Oy Vey: Why We Complain and How to Stop It

“How are you?”

Ever notice how those three little words can trigger a miserable kvetching fest of aching backs, insomnia, gallbladder surgery and TMI about toilet habits? Whether it’s in person or in an online chat, we all do it (some more than others).

If your conversations with friends are starting to sound like that senior stereotype (check WikiAnswers.com on the topic of senior stereotype and you’ll  find “they complain too much” high on the list), here’s some insight on griping – and how to squelch it.


Why We Complain and When We Should (and Shouldn’t)


Everyone complains, at some point, at least a little, says Robin Kowalski, PhD, a professor of psychology at Clemson University who wrote “Complaining, Teasing and Other Annoying Behaviors.”

Kowalski says that a common trigger is dissatisfaction with the status quo. The wait at the doctor’s office shouldn’t have been that long, for instance.

Or it can just be a way to get some needed attention or blow off steam.”If complaining did not serve some beneficial function, the behavior would die off,” she says.

Given how many health conditions come with pain and anxiety, it’s understandable that we need to unload, says Tara Gruenewald, PhD,  assistant professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology and director of its Healthy Aging Lab. “I think it’s natural for folks to talk about things associated with pain and anxiety.” Natural – but shouldn’t we try and stop ourselves?

Experts agree that it’s crucial to differentiate garden variety complaining – allergy problems, a pulled muscle – from the need to talk about serious diagnoses such as cancer. Research suggests that not talking about these serious conditions may actually impair your immune system, Kowalski says.

For everyday medical problems, talking about them might be effective up to a certain point – but Gruenewald says,  ”when it becomes a continual focus, that is when it becomes a less effective coping strategy.”


Complainers: Identifying by Type


Everyday complainers come in many varieties. Can you identify your friends – or yourself?

Venter This is your basically dissatisfied person who doesn’t want to hear solutions, however brilliant. Even if nothing changes, these people may feel better by venting – or think they feel better – Kowalski says.

Attention-Seeker  Maybe their doctor or their grown kids or their spouse didn’t cluck-cluck enough, and they just need some sympathy.

One-upper The competitive complainer has always had a bigger surgery, worse back pain or more ringing in her ears. “One of my grad students was living in Charleston when hurricane Hugo came through,” Kowalski recalls. “She was standing in the grocery line when one person said, ‘It took the roof off my house.’ The next one said, ‘At least you have a house.'”

Chronic  Some people keep circling back, Gruenewald says, a habit that researchers call ruminating – thinking a problem to death, basically. “That continual rumination about the problem or issue at hand causes additional worry and anxiety.”




Squelching this everyday woe-is-me fest may take more than one approach. Here are some  suggestions if the kvetcher is a friend (if it’s you, pass these pointers on to your nearest and dearest!)

  • Don’t tell your friend not to think about their poor sleep, sore back, swollen feet.  “Whatever you tell them not to do is the thing they will think about the most,” Gruenewald says.
  • Change the topic gently. If that doesn’t work, try a playful “New topic, please!”
  • Redirect the topic with empathy. Gruenewald recommends trying something like this: ”I feel the same, but let’s talk about something else. Focusing on ailments all the time dampens the mood.”
  • Don’t expect miracles overnight. This is an ongoing project.
  • Pass your complaining friend on to someone else. That’s right, make them someone else’s problem – but with diplomacy and grace. Think of it as helping them find their soul mate. Example:  If a friend has a specific problem, Google online help such as relevant chat rooms, support groups, videos and  patient education (InsomniaLife.com, anyone? Open 24/7.)


Smart Complaining


If you’re the complainer, and your friends use these squelching strategies on you, you’re in danger of losing your sounding boards. Here’s help:  You can improve.

  • Pick your audience. Don’t tell your sleep problems to someone who nods off at the card game. Find a fellow insomniac.
  • Spread the joy.  Don’t over-use one person.

 Good luck! 

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  • Calizen

    What amazes me is that this article is geared towards the problems that complaining seniors create for others. Nowhere do I see anything about the effect of real, ongoing, chronic pain on a person. All I see is a “suck it up” response by someone who is not in pain. To wake up, go through the day and try to sleep with pain changes one’s personality. If many elders had adequate pain control, maybe the “oi veying” would significantly decrease.

  • J. Currie

    At 77 years old, I have one major complaint: I wish writers of newspaper articles would quit murdering grammar as in using “they”, “them”, “their”, i.e. using the plural instead of “his” or “her” or even “his and/or her”. It gets confusing when what is written is suddenly changed from the singular to the plural. What they? Who them? A moment ago is was he or she. Sheesh!

    • Barbara, Senior Planet editor

      Hi J. Currie, we hear you! It takes a little getting used to. The fact is, language is changing, and many grammarians now consider the use of the plural “they” or “their” acceptable in referring to a singular he or she. In general, language shifts reflect cultural shifts; in this case, where writers might once have used “he” to refer to both genders, now we try to be inclusive. Language also is becoming more colloquial, even in written form, and dictionaries reflect these shifts in usage. In this case, as you say, using “they” is a way of avoiding the “he or she” construction, which can sound overly formal to 21st-century ears.

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