False Expectations and the Positive Effects of Complaining

Room 210? I checked my schedule to make sure I wasn’t about to walk into the wrong class. Yes, this was it. I stepped in, chose a seat near the front, and gave a timid smile to the girl sitting next to me. A few minutes later our teacher strolled in and began handing out the syllabus. I scanned through, skipping past the front page with the photo of our campus, and landed on a section titled, “what you need.” I assumed this is where I’d find the list of books I’d soon be reading and analyzing. After all, what else would we do in English 101? Much to my surprise, the list of books wasn’t there. I kept searching, but never found it. Instead, I discovered a description of our first project. We were going to make podcasts.

I didn’t understand, and started to feel a confused sense of frustration. Why weren’t we reading books?

Two days later as I waited to enter the classroom I struck up a conversation with a classmate. After reminding each other of our names we quickly began to complain about the podcast assignment. Neither of us wanted to do it and we didn’t understand why we had to.

That interaction got me thinking. Did we complain about the podcast because we didn’t want to do it, or because we weren’t expecting to be doing it? Some research on the psychology of complaining led me to believe the ladder. According to psychologist Dr. Robin M. Kowalski, when the reality of a situation doesn’t match up with our expectations, we are dissatisfied. We then use complaints as a way to reduce that dissatisfaction. My classmates and I definitely were not expecting to be making podcasts in English 101. Complaining about the assignment was our way of voicing the false expectations we had for the class.


This idea that we complain to reduce the unhappiness caused by inaccurate expectations is not confined to the university campus. When the city bus runs late, I complain about its tardiness. This complaint stems from my expectation that the bus is going to be on time and frustration when it isn’t.

Since we inevitably have many experiences that do not meet our expectations, we will always complain. Considering the inevitability of complaining, what benefits, other than reducing dissatisfactions, come of it?

Professor Joanna Wolf wrote in a New York Times article that complaints are “one way to create a rapport.” She means that complaints can be used to initiate social interactions. Thinking back to my English class, this happened without me even realizing it. The conversation I with my classmate, venting about the unexpected podcast assignment was entirely based on complaints. We’ve talked a lot since then, about much more than complaints, but complaining was an easy way to break the ice and have that first conversation.

Just like false expectations are not confined to the college setting, neither is using complaints as a way to connect with others. Going back to the bus stop example, after realizing the bus was running late I might say, “I can’t believe this bus is late, I have to be at work in fifteen minutes,” to a person waiting next to me. These simple complaints fuel interactions that connect us — interactions that can be small and fleeting like small talk at the bus stop, or interactions that can kick off the process of forming a deeper relationship, like I experienced in English class.

Complaints are inevitable, but how we think about them is not. When I hear seemingly trivial complaints, instead of rolling my eyes at the complainer, I understand their expectations must have been off, and try to use the moment to spark a meaningful interaction. We should all carry this mindset every day, to better understand and connect with those around us.