When is complaining acceptable?

First, a fact:

People do not like to listen to other people complain. This seems like a fairly obvious statement, yet I hear people complaining constantly.

I try not to complain. I aggressively try not to complain. I am a bit of a complain-avoidance machine. Part of it is an awareness of how complaints are generally received.

Another part is simply perspective:

When you've been homeless, hopeless, hungry, and facing a trial for a crime you did not commit, a lot of problems don't seem so big a deal anymore.  

This doesn't mean that there is no room for complaints in the world. Complaining is a legitimate form of communication and can be an effective agent of change. But in order to effectively complain, I complete this simple calculation before doing so:

If my complaint has the potential of yielding an actual and desirable result that is worth the risk of being labeled as a complainer, then I complain.

For example:

My waiter fails to bring your soup?

I complain. I'll get soup.

My colleague leaves his dirty dishes in the sink every day?

I complain. His slovenly behavior is worse than any complaining I might do. 

But If my complaint will not result in meaningful change (which is the case for the vast majority of complaints) or will result in change so infinitesimal that it's not worth the risk of being labeled as a complainer, I do not complain.

For example:

 My boss says something that hurts my feelings?

Much more complicated than a bowl of missing soup or dirty dishes in a sink. Here are some questions that I ask myself:

  • Is this a pattern of behavior or a singular event?
  • Will the complaint be received well?
  • Have I complained about something similar before? If so, what was the result?
  • Have I waited a sufficient period of time (at least three days) to cool down before complaining? 

If complaining seems to get me nowhere and may ultimately damage my brand, I say nothing. 

We have a choice to make when we open our mouths. I sometimes think that some people fail to realize this. Things can go unsaid. Sometimes it's better to simply move on. The desire to "get things off your chest" should not supersede your desire to be seen as a problem solver.   

It's almost always better to be perceived as a problem solver than a problem speaker. 

This is not to say that I should go into the kitchen and get my own soup. This is not to say that I need to ignore my colleague's dirty dishes. There are moments when complaining is completely appropriate.

This is also not to say that I can't share your complaint with my wife or a friend at the end of the day. Though I may not lodge a complaint with the offending party, there is nothing wrong with sharing the story with someone willing to listen.

But when in doubt, not complaining is always preferable to complaining. 

Every time we speak, we alter our reputation and brand in the minds of others. The alteration may be minuscule each time, but we speak a lot. It adds up. It adds up quickly. If you're not thinking about this when you do something as universally unpalatable as complaining, you're making an enormous mistake.