February 27, 2020

We Need to Complain More Critically

UChicago students complain a lot, but in order to actually benefit from complaining, we need to change the way we complain.

As I see it, UChicago is, in many ways, a utopia: every aspect of our lives, from food to housing to activities, is designed for optimal comfort and minimum inconvenience. An army of people, employed by the university, work tirelessly so that we may devote our energies to more important matters, like bar night. Yet, to complain, it seems, is to be a true member of the community. From griping about Bartlett to bemoaning the laundry room lag (we didn’t pay $80,000+ for soaking-wet clothes, right?) to lamenting the cost and inconvenience of printing, we seem to criticize endlessly. This complaint culture, while seemingly interwoven into the social fabric of the university, is in-need of a facelift: We need to be more purposeful with our complaints.

Firstly, it’s essential to recognize that UChicago’s culture seems to endorse this tendency to complain. It wouldn’t take long for an outsider to realize that we are competitive with our pain, academically masochistic. We pile on enormous workloads, and carry upon our shoulders the burden of our chosen hell like a medal. Who was at the Reg the longest? Who slept the least? These are our heroes. Complaining, consequently, becomes a means by which we seek approval, even show off.

While academic rigor is integral to our university's identity, the negativity associated with it doesn’t have to be. In fact, this culture of bragging about how little sleep we got or who was at the Reg the longest is quite harmful. Indeed, complaints create positive feedback loops; the more we complain, the more pessimistic we become, making us complain even more. Because of these positive feedback loops, we end up in an echo chamber of negativity, unable to climb out of our spiraling gloom.

The consequences of these negative feedback loops are dire––and very visible on campus. Left in a vacuum of complaints, outlooks grim, our mental health falls to pieces. It’s no wonder students at UChicago are rightfully calling for better mental health resources––our complaint culture is toxic. Moreover, the stress associated with complaint culture weakens our immune systems, raises our blood pressures, and leads to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

Yet, we need to complain. Reality is not what the brochures claim. Life at UChicago can be ugly. Life in general can be ugly sometimes, too. Complaining gives us the opportunity to interact with these truths, to process them, and to find solace among our peers. Furthermore, real problems need to be recognized, called out. To cease complaining would be to cease evolving. What is a world void of criticism? Constant positivity, in many ways, is just as corrosive as constant negativity; we have to be able to unload. The question then becomes: How should we complain? How do we avoid the deathly domino effect of complaint culture while still allowing room for honesty and emotional catharsis?

We need to complain more deliberately. In an environment where complaining is a form of passive communication, in that we counterintuitively use complaints to feel better about our choices, the grievance itself loses significance. In these instances, complaining is a means by which validation is sought, not a mechanism for change or catharsis. This is to say that very little arises in the way of action from most complaints on campus. To be fair, change is rarely our goal. We want to throw our frustration into the ether and maybe catch a bit of commiseration in return. This, as I’ve pointed out, is an unhealthy habit, as our unchecked complaints devolve into a negative outlook on life. Instead, the majority of our complaints should be clearly tied to a call to action––and those that aren’t should still be purposeful. We should complain with a goal in mind. Doing so forces us to analyze our motivation for complaining: Is the critique constructive or destructive? Furthermore, change-focused complaints put an end to the feedback loop, helping to stabilize our mental and physical health. Nevertheless, we do occasionally need to just let it out. It’s unrealistic to expect otherwise. This doesn’t mean, though, that venting sessions are meant to be pity parties. Sometimes life happens, and we want to be heard. And that’s okay. But we can still be intentional about how we release our frustration. Schedule venting sessions with friends; my RA calls it Cookies and Complaints. Make boundaries that promote catharsis and prevent unchecked negativity. I’m going to complain now, then I’m going to move on with my life.

If we take the time to really examine our relationships with complaints, and actively seek a well-balanced diet of positivity and controlled negativity, maybe this utopia can start to feel like one.

Gage Gramlick is a first-year in the College and an associate Viewpoints editor.