Complaining about something — whether it’s about an item missing from your food order or your partner’s behaviour — isn’t always easy.
While many of us scoff at the idea of someone constantly airing their grievances, expressing dissatisfaction in a meaningful way can actually increase happiness levels, studies show.
Constructively complaining can also be an indicator of high self-esteem, research out of Clemson University in South Carolina found.
“When people complain strategically, that’s where the true benefit comes from,” said Robin Kowalski, a psychology professor at the university.
“People who are effective complainers… are the ones who do it in moderation, and are selective in the audience to their complaint.”
When complaining is constructive
Kowalski has studied why we complain and how to do so effectively for 30 years, after she was told by a supervisor that she’s a successful complainer.
In 2014, Kowalski and her colleagues asked more than 400 university students to write down complaints they had about current or former partners for a study.
They found that those who complained with purpose, looking to achieve a result or cause change, had higher levels of happiness than those who were annoyed without a strategy.
Tactful complaints that are done with intention, with mindfulness at its core, can actually give you the results you’re looking for, Kowalski said.
Using social media to complain
Amanda from Toronto has no problem complaining to a company or store if they don’t provide the service she’s paid for. (Global News has agreed to withhold Amanda’s last name for privacy reasons.)
She holds businesses to account on social media platforms like Twitter to solicit a response so they can fix an issue.
“It’s really about, here’s the problem I have as a consumer,” she said. “What can you do to help me?”
Amanda recalls the time she tweeted at a home appliance store about a poor customer experience when they shipped damaged products for a kitchen renovation that were worth thousands of dollars.
Revealing the problem on social media in a public way caused the store to leap into action and replace the products they sent, she said.
“I’ll complain looking for a solution as opposed to complaining just to make a complaint public,” Amanda said, adding that social media adds more weight to complaints since others can see them.
It’s important to be reasonable in your complaint, as you should only complain if you have a real issue that requires a solution. But understanding your rights as a consumer can give you the confidence to actually vocalize your dissatisfaction, she said.
Know what you want — and why
Those who are able to complain only when they have a clear objective in mind — not because they are simply upset in a moment — often have a better sense of self and self-esteem, Kowalski said.
This is especially true when it comes to complaining in public, like at a restaurant.
Someone who is more confident in themselves will only complain if something is truly wrong with their meal, as opposed to complaining about food only so others will think their standards are high, Kowalski explained.
People who like to complain even when there isn’t a real problem may be participating in what psychologists call “impression management,” which is trying to control how others see you, Kowalski said.
Her research has found this tactic is also used to elicit sympathy, like complaining that you are sick when really you are feeling fine.
How to complain effectively
But holding complaints in, especially when it comes to your relationships or even your workplace, can also have negative impacts on your health.
Kowalski’s research from the mid-90s shows that some may hide their feelings if they are worried about how others will perceive them. This is particularly true if someone has a high need for approval.
Learning how to complain in a constructive way can help to improve your relationships and have your needs met, said Amy Cooper Hakim, a psychologist based in Boca Raton, Fla., who specializes in workplace relationships.
“If we complain in a constructive manner, we’re doing so to improve a particular situation for ourselves, or for others,” Hakim said.
Before you make a complaint, first decide whether it’s worth complaining at all. Ask yourself: will this bother me in the next five minutes, or five hours?
If something is not going to be a problem for you within a few hours, it might not be worth bringing up, Hakim said. But if it’s going to be an ongoing issue, you should address the problem and figure out how to solve it.
Picking and choosing your battles may make your complaints seem more legitimate to others, as you won’t be known as someone who constantly complains, she said.
She also recommends trying to take emotion out of the situation, even though that can be hard to do.
Also, consider the relationship you have to the person you are complaining to, she said. Complaints should be framed differently depending on if you are speaking with your boss, versus a close friend.
“You can appeal to someone’s soft side if they know you, if they have experienced something similar,” she said. “Think through who you’re speaking to before you just speak.”
Complaining a lot could mean that you are very effective at it, but Hakim recommends using those skills wisely. If you become known as a complainer it can weaken your arguments.
For Amanda, she doesn’t see complaining as a bad thing, but rather a sign of empowerment, especially for consumers.
“It’s just holding companies and people accountable for the products and services they provide,” she said. “I’m asking for something that’s reasonable.”