This week the Cut explores the messy, loving, spiteful, supportive, competitive, joyful, and funny sides of friendship.
The two women next to me on the C train were having the best time — finishing one another’s sentences, gasping, giggling, agreeing with whole hearts. They were speaking two languages: Spanish, which I don’t speak, and the vernacular of mutual complaint otherwise known as bitching. I happen to be fluent in the second dialect; it was as loud and as clear as the first. “Siiiiii,” one woman said, clutching the other’s arm like it was a long-unsaid truth, “Si.”
Complaining is generally understood to be a bad thing — only haters hate. Talking trash is no one’s best look: It’s negative, it’s petty, it arrogantly assumes that we are not also deeply flawed human beings made of mistakes. But flattering or not, airing grievances can bring acquaintances closer together — even create friendships.
Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at the NYU Langone School of Medicine and creator of the Friendship Blog, says that the reason these conversations feel good is because we feel understood. Complaining is a chance for a friend or potential friend “to offer reassurance and support.”
But how to bitch for maximum benefit? We spoke to friends, experts, and competent complainers for their analysis and advice.
1) Make yourself vulnerable.
Maya (names changed to protect the friendships) says that one of her longest-lasting bonds was jumpstarted by shared dislike. Maya and Cece were acquaintances, but they weren’t close. When another woman, Lily, began to harass Maya about her relationship with one of their mutual male friends, Maya and Cece were able to let their teeth, and their true selves, show.
“It gave us room to get more real,” Maya explains. “In talking about Lily being crazy, I got to defend myself, talk about my hookup … it just went deeper.” Once Maya's and Cece’s walls were down, it turned out they had plenty more to discuss. Their friendship has long since expanded to include things they actually like.
“Mutual disclosure in a context of trust can strengthen the bonds between two friends,” Dr. Levine explains. Admitting the things you’re unhappy with, or angry about, or even just annoyed by, opens the door for intimacy in a way that cheerier conversations might not.
2) Validate your friend’s views.
Recently, my strictly academic conversation about talking smack with my friend Mindy devolved into a bitchfest about one of her renegade bridesmaids. Realizing we’d gotten off topic, I tried to stop. “This is bad bitching,” I told her. “I’m making your problem worse.”
“No,” Mindy said, “you are actually articulating my blind rage so well, it's soothing. You make it seem rational.”
Dr. Levine agrees that in these instances bitching can be a stress-reducer. “It’s important to have at least one or two close friends in whom we can confide when we feel besieged with problems,” she says. “Telling someone else we trust about a problem can help reduce anxiety and stress, and make our burdens seem lighter and more manageable.”
3) Go ahead, complain about your boss.
One place where grumbling often leads to friendship is the workplace. “There's something so cementing about an after-work drink, trashing your boss and airing your daily grievances,” says Kate Hakala, who writes about human connections for Mic. “Complaining together itches that self-indulgent sweet spot in conversation.”
Ramona describes how she became “work BFFs” with her boss’s assistant, Lydia, following an incident involving a projectile pen and Lydia’s head. Ramona took Lydia for drinks after work to rehash what had happened, and the two formed a personal and professional alliance. Before that, the pair had “exchanged knowing looks” but never really talked about what they thought of their difficult employer.
4) Know your audience.
It’s not practical to tell your boss that his references are embarrassingly outdated, or your close friend that her new girlfriend sets your teeth on edge — it’s unproductive and unwelcome. “The fact is, often we love those whom we complain about,” says Karen Karbo, an author who has written about friendship for Psychology Today. By giving a person an outlet for minor grievances, bitching can actually protect a relationship with the object of irritation.
Elaine considers having friends who can sound off to one another about one another a key benefit of group friendship. Talking over an issue with a mutual friend “means you can always get certain things out of your system.” Because Elaine knows she has a release valve when she needs it, she says she actually bitches less.
5) Don’t let bitching take the place of action.
While part of the joy of complaining is wallowing in shared annoyance, the best kind of bitching can actually lead to change. “A friend may look at our situation in a different way, offering much-needed perspective and practical advice for remedying the problem,” says Dr. Levine.
Ryan found that bitching about his roommate’s messy behavior with another friend gave him the gumption to ask her to clean up. “It took probably more bitching than it should have,” he admits, “but finally it dawned on me, ‘If this is a problem for me, and you agree it would be a problem for you, maybe it’s really okay to ask her to cut it out.’” Their communal sink is now regularly dish-free.
6) Don’t be boring.
Everyone knows a complaining friend who is a drag. That’s because they’re not doing it right. As Karbo points out, “there is still etiquette involved in complaining.” Friends aren’t therapists, so “we owe it to them to be succinct and funny. We owe it to them to be as amusing as possible.”
7) Know when to stop.
There are times when venting doesn’t seem to work — the more you complain, the more bitter and angry you feel. Dr. Levine warns that too much mutual whining can be too much of a good thing. “When two friends continue to ruminate about the same problems over and over,” she says, “it can lead to a sense of hopelessness.” If you come away from a bitchfest feeling worse than when you started, you know it’s time to let that particular complaint go.