Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Unpopular Opinion: It's Okay to Whine. No, Really!

In American culture, whining is probably second only to murdering in terms of being a scorned activity.  Those who whine are labeled childish, selfish, soft, weak, lazy, lacking character, and "everything that's wrong with today."  Americans don't want whiners -- we want winners!

Yet the definition of "whine" can be difficult to pin down.  Merriam-Webster Dictionary merely describes the sound -- "to utter a high-pitched plaintive or distressed cry" or "to complain with or as if with a whine."  As does the Free Dictionary: "To utter a plaintive, high-pitched, protracted sound, as in pain, fear, supplication, or complaint."

So the sound isn't pleasant, but does that mean the reason for it should be ignored?  What is the fine line between a valid complaint and a "whine"?

Maybe the answer lies in our view of the American ideal: the stoic, rugged individual who takes a single tree on a barren landscape and turns it into a house.  The individual who takes 30 cents in pocket change and uses it to form a business.  He or she (usually a he) doesn't complain about what he doesn't have because he is too busy doing and achieving.  In fact, it's usually because he's too busy taking control of his situation that he doesn't whine.  And because of his effort, he achieves his goals and doesn't need to whine.

In this view, the people who whine aren't just people who didn't achieve their goals, but people who didn't even try to achieve their goals.  They were too busy complaining that life isn't fair to put in the necessary effort to achieve.  After all, some other guy funded his business with 30 cents, so it must be possible for everyone!

This perspective ignores the obvious alternative: that the "whiner" has worked hard, stayed patient, and persevered, yet still has not achieved his or her goal... and now realizes that it may not even be possible, for reasons that have nothing to do with talent, hard work, or "wanting it enough."

That isn't the only reason people "whine."  Sometimes it's because the person received cruel treatment from his or her partner.  Sometimes it's because the person is only now coming to terms with the fact that he or she grew up in an abusive household.  It could be due to any valid reason.  Dealing with painful episodes isn't always pretty.

Yet too often, we must act as if nothing bothers us.  Which brings me back to the question: what is the fine line between a valid complaint and a whine?  Answer: a valid complaint doesn't sound like a complaint at all.  The complainer is confident, speaking in precise sentences honed in a television writer's room.  He or she doesn't complain, but asserts.  There is no whining or weakness; the complainer make speak of negative things, but he or she is dominant, a winner.  Most importantly, the complainer does not dwell for long on the negative, but instead looks ahead.

There is nothing wrong with the above approach, except for when it is assumed to be the BEST or the ONLY way to cope with a bad situation.  In popular entertainment, there are even enforcers of this norm.  I call them the You Know What? characters.*

Say there is an episode where the main character struggles and claims that life is unfair.  Cue the You Know What? character.  She (it's usually a she) stands up, hands planted on her hips, head cocked slightly, and says in a slightly snotty tone: "You know what?" before launching into a blistering attack on the main character's priorities, personality, or any other weakness.  Sometimes she might utter a curt laugh beforehand.  The You Know What? character is meant to force some perspective on the main character.  Yet usually she is the least credible person to give advice.  She is the bad girl at school, ignoring all the rules she doesn't like.  Kindness, respect -- you have to earn those, bitch.  But show discontentment with your own lot and she's all over you.  She may often begin her speech: "You know what?  When even I'm offended, you've gone too far."  Or: "You know what?  I'm terrible, but at least I don't pretend to be anything else."  Yes, she's horrible 100 percent of the time instead of just 20 or 30 percent, so that makes her better!  Certainly it entitles her to be the moral authority of the episode.

There is a place for You Know What?, such as when people complain without thinking of their audience.  The ones who complain about being downgraded to business class might not want to do so in front of those stuck in economy.  But the problem with You Know What? is that it is often used as a mechanism to gloss over relevant problems.

"You know what?  You're really spoiled earning $15 an hour.  There are people in China who earn 30 cents for a whole day."

"You know what?  You're really narrow-minded complaining about unequal pay for equal work.  Don't you know there are girls who are beaten just for going to school?"

You know what?  It's ALWAYS worse somewhere else.  That doesn't mean things aren't bad here.

In fact, "whining" can be a very positive thing.  Once you realize that something is unfair, you can potentially deal with it -- by walking away, making your peace with it, or trying to change it.  Many people "whining" can lead to important reforms.

Of course whining can also be inconvenient -- especially to the You Know What? crowd.  Not coincidentally, the real-life You Know Whutters tend to be pretty well situated, the ones who would have to give up something to appease the "whiners."  But of course they never whined... right?  "I started my business with 30 cents!  And had to walk 10 miles in the snow every day to get to my office!"  Yet they only discovered whining when those weak, ungrateful "whiners" dared to suggest that they had it too good.  Before that, they never whined -- never!

To these people, the only ones worthy of positive change are those who never complain.  Then good things just descend upon them as if by magic.  The model "non-whiners" are allowed to want things, but it must be in a way that inconveniences no one else.  The non-whiner will inevitably be rewarded, though the "how" is never spelled out.

But can whining go too far?  Certainly, if the "whiner" gets stuck dwelling on life being unfair and does not attempt to change either the unfair practice, or his or her response to it.  The trick is figuring out when that moment arrives, because for each person it's different.  Some people are so impatient that they expect others to get over their problems immediately.  Others may take weeks, or months.  We each have a different timetable for working through our problems, one that no one else will share.  Only we will know when it's time to "get over it."  While advice from others can be helpful, they should by no means assume that they have moral authority over the "whiner," the one who has dared to show a little vulnerability.

Finally, whining can be good for you not just because of the above reasons, but also because not whining can be unhealthy.  There is some evidence that suppressing your emotions can lead to more inflammation in the body.  Constantly suppressing your anger, fake smiling, trying to pretend the pain and anger you feel aren't really there... does that sound like a preferable way of living?  

So go ahead and whine, and ignore the moral tut-tutting of the You Know Whutters who tell you that whining is a sign of weakness and unworthiness.  It's your life, not theirs.  If they don't like it, they can always walk away.  

* There is probably a TV Trope name for this character, but I don't know what it is.  One good example of a "You Know What?" character is Santana from Glee.  But then, it's been a couple of years since I've watched that show, so she may have completely changed.

The above photo was taken by sskies and is not intended to suggest that sskies endorses the content of this post.

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