Sunday, January 12, 2014

Geezer Olympics: Competitive Complaining

[Note: Yes, this is yet another blog in my Geezerhood series. I usually advise younger readers to go amuse themselves in some other way, but in this case they might find the topic pertinent.]

My blog on "Geezerhood Can Suck" got a lot of responses, including one from a long-time friend who expressed sympathy but then said he was refraining from commenting further in order to avoid "competitive complaining."  Thanks, D.P. for stimulating this little essay.

Well, my warped sense of humor was immediately tickled by the phrase "competitive complaining."  I then did what any red-blooded fading intellectual would do.  I Googled it.

Yup, there at the top of the results were links to two pages with that exact phrase.  Both of them were blogs by university students -- one at Tufts and the other at Carnegie Mellon.  The one by the Tufts blogger illustrated the phenomenon particularly well with a made-up conversation between several students approaching exam week (Student D obviously wins):
Student A: “This weekend is going to be absolute hell. I have an econ problem set and two papers to write.”
Student B: "Ugh, I know. I have three research papers and it’s gonna take hours to finish all the programming I have to do.”
Student C: “Whatever, at least your thesis isn’t due in like, three days.”
Student D: ”Oh yeah? Well four of my professors decided to schedule their finals five days in advance. Plus I have eight theses underway, I have to translate three Chinese novels into Swahili, and I’m performing in the Mongolian Culture Show for peace in the Middle East...."
This is clearly a negative version of conversational one-upsmanship where each participant tries to outdo the others in a strategy of "bet-you-can't-top-this!"  It's also an illustration of the social psychological phenomenon of Impression Management in which we attempt to control the attributions others make of us.  Note that in the example above, the students have prepared others (and maybe themselves) to attribute their potentially poor academic performance to external circumstances rather than to low ability, bad time management, or perhaps to a lack of willpower when it comes to beer and partying. Of course this only works if the obstacles listed are plausible and not under control of the student giving them.  Student D's litany of difficulties walks a fine line between the two but does so magnificently.  Note that D has covered his/her bases very well -- a bad performance can be explained away as not the student's fault, and a good performance will suggest superior capabilities because it was achieved in the face of tremendous challenges.

As I read these two blogs by the university students I began to realize that competitive complaining is hardly the sole provenance of young people --  it also characterizes a lot of the conversations I have with other Geezers.  In fact, I'd say Geezers can complain rings around these young whippersnappers and would easily win in any competitive complaining contest. The young'ns are mere novices in this sport and getting to our Olympic level of performance will require lots more training -- years' worth, I'd say.  We Geezers have also perfected a number of specialized forms of competitive complaining, like "Prescription-Pill-Problem Parrying," "Frugality Fencing," "Travel-Woe Takedown," and the ever-popular "Politician Pummeling."

There are at least three reasons for our superior complaining ability.  First we have been doing it for a long, long time. And as they say, "practice makes perfect."  Second, we have way more serious things to complain about, like diseases, surgeries, and how inconsiderate our adult children are.

Third, we have personal historical perspectives on a very broad range of topics that give us a rich repertoire of complaints.  For example, a twenty-something complaining to a Geezer about the current state of the economy or the level of violent conflict in the world today will be buried by the Geezer's recollection of past personal experiences of depressions, recessions, and wars -- no contest at all.  And of course the coup de gras is the Geezer's comparison of each contestant's future time-line, a technique guaranteed to elicit sympathy and a concession of defeat:  "Ah, well you're young and have plenty of time to see things turn around and get your life in order.  Me?  Well..., you know how it is.  I doubt I'll live long enough to see things get much better...."  Top that, whippersnapper!

I've also been in conversations where competitive complaining has made attributions for a Geezer's positive performance even more positive, though these are less common.  Imagine the following exchange among Geezers at the gym:
A:  "Hey Guys, how's it going?  Haven't seen you for a long time. I pulled a leg muscle and haven't been working out much lately."
Geezer B:  "Oh, well I've been forcing myself to come even though I'm recuperating from my knee replacements.  Gotta do all that painful physical therapy, you know?"
Geezer C:  "Oh, boy do I.  I had both knees done, three toes amputated, a pin put in my ankle, and a hip replaced last summer.  Really slowed me down in the Fall when the wife and I scaled Kilimanjaro, hiked the Inca Trail, and trekked to Everest base camp." 
Geezers A and B have not only lost the competitive complaining contest, they are probably thinking Geezer C is some kind of Superman, which of course is C's ego-boosting payoff.  (Indeed, if he really did those things, I'd say he is.)

Don't get me wrong.  I acknowledge that Geezers have legitimate complaints about a range of difficulties that face them, particularly those involving health and finances.  But I think that competitive complaining in a group conversation may be serving functions for Geezers that are similar to those for the young university students approaching exam week described above.  By focusing on obstacles and issues that are not under our control, we Geezers prepare others to attribute our limitations and degraded performance to those factors, rather than to our lack of effort, unhealthy diet or slovenly habits.  For Geezers, competitive complaining establishes a public basis for pardoning our failure to take responsibility for doing what we can, despite the challenges of aging. Although this may be effective in managing the impression others have of us, it can be also be very dysfunctional to the extent we come to believe our own excuses -- see my blog on The Power of Negative Thinking. The irony of competitive complaining is that it may be self-fulfilling -- we may unwittingly worsen the problems about which we are complaining.

And of course the irony of this blog is that I'm complaining about competitive complaining.  Hmmm.  I may have just invented a new form of the game: "Meta-Competitive Complaining," or competitive complaining about competitive complaining.  Top that!!
The Geezerhood Series so far:

Geezerhood Can Suck
Embracing Your Inner Geezer
How to Compress Your Morbidity
The Power of Negative Thinking
Thoughts for a New Year
So, What Do You Do All Day?
Jogging the Memory of a Geezer
Decision Making In Geezerhood
Don't Go To Your 50th High School Reunion!
Taste Buds Are Wasted On The Young!


Dennis Nord said...

As a fellow Geezer, I admire your complaints and suspect that admiration of complaints might lead to another level of complaining about methods of complaining. Good fun, no doubt. Currently trying to recover from amputation of my Miata from my right foot! More time in the gym may help!

Coleen Hanna said...

My husband still can't believe how irritated I was reading something from Art Garfunkel, 72 yrs. He said something to the effect of, "I didn't think I was old until I reached 71 and couldn't get out of a cab holding a pizza without my lower back hurting." DUDE!!!! That started with to me at age 54! So maybe the competition heightens among geezers of different ages--the young old, the middle old, and the old old.