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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 15-Jan-17


Sunday 15-January-17

Emotional mugging and exchange moaning

Do you like to have a good moan, perhaps complaining about how tough your life is or about the idiots who are somehow in charge. I do too, though I know it comes at a cost and, like most of us, I try not to be too negative, too much.

But not everyone is like this.

I heard a chap on a bus recently telling the person next to him that his wife had died. Having gained a sympathetic comment, he then launched into a long and gory description, not noticing his sympathizer squirming in discomfort. I felt sorry for both of them. Later, as I paused by his seat, he told me he had shingles. Again, the sympathy and inappropriate detail scenario played out. I felt trapped, but at least could retreat internally into a calmer analysis mode. I still felt sorry for him, but not as much and in a different way.

Why? Why do people do this, projecting their discomfort and dislike onto and willing (or unwilling) listeners.

A core social value is that we must be kind to vulnerable people and those less fortunate than ourselves. In fact in the rules of give and take, these victims of life have a pass that allows them to take more than they give. It is all about total fairness. If life has dealt you a poor deal on one hand, we agree it is only fair you get other things to improve the balance.

The problem comes when people play on this social rule, using a personal problem or distress as a bargaining chip to demand more than their fair share. In a social sense, this can be viewed as a criminal act, a 'smash-and-grab' emotional mugging that demands all without consideration of what the other person is able to give or how bad they will subsequently feel.

Relationships, once established, change slowly. This includes the balance of give and get. This is one reason why chronic moaners often lead with a complaint. Beyond filtering out those unwilling to give, it sets the precedent of 'I moan, you sympathize'. Any attempt by the listener to claim their turn at moaning is repelled with little sympathy, interruption, and a competitive 'my life is worse than your life' escalation into even more terrible woes.

But not all moaning is like this. A more common and acceptable approach is 'give to get', where you first gain social capital by being kind and listening to the moans of others before unloading your own woes. Much conversation is like this, where we take turns to complain about everything from the weather to our children.

There is an effective points system in moaning, based on the emotional toll on recipients. Major distress is high value, while minor grumbles spend very little. There may also be further rules about what you can reveal, for example not talking about major distress in casual settings, or complaining to the emotionally fragile. It is these additional rules that the criminal moaners ignore as they call loudly on the basic obligation to help those in need.

Moaning, done well, can be good for a relationship. Sometimes we moan in sympathy, effectively saying 'Like you, I have similar pains. This brings us closer together and increases trust, so you can feel good around me.' In such ways, moaning can build friendship as we share vulnerabilities, common distress and build trust. We can even kick off the moaning, but then stopping to let the other person have their turn. Even if they do not return the moan, they may feel good to be trusted enough to be treated as a confidante.

So moan away, but do so with care. Beware of losing yourself in your moan. Beware also of vampire moaners who would suck the will to live from you. Find a balance that works and indulge in a bit of friendly exchange moaning.


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