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Page last updated at 09:10 GMT, Wednesday, 25 June 2008 10:10 UK

What's wrong with whinging?

Fawlty Towers
Sometimes complaints are made with good reason
Labour MP Tom Harris caused a row last week when he said people should stop being so "bloody miserable" and appreciate what they have. Philosopher Julian Baggini considers whether we are a nation of whingers and asks if that is such a bad thing anyway.

Complaining has got itself a bad name. Well, several bad names in fact: whining, moaning, grumbling, whinging, griping. But complaining at its best is an expression of our values. We see the gap between how things are and how they ought to be and we speak out, trying to narrow the gap between the two.

Although it can be about petty everyday things, all the great social advances have started with someone complaining that the status quo will not do.

Why is everyone so bloody miserable?
Tom Harris MP

Far from being a British thing, complaining seems to be a human universal. I ran an online survey to see what people complained about and although people focused on different things, on average, everyone complained about the same, young or old, male or female, British or American. "Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain," said the comedian Lily Tomlin. One might go so far as to say that she who is tired of complaining is tired of life.

However, there is still a worry that the British complain about the wrong things and in the wrong way. Americans were twice as likely as Brits to think that the point of complaining was to actually change things. Double the proportion also complained to the people responsible for the grievance, rather than just to friends and others who can't do anything about it.


To the credit of the British, at least the manner of their complaining is civil. While Brits were split 50-50 on whether they thought people were polite when they complained, more than four out of five Americans thought their compatriots tended to protest rudely.

Our constant need to complain runs counter to the advice of Reinhold Niebuhr, who asked God to grant him the serenity to accept the things he couldn't change, the courage to change the things he could, and the wisdom to know the difference. Indeed, it seems for some people, resolving the problem at the source of their complaints is the last thing they want. The psychologist Robin M Kowalski describes one sub-set of chronic complainers as "help rejecting".

We might actually find it quite disturbing to our sense of self to wake up and find none of things we like to moan about

We're all of us guilty of such futile moaning from time to time, but it can be hard to change our habits because our complaints become part of who we are. In Roger Hargreaves' Mister Men series, Mr Worry manages to eliminate all his concerns, only to find that the then starts worrying that he has nothing to worry about. In the same way, we might actually find it quite disturbing to our sense of self to wake up and find none of things we like to moan about. Loosening the grip our complaints have on us might feel less like a liberation than a loss

Of course, many everyday complaints serve no practical function at all, other than to vent our frustrations and act as a social lubricant. The sociologist Charles F Hanna describes it as a form of association. Think, for example, how office workers bond by griping about the boss. If you want to bring a group together, just find something they can all complain about.

So many people are miserable because they have never experienced life when it wasn't so easy
Nigel, Dundee

Trying to eliminate all complaints that don't change anything is therefore unrealistic and fails to take account of the different roles complaint plays in life. However, the challenge remains to make more of our complaints constructive and not to waste too much breath on petty protests and minor moans. Complaint at its best is about things that matter.

As Martin Luther King said in his letter from Birmingham Jail, "I have not said to my people: 'Get rid of your discontent.' Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channelled into the creative outlet of non-violent direct action." That's the spirit, and my complaint is that we too rarely embody it.

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