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People in my program complain a lot and usually not in good humor. How can I handle this socially and professionally?

Some of these people are my friends and some are no more than peers. In general I want to be respectful but not allow them to harangue me with complaints. Generally, much of this advice does not help.

For now, I try to avoid social gatherings with a high concentration of people from my program. When they get together, the complaints take over conversation. At the department, I can spot someone (or a group) having a stress crisis from a distance, and I keep my distance.

I certainly hope that this climate does not continue into faculty life.

[Migrated from other question here. There were some useful pieces of advice, so I hope that respondents will move their points]

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Complaining is very natural. Even this question is a complaint (which is not a bad thing). But of course everyone has their limit to what they can take. –  Cruncher May 8 at 17:11
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disagree blanket statement "complaining is very natural"... it is natural & human nature but can reach unnatural levels at which point it affects overall morale (but it may also be justified or unjustified by the environment). wonder, is there any evidence that there is more griping in academia? there is Sayres law... this does sound more like a positive psychology question... there is a lot written/research on that subj –  vzn May 8 at 17:24
    
"... it is natural & human nature but can reach unnatural levels" is an oxymoron, by definition. –  naught101 May 9 at 1:37
    
Agree with @vzn. If we just remove the word "unnatural" then vzn's comment makes perfect sense. Plenty of "natural" things can lead to undesirable outcomes socially and professionally. E.g., anger and sexual desire are both natural, but people generally try to control those impulses to some extent, especially in the workplace. –  jabberwocky May 9 at 8:54
    
Wearing glasses and not worrying about being eaten by leopards are also unnatural; what is "natural" is not really relevant to this question. –  Eric Lippert May 9 at 13:57

6 Answers 6

up vote 20 down vote accepted

(as suggested by jabberwocky, I have moved the last part of my answer from here to this question)

Kvetching is a perfectly normal part of mental and social hygiene, but to what extent depends on the person. It is also a self-affirming activity: If complaining leads to positive social experiences (people you talk to relate to your experiences and opinions and share them), you will do this more often. If unchecked, this vicious circle can easily cross your tolerance threshold for complaining (which is different for each person). So, first of all you should keep in mind that "too much complaining" is your subjective view, not an objective truth (absent a concrete case of someone spending the day complaining instead of working and then failing to meet a deadline). Of course, if you'd rather have less complaining around you, it's perfectly legitimate to try to break that circle.

The best strategy (outside of avoiding complaining peers, which you apparently now follow) is often to lead by example: Do not respond to complaining with your own complaints (especially not with ones about their complaining), but try to steer the conversation to happier grounds by

  • getting them to relate positive experiences about their PhD;
  • mentioning ones you might have had (without showing off -- this one can be tricky);
  • taking an interest in their lives outside of academia.

In short, show them that they can have positive social interactions without complaining. If enough people around you feel the same way as you do, this usually works.

To your final remark: This is by no means limited to PhD students (or even academia) -- you get similar "hot spots" among early-career faculty simultaneously applying for permanent positions (in Europe) or trying to get tenure (in the US), or among tenured faculty of any seniority any time a major evaluation (of a grant or institute) or reaccreditation is imminent.

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+1 for taking an interest in their lives outside of academia. This by itself can be a great release of stress for both parties. –  Jonathan Landrum May 8 at 18:07
    
+1 Good point to recognize that every person and career has "hot spots" when they will need to vent more than usual. –  jabberwocky May 9 at 8:58

As a PhD student who like to complain (partly as a PhD student, partly as a Slav) and work/live in such environment: it's not much about etiquette (at worst, they will complain about your behavior), but about social contacts.

If your goal is to avoid complaints (especially non-productive ones):

  • DO steer away from sensitive topics (especially if it is not a new topic, e.g. "We already had a discussion about the odds of getting tenure; if we have nothing more to add, let's talk about X..."); some people have their weak points you don't want to touch,
  • DO try to focus on something positive (sometimes non academia-related topics can be the best/safest),
  • DON'T try to persuade that they don't have a problem (it's like persuading someone that (s)he is not feeling pain),
  • DON'T start complaining by yourself (it is a positive feedback mechanism),
  • DON'T start conversations with "how is your thesis?", or in tougher cases, not even "how are you?",
  • DON'T talk that other have worse (not many people are happy when hearing about others being unemployed or anything),
  • DO focus on their opportunities (in academia, science, non-academic job market, seeing an cool city while on a conference, etc),
  • DO try to focus on facts and actions rather than pointless complaints (see below).

Some people complain no matter what and no matter what is the topic - then you can't help.

With respect to complaints, PhD students are often smart and analytical. Saying that complaints never solve anything but one should focus on cold diagnosis and action often helps (or at least - halts some complaints). See (a bit different context, but somewhat related):

[...] People who struggle against the system (in this case, national education, but you can insert here any academic or political institution you don't like), or try to reform the system from the inside, often end up bitter and frustrated. Large institutions evolve at glacial speed, so whatever aspects one might want to reform, instead of fighting the resistance of matter it seems more fruitful to find a niche and expand from there. [...] We’d have got nowhere if we simply complained about the Polish education system and stopped at that.

from my text An independent camp for high school geeks, emphasis mine

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+1 Great to read the perspective and advice of a self-proclaimed complainer. –  jabberwocky May 9 at 9:31

As I said in the other question, you can avoid some of this, but shared suffering is a bonding experience - you and your cohorts will have the experience of having been "in the trenches" together, and this can be a fairly powerful bond with people who will be your colleagues in the future. Especially for those who are "just" your peers, those kinds of links can be important.

I think there's also a reason people complain in social settings in academia - some amount of stress and suffering is universal, but success is largely personal. Everyone can commiserate about quals, or NIH pay lines, or how brutal a particular class was, but at any given moment far fewer people are riding the high of getting a paper accepted, going to a conference they're looking forward to, landing that prestigious postdoc, etc. Focusing on that also highlights those people who aren't experiencing that. When I was in graduate school, the complaining was about things that happened to you because you were a graduate student not because they were your fault - everyone was stressed, everyone was poor, etc.

Some thoughts of mine on dealing with it:

  • Don't dismiss the complaints. A lot of people want to know they're not alone, and just writing off their problems - however trivial or annoying you might find them - isn't going to make the social situation better.
  • Refocus the conversation on shared experiences that are funny or odd or some how enjoyable, rather than just complaints. The professor with the oddball anecdotes, the antics of the students you are supervising, etc.
  • Know things about your cohort's lives outside of school. It's a lot easier to not complain about school if you have something else to talk about.
  • As @PiotrMigdal said, put the brakes on a little harder when things turn to sensitive topics - that doesn't go good places.
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+1 especially for knowing (and caring) about people's lives outside of school. –  David Z May 8 at 19:57
    
+1 You've clarified for me that it's too vague to just refer to "complaining" and seek advice. It depends on content and context of so-called complaints. The "complaints" might be a genuine request for support. Or it might just be a means for social bonding since grad school is the central shared experience among us (and sitting around praising our jobs just isn't very fun/funny). And sometimes complaints are simply unhealthy and one should know when the "put on the brakes." –  jabberwocky May 9 at 9:29
    
+1 for "Don't dismiss the complaint." I know a lot of people who were relieved by reading PhD comics ("I am alone, or crazy." vs "People typically experience such problems." changes a lot). –  Piotr Migdal May 9 at 9:42

(as suggested by jabberwocky, I have moved the last part of my answer from here to this question)

People in my program complain a lot and usually not in good humor. How can I handle this socially and professionally?

I have experienced that "dissatisfaction" can also be very infectious. Dissatisfied people often and strongly complain to their co-workers and co-students, which, over time, gives those people the same sense of dissatisfaction. For instance, in my old lab, we had one office room of people that were constantly dissatisfied about our work environment (all the other students in other rooms felt differently). Any new student that would be seated in this office would, within weeks, also start to complain a lot. As such, I think your goal

In general I want to be respectful but not allow them to harangue me with complaints.

is very good. Try not to let other people convince you that life is terrible.

I am not sure whether entirely avoiding social outings is the right strategy, though. This will make you an outsider of your cohort, and you will have to spend a lot of time with these people in the next years. At parties, a usual strategy to avoid any topic that you do not want to talk about (politics, sports, or whether your life is terrible) is to avoid the groups that are currently talking about the annoying topics and focus your attention to people that are discussing something more interesting.

Sometimes, people will come directly to you to complain one-on-one about their problems. In such cases, one strategy is to acknowledge that they are feeling bad, but provide a more positive light on their case. When you do that regularly, two things may happen. In the best case, the complainer actually takes your words to heart and starts seeing things a bit brighter. If that does not happen, he will at least stop complaining to you specifically, because he is actually looking for somebody who echoes his feelings.

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+1 great advice, thanks for migrating and expanding –  jabberwocky May 9 at 9:23

May not apply, but: There are regional variations in how complaining is used socially. New Yorkers, for example, tend to see it as an opportunity for bonding (sharing complaints about something else implies you don't have complaints about the person you're sharing them with), whereas midwesterners tend to hear that kind of complaint as general annoyance which could be directed against them in the next breath.

Understanding the subtext may help with finding ways to either deal with the complainers or explain to them why they're making you uncomfortable.

(Recommended reading: Deborah Tannen's books analyzing variations in conversational styles, specifically That's Not What I Meant!)

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In general I want to be respectful but not allow them to harangue me with complaints

Good answers so far. I would add that I have found that different complainers have different goals for their complaining. Compare and contrast these two conversations:

  • Professor Bedfellow is always on my case to get the grading done faster, it's driving me crazy how awful people are here.
  • Have you tried talking to the professor about it?
  • Yes, but prof just says "I'm busy!" and I should come back later. It's awful!
  • Have you tried asking the admin to schedule a short meeting?
  • Yes, but the admin hates me. People in this department are awful!
  • Surely the admin will do their job even if they dislike you.
  • Yes, but by the time I get a meeting it'll be too late! Everything is awful!
  • AAARGH YOU ARE IMPOSSIBLE TO DEAL WITH.

vs

  • Professor Bedfellow is always on my case to get the grading done faster, it's driving me crazy how awful people are here.
  • That's terrible.
  • The prof just says "I'm busy!" and I should come back later. It's awful!
  • How irritating that must be for you.
  • And the admin hates me. People in this department are awful!
  • How vexing.
  • By the time I get a meeting it'll be too late! Everything is awful!
  • Boy, that must be frustrating.

In the first conversation the joy of complaining is secondary to the actual goal of the conversation, which is to infuriate the person trying in vain to solve their friend's problem. This is a Why-don't-you-Yes-but conversation and the first person to get frustrated loses.

The second conversation seems exactly the same, but the friend this time is commiserating rather than playing Why-don't-you-Yes-but.

My point is: if the complainer is looking for people to have a game of why-don't-you-yes-but, and you play that game, they'll keep on coming back to you if you play. If that's what they're looking for and you just nod and say "You're right, everything is awful" over and over again, they'll get bored and look for someone else to frustrate.

Now, if the person is genuinely just looking for someone to say "yes, that's awful", then you deal with that by not saying that more than once. Let them get in one complaint and then change the subject until they get the hint.

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