• Are You a Whiner or a Complainer?

  • Let’s suppose you and I are having dinner at an upscale restaurant (by the way, thank you for your generosity and offering to pay; I accept). With apologies to my vegan friends, we each decide to order a steak. As usual, I order mine medium rare. When the waiter brings our meal, I soon discover my steak is medium well. I then tell you of the mistake and go on to mention, more than once, that I like my steak medium rare. 

    “Why don’t ask the waiter to take it back?” you might ask.

    “Oh no. They’re busy and besides, I think I’d like to try it this way.” I say.

    You, understandably undertake the enjoyable task of making your meal a distant memory thinking that I’ve made my choice and that’s the end. Until I mention again, after taking a few bites, how I prefer my steak medium rare but now it’s too late for me to ask for one to be cooked to my order. 

    Same scenario except this time, upon mentioning to you that my steak was over cooked, I immediately call the waiter over. I explain that there was an error and that I would like another steak cooked to my order. The waiter, as you might expect, apologizes, removes my plate and returns to the kitchen to re-place the order. 

    Which one of these examples is a complaint and which one is whining? If you tab the second example as a complaint, congratulations. Now, here’s your bonus question: what is it about the second example that makes it a complaint? Read on and I will explain.

    The photograph to the left is of a sign I have in my office. I have it there not only because I think it’s funny but, it often helps me to illustrate the distinction between whining and complaining. “What IS the distinction between whining and complaining, Paul?” I’m glad you asked. It is this: Complaining that is, HEALTHY COMPLAINING, always comes with an action plan for rectifying the complaint. Whining, on the other hand, contains no such action plan. 

    Everyone has complaints from time to time. If you are in a relationship, you have complaints about your partner and (sorry to be the bearer of bad news) your partner has complaints about you. When either of you have a complaint, you each have three basic choices. One, you can decide to say nothing about your complaint, telling yourself that it is no big thing. Two, you can whine about it. For example, “I hate it when you squeeze the toothpaste from the middle of the tube!” Three, you can make a complaint: “When you squeeze the toothpaste from the middle of the tube, I get frustrated. What I would like is if you could squeeze the tube from the bottom.” 

    Which one of the three options did you choose? Which one of the three options do you most often choose? If you say number three, congratulations, you’re a complainer. Good for you! In being a complainer, a healthy complainer, you are 1) identifying a problem you have, 2) the impact the problem has upon you and 3) you have identified a possible solution for your problem. And if, as is often the case, your problem involves another person, your proposed solution, your “action plan,” can then become a topic of discussion and negotiation. 

    Does your partner have to accept your proposed solution to your problem? Of course not. However, without including a proposed solution or action plan as part of your complaint, you have no chance of engaging your partner in a solution. It is the proposal of a solution which distinguishes the complaint from whining. More importantly, it is the discussion and/or negotiation of and about the problem that can foster understanding and clarity between yourself and your partner. When you have mutually reached understanding and clarity, sometimes that is all that is required in relieving the problem. Because at the end of the day, isn’t it nice to be understood and heard?