To complain is human

Everywhere everyone seems to complain about things. This could be a good thing.

I recently moved from India to the UK and the one thing I found that was overwhelmingly common in both countries was the complaining. People in India constantly complain about the situation there, about municipal decisions and about pathetic governance—all with good reason. People in the UK also complain about the situation here, about council decisions and about pathetic governance—also seemingly with good reason. If one went by all the complaints alone one would think there is barely anything separating the two countries; and yet the two countries are far apart by several measures.

Complaints are aspirational in nature. We complain based on what we aspire; we complain because we are not where we think we ought to be. Every society has complaints because every society is aspirational. We are simply aspirational along differet lines or on differet timelines entirely. One country could be complaining aspirationally in search of somethng another country has already complained about and obtained. It is simply that we are moving in the same direction. Someone could be complaining about needs while someone else could be complaining about wants.

The other commonality is the entity about whom we complain: the municipality, the council, the government are all usually at the receiving end of people’s ire. This is because they hold the power to affect change and complaints almost always seek change.

The many types of complaints

There are two key reasons why people complain: first, they see, feel or experience something negative; second, they believe that the thing they saw, felt or experienced is out of their ‘locus of control’ i.e. beyond the realm of all things they can change by themselves.

Based on these psychologists identify three types of complainers. First, the chronic complainers and people who are not the subject of this article. They are so focussed on the problem that all they can do is complain about it. Second, the venters and people who want their issues to be heard. They are talking about something real, something that is genuinely a problem and can be improved, but it comes from a place of personal discomfort. They recognise only what bothers them and when they do they want their botheration voiced and heard. Their complaints are conceptual. These are slightly more important than the first kind so we shall consider them for the purposes of this essay.

Finally, there are the solution-oriented folk. These identify problems—not always ones that bother them—and they complain with an aim to arrive at solutions. These complaints are backed by concepts but are not limited by them. They define a problem and break it down so that a solution may be found. To these complainers, the solution and not the problem is the focus of every discussion.

My city stinks

In 2019 NPR Radio broadcasted an episode asking why Seattleites complain so much. Apparently, they figured out that people in the city that Microsoft and Amazon (and Frasier Crane) call home tend to complain a lot more than people in most others American towns. Their complaints revolved around a carriageway that is constantly backed up and potholes and trees chopped beside pavements and of course the weather.

Complaints are a personal form of protests ... complaints are a form of communication. And to communicate is human.

Here in England, where the weather is almost certainly gloomier and more unpredictable, people have actually become a bit understanding about it. The weather is not a complaint anymore here as much as it is a joke.

Not a year later the BBC published an article like NPR’s except this time it was about why the French love to complain. The BBC even mentioned the three famous French complaining styles: se plaindre and porter plaindre and râler, meaning complaining, filing a complaint, and a balanced cross between venting and grumbling.

For our purposes, let us consider the conceptual complainer and the solution-oriented complainer. We shall call these productive complainers.

The complaints ladder

The timeline of complaints is key to understanding the level of development of a town. Are people complaining more about essential services, like garbage collection or the availability of clean water and regular electricity? Or are they complaining more about what some would term ‘first-world problems’ like the unavailability of the latest gaming console or a millimetre-deep ‘pothole’ on an obscure alleyway? A complain can provide insights into what people consider immediate problems, in turn showing us how developed a place is. The more developed a place the fewer essential needs people would be complaining about.

While this works qualitatively it does not seem to be true quantitatively. One might assume that the less developed a nation the more people have to complain about and therefore the more they will complain about. But a (somewhat funny and questionable) 2022 study shows that Americans complain more than anyone else in the world. The United Kingdom follows a close second. The rest of this list, though, is not as predictable as one might expect: Canada, Philippines, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, Chile, South Africa and Armenia form the top ten. India is nowhere in the top twenty.

Within the UK things are a bit more predictable. The cities that complain most are London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds. These are also among the largest cities on the island.

The Globaliser

Complaints are as essential to a city as water supply and electricity. They are in effect a balance of power. With elected representatives and council members holding actual power, little is left in the hands of the people for whom these chaps ought to be working. Journalism has long been the primary balance against accumulation of power but there has always been one in the shadows that swayed the scales in the people’s favour: our long-practised art of complaining.

Complaining is also a direct reflection of the people’s belief in entitlement. It held a mirror to how well society provided a platform for the people to voice themselves. An election is one thing; it is a fleeting occurrence that happens (for good) only across a handful of years. While an election gives people glimpses of power, complaining offers them a route to sustained pressure. Complaints are a personal form of protests—enough complainers just have to realise others exist who think like them for change to come into place. Along the same lines, complaints are a form of communication. And to communicate is human.

When I moved from India I noticed that people complained but were not as bold about it. The complaints were usually behind closed doors, not with random strangers. I knew the complaints existed because I knew enough people personally. Flying to another country on another continent, how could I tell so quickly that people were complaining and what people were complaining about? It was simply that people were complaining to random strangers. People were emboldened. This was not a society that closed people’s mouths or a government that ruled by fear.

This is not a celebration of one country over another; it is merely an observation that a country where people are encouraged to complain productively is a country that can grow. Complaining needs no mass media, no money or power to spread; it spreads by word of mouth, draws no attention and is enough for at least once other person at a time to realise there are others who sympathise with their views or think like them. It is enough to embolden society. It is time we are liberal with out productive complaining.


Liked this essay?

It takes time and effort to keep up good quality, independent writing. If you liked what you read, please consider supporting this website. I’m always open to discussions via e-mail or iMessage and several readers get in touch this way.

Subscribe to my newsletter

Confluence is a newsletter on science, technology and society, designed to make you think critically about your world. Dispatched fortnightly.

Five reasons to subscribe