It’s always been true that colleagues gripe and grouse to each other about work. They grumble about assignments, managers, deadlines, standards, quality, clients, and process. They complain about not knowing what’s going on, and about knowing too much about what’s going on. Voicing discontent is a practice as old as work itself. I bet even the guy who invented the wheel complained about something—his customers, probably, who didn’t appreciate the significance of his breakthrough.
We complain for many reasons. The noblest of them would be to improve things, believing that credible complaints lead to making things better. Another reason for complaining might be to assert oneself, pushing back on an unreasonable demand. “No one can make that ridiculous deadline!”
And one more reason to complain is simply to commiserate with someone.
“Yeah, it’s terrible and stupid and I’m sorry you have to.”
These days, there’s a whole new set of circumstances to complain about. I won’t draw up a long list because you pretty much know what’s on it—from stay-home rules to unhelpful politics to the plunging economy to persistent anxiety about everyday in-person encounters. As if it weren’t already easy enough to go negative, now there’s plenty more to criticize and angst over.
Now that the fire has a lot more fuel, it might be worth taking a look at our own patterns of chatter these days, what we’re saying to others, or for that matter what we’re saying to ourselves.
“I’m so tired of this,” a neighbor said to me in passing the other day, pointing at her face mask. Then she went on, quickly, not quite remembering to breathe: “I’m sorry if I’m standing too close to you. I don’t know how far six feet is, really, I mean I do, I should know, who doesn’t know that? But I think my six feet isn’t the same as other people’s, which is just something else to worry about while we wait and wonder when this will end, or will it end, I mean no one knows, do they? And we’re all left wondering, aren’t we?”
It sounded like she’d said it all before, like she’d been saying it to passersby, coworkers, fellow shoppers, even to herself.
But did it help to say all that? Was she less annoyed after she said it? Less distraught? Readier to face the day?
That’s one of the downsides about complaining: it reinforces our distress in our own mind. It amplifies our discontent. Some say we’re “letting it all out,” but whatever we’re supposedly letting out doesn’t end up going anywhere. If indeed we had “let it out,” it’d be gone. Instead, it stays right where it was all along—top of mind. And whoever we’re venting to is now either just as upset as they were, or more upset, or completely dismissive of our distress because it’s not their distress.
Really, that’s what happens when we complain: we remind ourselves of our dissatisfaction, and we distress other people or annoy them. That’s it. Even when we think we’re commiserating with a coworker, what’s mostly happening is we’re turning up the heat on their work-related unhappiness.
With a pandemic in our midst, we all have plenty to adjust to. Working from home. Kids underfoot all day. More cooking. More cleaning. Less fun. More responsibility. Isolation—or never a moment alone. And of course the biggie: uncertainty not only about the future but about the present. All of which hands us brand-spanking-new opportunities to moan and curse fate. Which doesn’t really help one bit.
If you’re unpersuaded by the logic of that argument, consider the chemical angle. Complaining increases cortisol, “the stress hormone,” and in a pandemic, one thing no one needs more of is a stress hormone. Complaining increases stress, plain and simple.
Getting Through It
“We’ll get through this together” is a message I see repeatedly. I’m sure you do, too. On TV ads. In online ads and blurbs. On the sides of buildings. What does it even mean? Does it mean we’ll have jobs and security and our children’s futures will be intact? Someday? Does it mean just wait until it’s over and hope for the best?
One constructive way we can help each other through this is not to complain, since we now know it makes things worse. Even if you want to vent, don’t. Even if you think you can’t not complain, catch yourself. If someone complains to you about working from home, tell them how glad you are to have a job. If someone complains to you about having to eat burgers again because no one can think of anything else to make for dinner, tell them you’re happy the stores have burger supplies.
Basically, don’t complain, and help others not to either. It’s one way “through this.”
Engineers Like Certainty
On the one hand, it’s alarming how fast everything in the world changed. Recently, I watched a rerun of an interview with NBA analyst Charles Barkley in early March when there was the initial discussion about cancelling NBA games. Barkley said something like “That’s crazy. Why cancel sports when people are together so many other ways? What are we going to do? Tell people to stay home from work?” And of course a week or so later, that’s exactly what happened—lightning fast.
So on the one hand, it’s alarming how fast it all changed. But on the other hand, the fact that it did change so fast means it was never all that rock-solid dependable to begin with. We’ve been depending on things that, in truth, were far more fragile than we thought. Uncertainty and vulnerability were never far away.
One thing that makes engineers good at their jobs how much they like certainty. If you correctly calculate the trajectory of a projectile, it will follow that path. If you correctly assess the various kinds of strength requirements for a particular type of bridge, it will hold up under the weight limit it was designed for. There’s no “maybe” about it. Unpleasant—or catastrophic—surprises aren’t expected.
While ambiguity, politics, and unpredictable outcomes are sometimes unavoidable, many (maybe most?) engineers would say that sort of thing is really not in their “sweet spot.” They prefer it when the math works out, when the results are as expected.
All of which may be making this current situation even harder to take. Every day we’re on the listen for updates and future plans from people who can’t possibly know whether it’s getting any safer “out there,” or that steps toward easing restrictions are warranted or not. Which means there’s likely to be plenty ahead to complain about.
But for your own sake and sanity, and for the sake and sanity of friends, colleagues, family, and even people you hardly know, try not to.
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.