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Argentines love to complain. But when you listen to others who complain, there are options: must we be a sponge to this daily toxicity or should we, politely, block out this act of emotional vandalism?
BUENOS AIRES — Argentina: the land of complainers. Whether sitting in a taxi, entering a shop or attending a family dinner, you won't escape the litany of whingeing over what's wrong with the country, what's not working and above all, what we need!
We're in an uneasy period of political change and economic adjustments, and our anxious hopes for new and better leaders are a perfect context for this venting, purging exercise.
Certain people have a strangely stable, continuous pattern of complaining: like a lifestyle choice. Others do it in particular situations or contexts. But what if we are at the receiving end? I am surprised at how complaints, even as they begin to be uttered and before they are fully formulated, can disarm and turn us into weak-willed accomplices. Do we have an intrinsic need to empathize, or do we agree because we too are dissatisfied with life?
Certainly, agreeing with a moaner may strengthen our social or human bonds, especially if we happen to share ideas or political views. We feel part of something bigger. Often it must seem easier to confront reality, which can be daunting, with this type of "class action" than face it alone.
Wind in Mar del Plata
Some years back, while living in a small community in La Pampa province, in the center of the country, I was with friends one day, standing about near the town square, and a street vendor arrived. He had come from another town to sell baggy pants (typically worn by the gauchos). While displaying his goods, he blurted out, "Oh, the grief the town hall gave me over selling these, they just wouldn't let me." I clicked into sympathy mode. What a hard time had this young man had, coming all the way here on a Sunday to earn a living. My body language conveyed my empathetic response. But one of my friends looked at him straight and said, "you need these checks. There are people with shops selling these and they pay taxes." Street selling constituted unfair competition, he meant, and I was surprised to find this made more sense than my concern.
I realized my inclination to get on with others had deprived me of my critical faculties. I also realized, you're allowed to disagree with people. It seems I tend to agree too much, even when I disagree, especially when someone starts complaining! The vendor was complaining, and I hastened to agree with someone who was cross. From what I have observed of myself, complaints often make me passive, but also closed up and rigid.
I can show someone I see their hurt, while "cordially" disagreeing with their logic
Complaints have a potent effect of making us "irresponsible." They are a way of externalizing pain and throwing the blame elsewhere: something out there is hurting you, the victim. That something is usually other people, but it can be natural phenomena, seemingly in charge of everything including our circumstances.
When complaining becomes a mental or behavioral pattern, you might think complainers reap benefits from it. At the very least, they are absolved of responsibility and can earn themselves a little sympathy. In our mindfulness courses (Train Your Brain Argentina), we cite complaining as an effective form of refusing change, staying where we are and accepting reality in passive terms.
Certainly, there are things we may not be able to change. I am writing this near the beach in Mar del Plata for example, with a strong wind outside vigorously swaying trees and forcing everyone to get inside. There is wind every time I come here. It's as if the Argentine coast signed a pact with the wind. I can't ever recall a peaceful afternoon here, nor even a breeze. It's always windy: but is complaining an option?
Crowd at a beach in Mar del Plata, Argentina
Feelings are not opinions
Do listen to complaints out of courtesy or sympathy. We don't want to be unkind in our daily lives. There is something profoundly human about validating people's feelings.
But remember: feelings are not the same as opinions, with which we can disagree. I can show someone I see their hurt, while "cordially" disagreeing with a rational, or irrational, argument built around that hurt. Cordially, how? Depending on the circumstances, you might suggest a possible solution, another way of seeing the problem or point out that complaining will further sink their spirit.
We're in a time in Argentina when many people feel helpless before a range of personal and economic challenges. Society sometimes shows signs of collective paranoia as it seeks to explain what is happening to the country, as if we were a helpless society, and complaints were our only recourse or the purest expression of Argentinian culture.
Perhaps "what we need" is to be open to personal changes with a dollop of optimism, as a first step toward the positive social changes we seek. For we can be sure, complaints won't make things better, however many times we hear them — or utter them ourselves.
*Reynoso is a psychiatrist in Buenos Aires and helps run Train Your Brain Argentina, a mindfulness project.
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