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The Right Way to Complain

Complaining, complaints, and complainers, like most things, can be good or bad.

Key points

  • Complaining is a form of problem-solving under stress.
  • Venting can feel good in the moment, but it may be better to seek a concrete benefit or just send a signal.
  • To complain effectively, emotion should be held in check, or displayed subtly, rather than becoming the focus.

Complaining—expressing dissatisfaction with how we are treated—can be seen as coping. Coping is cognitive or behavioral activity aimed at managing a stressful situation, referred to as problem-focused coping, or at dealing with its subjective impact, referred to as emotion-focused coping. Coping responses can be characterized in other ways, such as by distinguishing those that reflect engagement, where the person actively faces or approaches the situation, as opposed to reflecting disengagement, where there is avoidance on both fronts.

Where complaining fits among these distinctions depends on the specifics. Certain details can blur the distinction between what is problem-related and what addresses emotions. And if you are complaining, you are engaged, so the question becomes one of the manner and degree of engagement. The coping analysis only goes so far.

The coping framework is limited, in part, because much of the research is laboratory-based, a setting in which coping options are rather limited. And in studies of actual life stress, coping assessments can be ambiguous. For example, if a respondent indicates on a questionnaire that they coped with a recent stressor by taking direct action, it sounds problem-focused or engaged. But you might want to know whether they reasoned calmly with the person causing stress, or punched them in the mouth.

Know and Pursue Your Goals But be Aware of Likely Consequences

Setting aside that extreme example, there is using a certain form of coping, and there is using it in a way that is likely to be effective. This applies to complaining as much as to any form of coping. Which brings us to goals and consequences. Coping effectiveness can only be evaluated against some standard or goal; in the case of complaining, often more than one. For example, if a mistake is made in someone's order at a restaurant, there might be the goals of getting the order fixed, expressing annoyance, avoiding a scene, and making a favorable impression on one's dinner date.

To keep it simple, let's consider just the first two goals, which are almost always relevant. At first, these seem to map on to problem- and emotion-focused coping, respectively. But coping theory is often vague about whether these are to be distinguished in terms of intended or actual effects. Carrying out the intent to deal directly with the problem by getting the dinner order corrected may be emotionally satisfying; unloading angrily on the waiter may result in a corrected dinner order, solving the problem.

These and other details of situations that may call for complaining are addressed in research on assertiveness and assertiveness training, especially that guided by cognitive-behavioral theory. Complaining too vociferously might make a bad situation worse. So, enacting your intention to get a mistake corrected may, in its effect, only be venting.

Send A Signal But Don't Get the Messenger Killed

If we view problem- and emotion-focused coping as a false dichotomy, there are some interesting implications. Expressing your dissatisfaction may serve the instrumental goal of creating concrete benefits through the controlled expression of anger. Depending on the nature of your complaint, other negative emotions, such as contempt or disgust, may work in this manner.

A classic example of this occurred when Ronald Reagan, campaigning for the presidency, expressed displeasure at what he saw as an unfair attempt to change the rules at a political debate. This was viewed as a "moment" and turning point in that election cycle. Of course, Ronald Reagan had the skills of a film actor, and was measured in his expression of righteous anger. This kind of self-control is difficult for most of us to pull off.

By contrast, consider the "You can't handle the truth" scene in the film, "A Few Good Men". The Colonel Jessup character complained very strongly about having to answer to questions put to him by prosecutors whom he saw as unworthy of his service to the country. In a visual and auditory rainbow of negative emotional expression, you can see and hear the display of righteous anger, contempt, and disgust. The outcome was not as he would have wanted, but this was due to his admission of guilt, not his emotional expression. It is possible to imagine a script in which he had the presence of mind to hold his emotions largely in check, expressing them the way Ronald Reagan might have; the outcome might have differed. But that would have been a different character, and a different movie.

There are rare circumstances in which complaining in an explosively emotional manner may still accomplish one's objective. A example occurs in competitive sports when a player, manager, or couch puts on an angry display while disputing a referee or umpire's call. In some cases, these protests, or their more theatrical elements, are strategic. Without the hope of having the decision reversed, there remains the goal of sending a message that results in the team receiving a favorable, "makeup" call on the next close play. This is most likely to be effective when it is obvious to the official that the decision was wrong.

Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize

But unless sending an emotional signal will get you somewhere, self-control is the path to a rewarding outcome. This requires attending to the problem at hand, analyzing it, and coming up with a solution, all while suppressing or remaining detached from negative feelings. This approach can be especially useful when your complaint concerns treatment you received that was unfair, yet within the rules.

In the film, "Five Easy Pieces," Bobby is able to deal with a waitress who has an attitude by beating her at her own game, working out a solution that fit within the rules she was imposing on the order he was trying to place. Perhaps not as immediately satisfying as an angry outburst, but probably more deeply satisfying in the long run. With emotional self-control, and some quick thinking, a difficult situation can be resolved at a practical level, while at the same time not only avoiding negative feelings, but also bringing about a positive emotional uplift on having outwitted the instigator of your complaint.

In other words, when complaining is effective for purposes of both problem- and emotion-focused coping, you can have your cake—or your toast—and eat it too.

Copyright 2023 Richard J. Contrada


Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2005). Engagement, Disengagement, Coping, and Catastrophe. In A. J. Elliot & C. S. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 527–547). Guilford Publications.

Kowalski RM. Complaints and complaining: functions, antecedents, and consequences. Psychol Bull. 1996 Mar;119(2):179-96. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.119.2.179. PMID: 8851274.

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. Springer publishing company.

Vagos, P., & Pereira, A. (2019). Towards a cognitive-behavioral understanding of assertiveness: effects of cognition and distress on different expressions of assertive behavior. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 37(2), 133-148.

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