Posted by: MC | November 27, 2011

“In casual conversation, how long does it take before someone starts complaining?”

I had Thanksgiving Dinner at the home of a Nigerian-American family.  My brother, Preston(since the dawn of our friendship we’ve been pretty sure we are twins separated at birth) and his wife, Michelle and their 5-year-old daughter, Rachel had invited me along on their Thanksgiving plans.  Preston, the host couple and three more guests share the fact of long ancestries, birth, childhood and young adulthood in Nigeria.  Although they did not meet until they all immigrated here in their adult careers, their friendship is enriched by the culture they share.

I noticed as we sat around the table – around the giant turkey, the stuffing, the green salad, the fried plantains, Jamaican potato salad, and Nigerian rice (spicy hot with what seemed a flavor like cayenne) – there was a lot of laughter, many stories, and…no complaining.  There were no eyes rolled at the mention of political situations in the U.S. or Nigeria.  There were no moans about the economy or all the rain in recent days.   There were some concerns expressed about conditions in Nigeria.  There was evident sadness at those reports.  And then there was a rousing volley of stories and explanations about the vast linguistic diversity in Nigeria– the fact, for example that each person was raised speaking a different family/tribal language.  On top of that there were three regional languages represented, and all had learned English – the colonial language of commerce by the time they were coming through the education system.

But throughout, there wasn’t one complaint.  I was noticing this in particular because of conversations my students and I have been having this term.  I am working with two groups of about 20 graduate students each in a course called Diversity and Social Justice.  Several weeks ago I suggested we all pay attention to our casual conversations – specifically checking to see how long it takes before someone starts complaining – about the weather, about workload or traffic or prices or politics or another crummy night’s sleep.

After checking this out for a while, our conclusions are tentative at best, but they seem linked up with a cultural habit of people raised in what these days is referred to as The West and usually taken to mean theUnited States and, sometimes, Western Europe.  We can’t really say anything certain, and there may be age or generational differences, but we haven’t seen many differences across race, sexual orientation, gender or socio-economics.  People born and raised in America tend to complain.

Tentative as it is, here’s a try at articulating the theory that is emerging from our observations and discussions.

Pretty much definitional of complaining is its focus on what’s wrong.  Right now I can hear in the back chatter of my mind things like, “My hands are freezing.  I should go turn up the heat.”  Or, “I can’t believe it just started raining again.  We only had two days, and only one of them with sun.  Ick.  I’m so done with this.”  You know, things like that.

In the first instance, the complaint links with a remedial action I can take.  In the second one, probably more typical of these kinds of thoughts, there’s nothing I can do.  In such cases, the complaining itself serves as kind of a pressure release, or some weird taking of comfort in being a victim to the dreary weather.  (P.S., It’s only November and this is Portland, OR– there will be 6 to 7 more months of this.  Without an attitude shift I’m in for a very long stretch of being “so done.”)

One characteristic of Western thinking is to keep an eye out for what’s wrong and fix it.  The fix usually entails taking on problem as an adversary.  This shows up lots of places, but let’s take the area of Western medicine and an example.  Medicine in the West is all about identifying pathology and subduing it.  We battle cancer, we conquer diabetes, we stamp out epidemics and we march against everything from heart disease to MS to mental illness.  This is no problem.  We want very much for these things to be addressed – to be removed as sources of suffering for all people.

The cultural habit is in the quickness to focus on what’s not right.  To search for pathology – even to the point of admiring problems.   This reflex can serve us well – like when there’s a strange sound in the car engine (time to get a tune up) or a few too many ragged holes in the leafy greens growing in the winter garden (time for slug bate).  But there’s an overdone, near addictive edge to complaining that may reside fairly unconsciously on the following deeply internalized rule:  “If I pay close enough attention and catch each next thing that’s wrong – and if I make enough good effort to fix each one – and if I never let my guard down – finally I will have everything fixed and I will, at last, be able to rest and enjoy….”

As I said, the conversations we’ve been having in classes about rolling culture back to its underlying rule sets can’t be taken as the final say.  But it is curious to consider the function all the complaining serves – and what makes it particular to some cultures and not others.

There’s another conclusion we’ve come to – or maybe it’s more of an invitation or an aspiration.  There’s always the option not to complain – especially when it’s the whiny variety.  There’s the option to notice a complaint is brewing and to check if there’s an easy remedial action to take – to see if there are other more salient things to notice or to tell a story about.

I just got a photo.  My daughter, Sara, sent it minutes ago over the internet from a living room in Ipswich, U.K. where she’s visiting her girlfriend’s family.  This British family so loves my daughter that they have taken on the holiday of Thanksgiving and, for the third year in a row, are celebrating it with her on the Sunday following our Thursday hoopla stateside.  The family – filled up with turkey, potatoes and pie – has come to the close of the day.  The only grandbaby sits, the quintessence of contentment, on her grandfather’s lap.  You know that feeling, too.  No complaints – not one.


  1. I love your thoughts. They give me comfort. Thanks for your observations and committment to let them be heard. Thanks for listening to the world around you and yourself and for sharing. You are a blessing.

  2. Thanksgiving–my favorite time in the US! I have too much in my head, in my heart that I remember. A joyous memory. I came to the country as a young exchange student. Very young as a matter of fact. The beauty of it all is this–Americans would invite me to their home. The competition was so deep–meaning–many families demanded we come to their home–in love. The sharing of the food-the story behind the silverware, story of the family cookies–the pie-who made the best punch–and of course the best dressing. I’m now at home in America. Welcome!

  3. this is a good read, Mary. I find one group with whom I gather periodically gets around to complaining about politics and our country in about ten minutes after we get together! yuk!

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