Instrumental & Expressive: Complaining 101

It can be argued…that griping is an outlet which helps make a hard life a little more tolerable, therefore griping is a healthy positive sign.

An alternative position would be that while a certain amount of griping is healthy, too much is indicative of an unhealthy psychological atmosphere.

~ Samuel Stouffer – The American Soldier: Combat & its Aftermath

I don’t know if the above quote is necessarily the best one to start with, but it is what inspired me (among other things) to write this post on complaining. Complaining: it’s something we all do, and like Stouffer says it can be healthy if it makes your life “more tolerable”. But like he also said “too much is indicative of an unhealthy psychological atmosphere”. I’m not entirely sure what he meant by that because I refused to read the rest of the 9 million page report, BUT to me it means: If you complain all the time you’re probably the problem more so than the people, situations, and events you’re complaining about.

So with that said let’s jump into the “basics” of complaining. Let’s call it “Complaints 101” because I believe once you understand the basics of complaining you’ll be less likely to complain. That’s not true. You’ll still complain but you’ll do it properly. With that said read on.


According to Robin Kowalski PhD, professor of psychology at Clemson University there are two basic categories of complaints. Instrumental and Expressive

Instrumental complaints are goal oriented.

This is when you complain because you hope saying something will bring about change.

Examples would be:

“Stop wearing my clothes without asking my permission!”


“Close the window! It’s 30 degrees outside and I’m freezing!”

Then you have expressive complaints (aka whining or “futile complaints”) which have the sole purpose of you “getting something off your chest”.

You’re not looking for a solution just acknowledgement and sympathy.

Examples of this would be:

“I’m so mad this guy flipped me off on the way to work today!”


“I let this girl borrow $50 and she hasn’t paid me back yet!”

Now anyone can see that instrumental complaints are better than expressive ones because they’re proactive instead of reactive. However expressive complaints aren’t always a bad thing provided you feel better after putting your grievances out there. Doing so won’t necessarily change the situation, but by sharing your feelings with a sympathetic other you can at least feel validated and supported.

But there lies the issue. Some of people get addicted to the validation & support that comes with expressive complaints so they play the victim role until no one cares.

Every person has their own issues, and while shared problems can create common ground, you complaining about every single thing that’s happened to you today, yesterday, and the week before will definitely build a wall.

What’s the solution then?

Barbara Held, psychology professor at Bowdin College, has come up with these “guidelines for constructive complaining”. They can be used with both types of complaints, and I believe they’ll make you less avoidable to those who have written you off as a whiner.

  • Be upfront about your need to complain.

Don’t pretend you’re trying to have a normal conversation.

  • Limit your complaining time

I think 5 minutes is more than enough time. Don’t spend more than 30 minutes complain though. IF you’re going to give it that much thought you ought to have a plan for a solution.

  • Don’t act like your grievances are more important than anyone else’s

If you like taking naps at noon when everyone else with sense is up don’t complain that they’re being too loud. It’s day time ass clown. BUT also if you know the ass clown takes naps at noon…buy them some ear plugs or go read a book in silence. These are just examples not based on true events….

  • Select an  appropriate listener

You should know depending on the situation who an appropriate listener is. Strangers usually aren’t appropriate listeners. Stop that. You look crazy. The only exception is if you’re using a complaint as an icebreaker. I.e. :” This music is horrible…..” Complaining about your divorce or a rash you developed after sleeping with a whore isn’t something you share with strangers unless they’re licensed professionals you’ve paid in advance.

  • If your problem is solvable try to reach a happy resolution

Do whatever you can to help resolve the issue

  • If you have an expressive complaint that’s not serious  & can’t really be fixed share it with a third-party

If you don’t like that your boyfriend watches Dragon Ball Z, and it’s not having a negative impact on your relationship or either one of you….don’t tell him. Tell your friend. Your expectations/standards/presumptions about people aren’t legally binding. Get over it. Please don’t share it with your significant other it might cause some friction in your relationship.

  • Don’t be a chronic complainer

Unless you’re a current POW you are not a victim. You’re irritating. Don’t waste people’s time complaining if you’re not going to take their advice. “You’re annoying at best and depressing at worst”.

And I’ll end with this true story:

My sisters and I went out to eat last month and the service was horrible. There were only 2 servers and all the sections were full. No one came and greeted our table, it took about 10 minutes for someone to ask us what we wanted to drink, and another 10 minutes to get the drinks (which were just water and tea mind you). Not only that we were sitting there for I’d say 30 minutes and no one asked us if we were ready to order.

All three of us were complaining. Now i wanted to get up and leave because I’m impatient, but Mistye didn’t want to go because she felt like by the time we got somewhere else we’d still be waiting there too, and Michelle didn’t want to leave because ‘we got to pay for the tea’”. I’m thinking “screw the tea, screw staying, lets just go home.” AND we just continued complaining.

Finally Michelle got the servers attention and said “We’re ready to order!”

And we ordered and got our food.

The whole point of that story is this. While we were complaining about the problem or trying to avoid/ignore it by leaving WE should have done something sooner.

“Don’t just sit there and admire the problem, Complain in a way to move toward a solution”

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