On the Culture of Complaining

There has recently surfaced a heated discussion in Finland about relative poverty. People have been letting off steam about the outrageous bonuses of corporate executives, in contrast to poor people not making ends meet.

Initially, I thought that it is important for people to be able to complain about their misgivings. But now I’m not that sure.

Complaining is a way to ease frustration. But it is also a way to fake activity. If you complain about something you dislike, you have sort of done something about it. Then you won’t need to actually do something about it.

Finland is a pretty rich country, but I feel the poverty discussion here has lately gotten completely out of hand.

In some of the most discussed articles on Finnish poverty in the media, it turns out the Finnish poor are so poor that they can afford fresh strawberries only occasionally (Suomen Kuvalehti); that they have to buy the regular brand of yoghurt instead of the expensive brand (Helsingin Sanomat); that they cannot afford to buy their kids the latest smartphones (Suomen Kuvalehti); that they have fly to Las Palmas for the winters (Helsingin Sanomat); and that they can barely make ends meet with living in a house of their own, with two cars and three huge dogs (Ilta-Sanomat).

Seriously, I’m not making this up.

There is real poverty in the world, and even in Finland. The kind of poverty that really deprives a person of a future. But I think a far more pressing form of poverty is poverty of hope. And this has, as I believe the examples above show, sometimes nothing to do with money. You can be deprived of hope even enjoying material luxury millions of people would literally kill for.

Being in a situation that sucks gives you roughly two options. Either you can do something about it, or you can complain about it.

I think the culture of complaining goes a long way to explain how relatively well off people can consider themselves poor. It’s easier to complain than to do something about things. Founding a company, going to school, moving to a new city, downshifting – this all takes a tremendous amount of work. And on average, people are not willing to make such leaps if they don’t see it panning out well for them. If they don’t have hope.

Now, there are times when you do need to complain. There are outrageous corporate bonuses out there. People are doing crazy things in Russia and the Middle East. Electronics are produced in unimaginable sweatshops. And yes, there are really poor people out there. (Although I do hope the Finnish media would at some point interview some of them too. ). But after complaining – after identifying the problem – the next step is to do something about it.

Now imagine if people spent 50% of the time they spend complaining actually doing something about the things that bother them. Mind you, not 100% of the time, because complaining does serve a function in unearthing misgivings. But just 50%.

I suppose if people, on average, spent even 25% of their complaining time doing something about the things they complain about, we soon wouldn’t have anything to complain about anymore.