When did complaining become a competitive sport?
The cocktail party was crowded, as every self-respecting cocktail party should be. I was therefore making depressingly slow progress in my foray to the bar, during which I overheard the following conversation:
“So how are you doing these days?” asked one man, sipping his drink.
“It’s been pretty tough. And you guys?” said another man. He was wearing a wine-colored bow tie. (It’s a fact that parties on Park Avenue contain more bow ties per capita than parties in any other neighborhood.)
“Horrible,” replied the first. “We haven’t had any profits in two months and now our health insurance went up again.”
“You think that’s bad,” said Mr. Bow Tie. “I lost my job nine months ago; I’m losing my insurance altogether.”
“Jesus, sorry to hear that. Well, at least you don’t have that terrible commute to New Jersey anymore. I’ve been having to go there to visit my sick aunt and it takes forever.”
Mr. Bow Tie nodded eagerly. “I wish my relatives were in New Jersey. I’ve been traveling to Philadelphia every weekend to take care of my mother-in-law. Try that for a couple of months.”
Hello? I thought. What is wrong with this picture? Exactly when did complaining become a competitive sport? What happened to bragging about fabulous Caribbean vacations, or the perfect tennis game? When did one-upmanship become one-downmanship?
New York City has always engendered a competitive spirit. It’s almost as if in order to compensate for how expensive and hard it is to live here, we have to believe everything—including people who move here—is the best, the biggest, the most, the ultimate. Moreover, to survive, you needed to present a positive image; you were always supposed to project confidence. Now it seems we are taking the opposite tack. Ten years ago, when you heard people talking about real estate, it was usually about a killing they made. Now you are more likely to hear them say, “We bought our apartment at the height of the market; man, I really took a bath.” Instead of smug talk about the success of financial investments, now it’s a conversation about who has more credit card debt. And it’s not just conversations about financial matters. I hear people complaining about relationships, health, the weather—even their kids. Rather than “My Johnny aced the SATs, we are so proud,” parents these days are more likely to complain, “For a kid who aced the SATs, my Johnny is certainly having trouble getting into the college of his choice. It’s a nightmare.”
Although more and more people seem to be in competition about how bad their lives are—instead of how good—it’s still about winning. You may be winning the Booby Prize, but it’s still a prize. As long as your case is the most extreme, you still get to feel superior. If you are the most miserable, the poorest, the unluckiest, that makes you the most important, most impressive person in the conversation.
It’s not surprising that people should complain during a Recession. If one-downmanship is a bellwether of the economy, perhaps we will know we are in economic recovery when we once again start bragging about our golf scores and country weekends.
But is one-downmanship a symptom of the state of our economy, or is it a symptom of the state of the economy experienced by a heretofore spoiled population? Have we all become whiners and crybabies? Maybe we’ve discovered that it feels better to be pitied than envied, and that vying for the bottom spot seems less egotistical than seeking praise. I can’t help wondering if social gatherings underwent this kind of conversational transformation during the Depression. I’m certain people talked about their troubles, but did they compete about them quite as much as we do now?
Right before I left the Park Avenue party, I happened to overhear the same two men, still tête-à-tête:
“Well, I’ve got to head out—I really should have left 10 minutes ago,” said Mr. Bow Tie.
The other man scoffed. “Ten minutes?! I was expected home two hours ago!”
Jeanne Martinet, aka Miss Mingle, is the author of seven books on social interaction. Her latest book is a novel, Etiquette for the End of the World. You can contact her at JeanneMartinet.com.
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