) always sounds like you are really reminding the person listening to you of your own social or professional importance. Probably, this is not your intention; unfortunately, in this case, at least, your intention does not matter. Don’t do it.
The golden rule of complaining dictates that you only get to talk as much as you are willing to listen. Conveniently, this works in your favor, because best way to distract yourself from your own misery is to wallow in someone else’s. Also, people will like you more.
It won’t be a perfect balance at all times, because life is cruel in unequal measure, and it is difficult to conduct a meaningful friendship by Lincoln Douglas rules. In general, though, you want it to work out such that you and your commiserator get roughly equal venting time over the long haul. If you are concerned you may be overdoing it, consider shifting the conversation to another, brighter topic of mutual interest, such as Billions, or the future of the European Union. This will help restore equilibrium, and also reestablish that you are still a delightful person with outside interests and enthusiasms. This last part is especially important: otherwise, you won’t have anyone left to complain to.
Rachel Sugar is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. She tweets at @rtsugar.
Illustration by Kevin Whipple.