Real People Stories

Crank Case

UPDATED 11/13/2000 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/13/2000 at 01:00 AM EST

When Barbara Held is greeted on the street with a pleasant "Hi, how are you?" she doesn't respond with a generic "Fine, thanks, and you?" No, Held is liable to say something like "I hate life!"

A professor of psychology at Maine's Bowdoin College and author of Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching: A 5-Step Guide to Creative Complaining, Held, 50, maintains that judicious venting is healthy for the soul—and for society. She deplores what she calls our "smiley-faced culture," which she believes penalizes the less than relentlessly perky.

"There is a tyranny of the positive attitude in America," says Held, who earned her Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska in 1974 and lives with her clinical-psychologist husband, David Bellows, in Brunswick, Maine. "I'm not giving in to that tyranny." She recently met with contributor Tom Duffy to discuss the importance of being grouchy.

What is kvetching, and why do you think it's unacceptable in America?

Kvetching is Yiddish for complaining or grousing. And it seems contrary to America's deeply ingrained optimism, which has been there right from the beginning, when those 13 little colonies thought they could beat the British Empire. You don't hear about French optimism or Russian optimism. Americans are the ones who make a virtue of saying "Smile and have a nice day" and "If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything."

Are you in favor of being glum?

I'm not talking about wallowing in misery, but it's important that people be able to be authentic and real. The pretense of being "up" all the time saps energy and can be alienating to others.

Is there any evidence that complaining is healthy?

Yes. I've seen it firsthand, and now there are other psychologists who have developed data showing that when people express negative feelings to a receptive listener, it helps them get past it and get back to the business of living. It's not simply that expressing anger or sadness is cathartic: When you organize those feelings into something more coherent, they are less overwhelming. You can begin to cope with them.

Don't whiners chase people away?

That's the dilemma—how to gripe and still have friends. You have to be a productive kvetcher. That means you can't vent all the time. Don't deny you're grouching when you are, and only do it to someone who wants to listen.

Is there a difference between bellyaching and hopelessness?

Being realistic about life is not the same as being hopeless. The very belief that someone wants to listen to you is in itself an expression of hopefulness.

What good does it do to complain?

In some cases people wouldn't need therapists if they had someone to be themselves with. Therapy is a socially sanctioned place to be real. A therapist provides support. I think good friendships also do this.

Do men or women gripe more?
The assumption is that women feel more comfortable expressing their emotions. But men can be very crabby—they may do it in a different way, but they find ways to let you know when they're not happy.

Are there any grumps Americans love?

Rodney "I get no respect" Danger-field is at the top of my list. And Seinfeld. That show was about a bunch of kvetchers, and America couldn't get enough of it.

Has kvetching made you a better person?

I've never stopped long enough to find out. Speaking of kvetching, can we stop this interview now?

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