Sometime around the year 1180, a Benedictine monk in southern France began writing songs about the many things that annoyed him.
“I can’t stand a long wait,” goes one of the monk’s compositions. “Or a priest who lies and perjures himself.” His lyrics went on in this vexed fashion, verse after verse, litanies of irritation. The Monk of Montaudon, as the composer is known to history, had developed a new category of songcraft called the enueg. The name comes from the Old Occitan for “vexation,” and it was characterized by the cataloging of unrelated complaints. The genre became a favorite among troubadours and their audiences, and in the early 13th century most every court in medieval Europe had to have its own bard of bellyachery entertaining the lords and ladies with their songs of petty grievance.
The Monk of Montaudon was the acknowledged master of the form. He could find fault in just about anyone and anything, and better still he possessed a genius for making poetry of his complaints. Among the Monk’s lyrical targets: “the hoarse man who tries to sing,” “too much water in too little wine,” “husbands who love their wives too well,” and “little meat in a large dish.” His talent served him, and his monastery, well. If there had been anything like a Troubadour Top 40, the monk would have been a regular. He earned the patronage of royals such as Alfonso II of Aragon and took home many prizes for balladry and poetry, which, his biographer assures us, he conscientiously remitted “to the treasury of his cloister.”
Complaining does not always pay off so handsomely. More often, it gets no notice at all. Most of us are more familiar with the outraged email that goes ignored, the hours spent on hold with customer service, the plea for sympathy that draws only an indifferent shrug.
Or even worse, we are rebuked for our griping. I was raised on Thumper’s Law, named for the Disney bunny who is made to repeat his father’s admonition: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” In retrospect, this advice seems transparently reactionary, if not emotionally cruel. (Could Thumper’s curious inability to control the hammering of his left hind paw have been a tic developed in response to his parents’ emotional repression?) “Saying nothing” is exactly what despots and dictators have always wanted us to do.
Philosophers, too, have mostly advised against complaining. Aristotle claimed that whining was typical of “the weaker sex and the effeminate sort of man.” The Stoics also took a firm anti-complaint stance, believing that misery grows from preoccupation with matters that are beyond our control. Kant wrote that complaint was “unworthy” of the dignified, virtuous person. Even crying out from a physical injury was a failure as far as the hyperdisciplined moralist was concerned.
Probably no philosopher wrote as extensively on complaint as Nietzsche, who dismissed it as a futile coping mechanism for the weak. “Complaining is never of any use,” he declared. “It comes from weakness.” Indeed, for Nietzsche, there could be no clearer sign of weakness than complaining. After all, if a person had the power to do something constructive about his complaint, he would be doing it, instead of wasting his time complaining.
So if complaining is so widely condemned, why do we do so much of it? The Monk of Montaudon seems to have understood that complaining draws on some of humanity’s most admirable traits — our moral sense, our ability to imagine alternatives to the way things are, our need to laugh at ourselves and our supposed betters. That everyone from Nietzsche to Thumper’s dad has been ready to scold us for complaining is a bonus. It gives complaining some of the thrill of transgression.
The oldest surviving customer complaint was made some time around 1750 B.C. It survives on a cuneiform tablet, an aggrieved letter from a dissatisfied Mesopotamian customer named Nanni to a supplier called Ea-nasir, who not only delivered the wrong grade of copper to his customer but also delivered it late.
“What do you take me for, that you treat me with such contempt?” Nanni asks, in a translation from Leo Oppenheim’s Letters from Mesopotamia. “I have sent messengers to collect my money (deposited with you), but you have sent them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory.” Anyone who has ever bitched on Yelp about getting the wrong sandwich at the deli counter or tweeted about their bags not appearing on the airport carousel is traveling a path blazed by Nanni.
The missive concludes with a demand that rings through history: “It is now up to you to restore my money to me in full.”
As far as we know, Nanni is still waiting.
Not all complaint aims for redress. Sometimes it’s enough to just vent. This explains why we complain about things that we have no control over, such as the weather or our spouses. One measure of how much our complaints matter to us is the specialized vocabulary of annoyance we have developed. We gripe, we grumble, we whine, we moan. We vent, bitch, carp, protest. The venter may want only sympathy. But the complainer, as the journalist Joe Pinsker has pointed out, has “ a concrete end goal, mainly getting someone else to do something differently.”
The poet Robert Pinsky reserves a special fondness for one particular term in the complainer’s lexicon: “The Yiddish verb for complaining, kvetch — literally to squeeze or to crush — has an onomatopoetic quality to my ear. All of those consonant sounds, squashed into a single syllable, surrounding the explosive grunt of the short E sound, to me, like the prolonged insistence of a grievance. And who has not occasionally been a kvetch, the noun — a relentless complainer?”
New York City, where I live, has long considered itself the World Capital of Kvetching. High rent, slow subways, garbage-strewn sidewalks, rogue car alarms: As far as a complainer is concerned, New York truly has it all. On the city’s website you can access a map of complaints made to the 311 call center. The map categorizes the complaints by location and subject, creating a taxonomy of urban misery: Illegal Parking, Residential Noise, Unsanitary Pigeon Condition. There is even a General category, which I suppose is reserved for occasions when someone calls 311 to report a nonspecific, free-floating dissatisfaction with being in New York.
Before 311, complainers had to vent the old-fashioned way — by writing to the mayor. In 2006, an artist named Matthew Bakkom dug into New York’s municipal archives to exhume thousands of complaint letters dating back to the 18th century. (He collected them in a book called The New York City Museum of Complaint.) Then as now, noise and smells featured prominently as topics of grievance. A 1797 letter, for example, called attention to a problem pond in lower Manhattan:
A number of dead animals being thrown into it, now in a state of putrefaction, together with a pernicious matter running from a glue manufactory, causes your petitioners to be apprehensive that if left as present during the hot season it may prove fatal to the health of the inhabitants that live near the same.
Letters like these are an example of how democracies thrive on complaint. The right to petition government for a redress of grievances can be thought of as a license to complain without fear of reprisal. It is enshrined everywhere from the European Union’s charter to the Basic Law of Germany and was honored even in ancient imperial China. (You can find it in the United States Constitution, too.) Protest against injustice is a kind of complaint distinguished by its demand for change. Everyday petty kvetches might be happy to kvetch for kvetching’s sake. But genuine protest is seldom satisfied with anything short of a full moral accounting and restitution. Female suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement, South Africa’s anti-apartheid campaign, all grew from the seed of complaint about wrongs needing correction.
The explanation for why we are so addicted to complaining, then, may be a simple one: because there has always been so much to complain about. Sometimes the complaint is profound, existential, momentous. Other times, it’s literally about a pain in the neck. Consider the medieval monks who spent endless hours hunched over writing desks preparing manuscripts. Some of them left complaints for posterity in the margins of their work, and we can forgive them if we keep in mind all they endured: aching backs, cramped hands, strained eyesight, other monks.
“Writing is excessive drudgery,” wrote one. “As the harbor is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe,” noted another, more poetically. Still another took an earthier tone: “Now I’ve written the whole thing; for Christ’s sake give me a drink.”
But even when things are good, complainers will still find something to gripe about. In fact, as our conditions improve, most of us tend to get bitchier. Almost as soon as some new technology is introduced, for example, it becomes part of our daily expectations, something we feel entitled to. I recall being amazed years ago when I was introduced to the miracle of my new high-speed internet connection. I also recall, later that afternoon, whining like a spoiled toddler when it momentarily broke down. The interval between awe and entitlement is so short as to be immeasurable.
In the ancient world, too, people had trouble appreciating a good time. The Israelites of the Old Testament had hardly begun their exodus from captivity in Egypt — a miraculous deliverance — before they began grumbling. They had been given freedom, seen water drawn from solid rock, been fed with heavenly “angels’ food.” And still they moaned that the manna didn’t taste quite right.
If we took the philosophers’ advice and stopped complaining, it would eliminate much of literature, drama and popular culture. The protest song, the hellfire sermon, the satire, the standup monologue: All would be gone. So, too, the Greek chorus bemoaning the untrustworthiness of humanity. Lear and Hamlet soliloquizing about their afflictions. Job asking unanswerable questions: “Why did I not die as I came from the womb?” Even good old Holden Caulfield railing against the phonies of Pencey Prep. Literature, among other services, articulates our grievances better than we could ourselves.
One of the perverse attractions of complaining, Nietzsche argued, is that it allows us sufferers to regain some of our diminished power by infecting others with our misery. “There is a subtle dose of revenge in every complaint,” he wrote. Complaining, then, can be a kind of abuse. Think of the passive-aggressive friend or coworker who dumps his problems on you, expecting you to provide answers. You may have thought he was merely being a pain in the ass, but he was really enacting a Nietzschean power dynamic.
Nietzsche also claimed that complaining had a narcotic effect. We do it because it feels so good, but at the same time it dulls our appetite to do anything constructive about our troubles. Similarly, some medical research has shown that swearing can have a hypoalgesic effect, reducing the sensation of pain, say, upon stubbing a toe. Swearing’s power to soothe, though, seems to be most pronounced among people who don’t typically swear. Maybe complaining, too, is most salutary and satisfying for people who don’t do it constantly.
Psychologists, typically, tend to be ambiguous about the benefits of complaining. It can be healthy, they say, except when it’s unhealthy. Doing it too often, or about the wrong things, can damage careers, relationships and health. One problem with complaining is that in getting things off our chest, we end up dumping them on someone else. So, a common bit of advice is to cushion one’s complaints amid some more positive communication. Thus, the complaint sandwich: “You’re the best partner anyone could ever hope for, but. . . .” This advice is well-meaning, but I would argue that anyone who would be pacified by such a transparent tactic is not really worth partnering with.
The social component of complaining is often more important than the topic of complaint itself. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter what we complain about; we just want to share an experience with another person. Complaining can be cathartic and offer access to the sympathy and attention we all crave. It also acts as a social lubricant, building a sense of community in shared troubles. To hear someone’s complaint is to recognize their existence and our common humanity. Sharing frustration about another subway delay with a fellow rider creates a social bond, makes us feel a little less alone. Sure, it would be better if the subway would just show up; but still, social bonds are better than nothing.
Complaining is an exercise of the imagination. It creates a vision of a reality slightly better than the one that exists — a world where rogue car alarms, for example, do not go off pointlessly in the middle of the night.
It need not even matter if we are really that upset about the things we gripe about. Complaint does not always equal unhappiness. The Monk of Montaudon seems to have been jovial — and a pretty welcome party guest. And some of the happiest people I know are also among the biggest complainers I know.
Could it be their complaining that makes them so happy?
Andrew Santella is the author of Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, From Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me. He lives in Brooklyn.