On Complaining, Criticizing, and the Value of Listening

Those of us living in the United States are told repeatedly that our economy is on the right track towards recovery after the devastating Great Recession of 2008. We are told that unemployment is now under six percent and that the country is actually facing a “skills gap” that needs to be filled by qualified, college-education students. Things are going well, we are told, so if you’re struggling to make ends meet it’s probably your fault.

There is no doubt in my mind that many people are doing better today than seven years ago, but it is hard to give myself a clear and positive assessment about the work I’ve done or what I need to do move in the right direction in the future. The recession hit during the latter half of my undergrad career. Staying positive about my abilities and education was extremely difficult after applying for nearly thirty-five middle and high school teaching jobs in 2011 without so much as an interview. Those of us with liberal arts training have been exposed in recent years to the ad nauseam debate about whether or not the humanities are in crisis, the adjunctification of higher education, and arguments about the impracticality of a liberal arts education in an economy supposedly thirsting for more skills-based employees in healthcare, technology, and STEM jobs. And within the public sector the talk is all about sequesters, government shutdowns, meager budgets, and financial backlogs that threaten to destroy important public resources. Young people are leaving the federal workforce largely because of the lack of opportunities available to them. Are things really going as well as we think they are?

These sorts of pressures have real consequences for the workplace environment. When the financial mentality is “cut cut cut,” the space in which to experiment with new procedures and ways of thinking (and to make mistakes along the way) rapidly diminishes as “we can’t do that” and “we’ve always done it this way” mentalities creep in. The time for training, collaboration, and sustained dialogue decreases. When more experienced employees retire and go unreplaced, the remaining employees often end up doing more for less while the quality of the product potentially suffers. When the path to career growth is stifled by few opportunities for meaningfully gainful employment, one faces feelings of complacency, self-doubt, and frustration.

Another consequence of the recession, in my opinion, is a collective fetish for “practicality” and an obsession with solutions in both education and the workforce. Within the digital realm Evgeny Morozov diagnoses this phenomenon as “technological solutionism,” which he defines as a desire to fix everything through an abiding faith in the power of “objective” numbers and big data to solve all our problems through quantification and tracking (hello, standardized tests!). Thus if you have a complaint or criticism about society, politics, or your workplace, your concerns are only valid insofar as you also offer a “solution” (preferably with numbers) to the problem at hand. Online and in real life I see and hear things like “talking about a problem without offering a solution is just whining;” “my office is open, but don’t come to me with your problems unless you also have a solution;” “that article was really interesting, but it offered no solutions.”

I want to defend complaining and criticism while also suggesting that one doesn’t have to offer a solution for a complaint to be valid.

Complaining and solution-giving go both ways, of course. The mopy Eeyore character that complains incessantly about their loved ones, the weather, or politics drives us all crazy. Conversely, if you get criticized at work by a superior, you’d expect that such criticism would come with a solution to help you avoid the same mistake in the future. That’s what leaders get paid to do, right? The same goes for our elected politicians, who are ostensibly paid to work together in solving pressing social and economic issues within society. And a fundamental element of education lies in the importance of helping students enhance their problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

That said, when we dismiss complaining and criticism as frivolous, annoying, excuse-making, or the fault of the person complaining, we run the risk of ignoring legitimate concerns about systematic shortcomings and abuses of power. Demanding that a person stop complaining and that “it could be worse” disregards the fact that a person can be grateful for their position in life while at the same time wishing for the betterment of themselves, their family, and the rest of society. Sometimes throwing the burden for devising a solution onto the otherwise powerless complainer reflects a superior’s inability to consider their own personal responsibility for the problem at hand. For example, a professor telling a student that they chose the wrong career path is easier than considering his or her complicity in recruiting that student for their program and taking the student’s money for tuition. Telling a college athlete that he or she should be silently grateful for their free education disregards the ways college athletics exploits its “student-athletes” for financial gain. Furthermore, a problem does not solely exist as a problem because a solution exists as well. A broken computer remains broken if your supervisor sends you back to your desk because you didn’t offer a solution for fixing it.

Where I’m going here is that in these times of stagnation and uncertainty we must strive to become better listeners rather than telling others to stop complaining and criticizing. Anthropologist Sarah Kendzior captures the heart of my argument in elegant fashion:

People hate complaining because they do not like to listen. When you listen to someone complaining, you are forced to acknowledge them as a human being instead of a category. You are forced to witness how social systems are borne out in personal experience, to recognise that hardship hurts, that solutions are not as simple as they seem. You are forced to trust, and you are forced to care. In complaint lies a path to compassion.

When we listen, we acknowledge the humanity of others and the value of their voice. When we listen, we acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers and that we need to work with each other to develop sound solutions. I can’t solve all the world’s problems, and I will certainly criticize problems that bother me. But ultimately I must listen before I speak, for in listening there is a path to empathy, learning, and understanding.


P.S. Just in case anyone forgets I have a disclaimer page, I will repeat that the views expressed here are mine solely and do not represent anyone else or any institution.


2 thoughts on “On Complaining, Criticizing, and the Value of Listening

  1. You should check out Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.” It’s definitely not a history but it’s a manifesto against the pollyanna feel-good attitude that certainly aided the 2008 Financial Crisis.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Nick. I actually have Ehrenreich’s book on my computer and I’ve read the first chapter of it. I’m enjoying it so far.

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