Jessica Grose and Hanna Rosin, over at Slate’s women’s channel Double X, are cutting down on kvetching this week in an experiment to see if complaining less will make them happier. They sound a little skeptical and I don’t blame them. I tried a similar project three years ago.
It was the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college and I’d signed up to be a camp counselor at a camp for people with disabilities. I chose the job simply because it was the most challenging I could think of to do. Before going, I read an article about how it’s easiest to kick bad habits when you’re changing your routine, and so I decided to take on an independent summer project as well. I wouldn’t say anything negative about anyone behind his or her back for the entire summer. The results of my experiment were far from what I expected.
The work itself was hard enough. Three counselors slept with eight campers in an open cabin on the same small, plastic mattresses the campers used. Sessions lasted a week, and at the end of each session, we rotated both cabins and co-counselors. The campers required a lot of patience. Autistic campers woke us up at 4 a.m. to blow bubbles in our faces and campers with Prader-Willi syndrome snuck banana peels out of the garbage and tried to eat them. One camper faked seizures regularly, with the hope that she would be sent home, and another asked that I change his diaper hourly.
Our downtime was precious and limited — every third night and every second afternoon for a few hours only. Our staff house had weather-worn couches outside and we sat around, chain-smoked and ate junk food. Mostly though, the counselors complained.
“Laura* doesn’t ever change any of the camper’s diapers,” and “Max is too lazy to help me lift my camper out of his wheelchair,” and “Isn’t it annoying the way Jennifer talks to campers as if they were babies?” The counselors complained about the campers too, doing impersonations tinged with cruelty and swapping stories about who had wet the bed. Making fun of people with disabilities seemed to be one of the perks of the job, the unspoken assumption being that every one us had compassion for them or we’d be spending our summers on the beach instead. Throughout all of this, I stayed silent. Every once in a while, someone would ask me a “But don’t you think it’s annoying the way Sarah…” type question, and I would respond with something along the lines of “I don’t know, but she’s got great hair.”
This is what I learned: Refusing to gossip made it almost impossible to make friends. People thought I was incredibly strange. Even if they couldn’t put their finger on why, they picked up on it almost immediately, and instead of trusting me more (“She’s so kind!”) they trusted me less (“She must secretly hate all of us”). I did eventually make two close friends, but only after repeatedly proving I was capable of critical thought by complaining about every inanimate object I laid eyes on. Humans are pack animals. We operate along us vs. them lines. It’s much easier to bond over a shared dislike, however minor, than it is to bond over a mutual love for Nickelodeon shows.
Even with the weekly lasagna receiving the brunt of my wrath and two kind, sharp and funny friends to verbalize the things I couldn’t, the second to last week of summer I caved. One counselor I’d been paired with repeatedly had gotten my goat and although her minor crimes were feature stories in my diary every night, I still hadn’t said anything worse about her than that she was very good at arts and crafts.
One night, alone outside with my two close friends, I let loose on her. It took them a while to stop laughing, but when they finally did, one of them said, “What a relief. I’d never heard you complain about anyone before. Good to know you’re normal.” For the rest of the week after that, I was meaner than I’ve ever been before or since and it felt great.
Because here’s the truth: Complaining is normal. I don’t like everyone all the time and I don’t expect everyone to like me in return. When the issues are large enough, they should of course be respectfully discussed with the offending party; but when someone farts loudly in their sleep every night, sometimes you just need to vent about it to your friends. I think it’s important to be kind. I think it’s important to appreciate the good things we have. But I also think that every once in a while, it’s ok, it’s normal, it’s even healthy, to kvetch.
*all names have been changed