When writing The Squeaky Wheel I wanted to use every opportunity to test out the tools and techniques I suggest in the book. As a result, I spent a year complaining about things I would have ordinarily shrugged off, becoming in essence a temporary chronic complainer. Chronic complainers often see their world as being very negative and themselves as responding reasonably to the slings and arrows that befall them. When they complain they feel the same irritation and dismay others do but they also feel a dollop of emotional satisfaction. In other words, their complaints provide validation for their self-perceptions as ‘sad-sacks’ (for a more detailed discussion of the psychology of chronic complainers read Chapter 4 in The Squeaky Wheel or this article in Psychology Today).
In my case, my prodigious complaining output was not just a way of assessing the effectiveness of various complaining techniques but it also provided a window into the psychological impact expressing an abundance of complaints could have on one’s mood (in this case, mine). That said, what separated my complaints from those of chronic complainers was that I intended my complaints to be effective and get results, whereas chronic complainers rarely voice complaints with the goal of resolving matters.
I’ve already documented my experiences complaining about such trifles as the ‘Burrito Incident’ and my fake complaint to Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. Over the year of writing the book, I ended up voicing hundreds of complaints about practically everything—yes I was a ‘joy’ to be around.
My most prolific day of complaining was also the most informative—at least psychologically. I arrived home after having written a complaint letter to the management of my office building, having sent a complaint sandwich email to a friend about a scheduling issue and having spoken to the manager of a local grocery store about their failure to remove expired-dairy-products from their shelves. I felt like a complaining machine!
I started going through monthly bills when I realized I had hit the trifecta! There were small problems with bills from three different companies (Verizon, Time Warner Cable and Con-Edison) which meant placing calls to three different customer service hotlines! Surely six complaints in one day should earn me at least honorary status as a chronic-complainer.
I was curious to see how my ability to regulate my emotions (so I could complain effectively) would hold up throughout the customer service calls. It would be a true test of my effective complaining skills and of the strategies I advocate in the book.
Fifteen minutes into my first call my ‘curiosity’ was totally gone and I began to feel terribly impatient. By the second call, I started feeling annoyed by the sound of my own voice when spelling my name for the customer service rep on the other end of the line. Shortly after that I detected a whine creeping in. By the third call (Con Edison) I felt like an over-tied four-year-old, as evidenced by my whiny plea to the rep, “But why do they have to read the meter again? Why?” It wasn’t a proud moment.
What I found illuminating (albeit only in hindsight) was the realization that while chronic complainers might feel emotional validation from encountering and expressing their woes, for non-chronic complainers, too much complaining, even effective complaining can present diminishing returns.
Though I tried to remind myself that my complaints were both minor and manageable, voicing so many of them in one day made it very hard for me to keep things in the proper emotional perspective. I gave myself a few days off from complaining and found it incredibly emotionally refreshing to do so.
The bottom line is that even for effective complainers, complaints should have dosing guidelines. If you’re complaining too much and you begin to sound whiny or to feel annoyed at the sound of your own voice, it’s probably a good idea to take a break from complaining for a few days and refocus on being positive and optimistic.
The chronic complaining slope is a slippery one indeed.
Copyright 2011 Guy Winch
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