Have you ever noticed how much your workmates complain? I say this with love because I’m an academic myself. I’ve worked in the university system for about 17 years and I love academia with every last corner of my heart. I believe in the mission. I love how downright clever all the people I work with are. And, just in case you were wondering – yes, I do a fair bit of complaining myself. I complain about my work load, people who don’t understand me, the length of committee meetings, the lack of books on my tiny little specialty in the library… you name it – I can find a reason to have a moan.
The thing about complaining (or ‘having a whinge’) is that it is a very satisfying thing to do. You might arrange to have a coffee with someone with every intention of talking about Foucault and Butler’s observations about gender construction and, before you know it, you’re getting stuck into complaining about the length of time the ethics committee has taken to review your proposal. The thing is, you probably loving it too – so much so that you aren’t too worried that you don’t get around to talking about Foucault.
Why is complaining so satisfying? There are some clues in the literature on ‘conversational analysis’ written by people who study processes of talk and interaction. This literature is fascinating because it is concerned with analysing the peculiar little ‘rituals’ of conversation in everyday life. In the early 1980’s Gail Jefferson did some work on what she called ‘troubles talk’, which she claimed was one of the ways we express care for each other and bind our communities together. Jefferson pointed out that the person listening to our troubles has to respond with the right amount of ‘care’ for the trouble – or they risk looking like they don’t care about us. But showing the right amount of care is hard: if a listener over reacts to your troubles you might start to become uncomfortable (think of having conversations with your mother about your love life when you were a teenager!).
Listeners are found to respond in semi ‘ritualised’ ways to troubles. One kind of reaction is to ‘diagnose’ the trouble and provide a ‘remedy’. For instance, you tell your partner you are feeling a bit stressed; they might suggest that you are feeling this way because you are working too hard and that you should take the next weekend off. The other way to respond to a trouble is to offer a similar experience. If someone complains about feeling overwhelmed by their work you might offer a similar experience of your own work struggles, rather than diagnose their trouble for them. I think the tendency to share a similar experience is a clue as to the persistence of troubles talk in universities and other organisations. You tell a trouble and your listener ‘pays you back’ with another trouble and so on, and on, and on… All the while you are getting a cozy feeling of togetherness by showing each other how much you care.
When you read conversational analysis literature you can’t help coming away wondering how we manage to carry out conversations at all. Of course a lot of this delicate conversational management is carried out automatically. For most of us at least… I can think of one or two people who have some deficiencies in this area, but I’d better not go there or I’ll start complaining again.
So should we academics stop complaining so much? I don’t think so. The university might become a colder and more uncaring place if all we talked about was Foucault. But at the same time it might be useful to think about how much troubles talk you really want to be doing. If you find a person is persistently coming to you with their troubles and it’s getting you down I would suggest that, instead of sharing a similar experience, you try diagnosing their trouble and providing a remedy. In my experience many people find the ‘diagnoses and remedy’ response mildly annoying and will probably stop pestering you. Meanwhile I’m going to the staff kitchen: I have some complaining to do about how I didn’t get my paper done because I had to write a blog post…
If you are interested in finding out more, the paper I referred to is: Jefferson, G. (1988) On the sequential organization of Troubles-Talk in ordinary conversation, Social Problems, 38, 418 – 441.
Dr Inger Mewburn is a Research Fellow at the School of Graduate Research, RMIT where she co-ordinates the On Track Workshop series, studies research student experience and writes about it. You can follow her on twitter or click through to her blog. She has been exploring her own and others’ experiences of troubles telling conversations and their connection with food on her tumblog Refreshments will be provided.