The Squeaky Wheel

How to protect your psychological health, improve your relationships, and enhance your self-esteem.

The Difference between Complaining and Whining

How complaining, venting, and whining have different psychological impacts

Complaining and whining can be distinguished by the nature of the dissatisfaction and by our motivation for expressing it. Complaining involves voicing fair and legitimate dissatisfactions with the goal of attaining a resolution or remedy. When we voice legitimate dissatisfactions but do so without the goal of attaining a resolution we are merely venting. And when the dissatisfactions we voice are trivial or inconsequential and not worthy of special attention, we are whining.

The distinction is significant because complaining, venting, and whining, have very different effects on our psychology and emotions. How we complain affects us in substantial ways, many of which we fail to realize. They impact us materially (read, Do You Speak up When You Should?), emotionally (read, How Much of Your Life Do You Spend Angry?), physically (read, When Minor Complaints have Major Consequences) and psychologically (read, Does Complaining Damage Our Mental Health?).

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In addition, how we express dissatisfactions has a significant impact on how we are perceived by those to whom we voice them (read, The Survival Guide for Dealing with Chronic Complainers). Now, a new study expands this body of knowledge by demonstrating that children as young as three-years-old can distinguish between complaining and whining, and respond accordingly.

In the first part of the study, toddlers were exposed to an adult who displayed emotional distress to different situations. Some of the situations involved legitimate harm (such as one adult dropping the lid of a toy box on another’s hand) and some involved the adult overreacting to a minor inconvenience (such as having their shirt sleeve snag on the toy box lid). The adult responded to all incidents by pouting, frowning and whimpering.

In the second part of the study the child was given two helium balloons and the adult was given one. The adult then ‘accidently’ let go of their helium balloon and again displayed signs of distress. The children were much quicker to offer the adult one of their own balloons if they had previously witnessed them being distressed for justifiable reasons (having their hand caught in the toy box) than they were had they witnessed them being distressed for unjustifiable ones (having their shirt sleeve snagged in the toy box).

The study demonstrates that children as young as three-years-old can distinguish legitimate complaints from whining and display empathy accordingly. Taking time to consider whether our complaints are worthwhile, what we hope to attain by voicing them, and how doing so might impact those around us is a crucial step too many of us skip in today’s culture of complaints.

For more about complaining psychology and how it affects our lives and relationships, check out The Squeaky Wheel.

Reference: “Young Children Sympathize Less in Response to Unjustified Emotional Distress,” Robert Hepach, Amrisha Vaish, and Michael Tomasello, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Developmental Psychology, online, Aug. 13, 2012

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

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Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem. more...

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