my coworker complains all day long

A reader writes:

I work in IT at a mid-sized company and my coworker, who I share an office with, does a lot of complaining. IT was understaffed at this company for a long time, and we have a huge backlog of projects, poor management, and little support from leadership. I’ve been here for nearly four years and have worked in many different departments, so I know that these are systemic issues that do not only affect IT. I am fairly burned out, but I’m trying to push through and do a good job until I can find a job at another company.

I really like my coworker, “Chris,” who has been with the company for about nine months. We’re of a similar age, have similar hobbies, and get along great. I could see being friends and hanging out outside of work after I leave the company. We’ve both been open with each other about the fact we’re applying for new jobs.

However, he just continuously complains all day long about all of the issues here. Often when I have my head deep into some work or am writing something and need to focus, he will turn around and complain about one of the hundreds of issues here. This job is already hard enough, I’m already burned out, and while complaining together can be cathartic at times, hearing him complain all day every day is making a bad situation worse.

What I’ve tried so far is saying things like, “Yeah it sucks, but we have to try and tolerate this for now so we’re not miserable” or “Yeah, I’ve been here a long time and have seen that issue in many different forms, but we still need to try and fix what we can.”

I feel like I already know the answer is that I just need to be direct and tell him his constant complaining is making me miserable (but in nicer words somehow), but I am writing in the hopes that there may be an easier solution. I don’t want to blow up on him, but he complained almost the entire time that I wrote this letter to you (while I was trying to relax and enjoy my lunch break, no less!) and my patience is really starting to run out. What would you suggest?

Being around someone who complains all day long is exhausting. You’ve clearly found a way to focus on your work despite seeing legitimate problems around you, but having someone unleash a constant litany of negativity in your ear will keep you focused on the very stuff you’re trying not to fixate on.

That doesn’t mean that people should never raise problems at work! No one should be so Pollyannaish that they shut down legitimate discussion of real problems. But there’s a point where chronic complaining stops being constructive (especially when its target is someone with no power to change the things being griped about), and it sounds like your co-worker is long past that point.

I think it’s interesting that you’re hoping there might be an easier solution than just talking to him about it. Talking to him is pretty much the only option if you want the flood of complaints to stop. Otherwise, he’s likely to assume that you’re a receptive audience, since you haven’t objected. I suspect you’d prefer to avoid that frank conversation because it feels awkward to say “stop talking to me about topic X” — but it’s so much better to just say it and let the person know than to go on being miserable, especially if letting it continue means you’ll become so frustrated that you’ll just explode at him one day (which you mentioned you’re also worried about).

In fact, that exact dynamic is really common when people hesitate to be direct when someone is bothering them. They worry about being rude or causing an awkward moment, so they say nothing … which means that the problem continues, which in turn makes them more frustrated. Eventually they have so much built-up resentment that it all erupts at some point, whereas if they’d just had a fairly matter-of-fact conversation about the problem earlier on, they probably could have avoided the blowup.

Plus, if your co-worker is a decent person, he would probably want to know that he’s making you so miserable! After all, put yourself in his shoes — if you were driving a colleague out of their gourd by harping on a particular topic, wouldn’t you much rather know, even if it meant having a momentarily uncomfortable conversation? And wouldn’t you be mortified if you found out they had been aggravated for months but said nothing?

What’s more, the conversation doesn’t need to be terribly painful! Often when people aren’t super comfortable with confrontation (or are dreading it in a particular situation), it’s because the interaction they’re picturing in their head is a lot more aggressive or adversarial than it really needs to be. Your message to your co-worker doesn’t need to be “you are a negative bore who is sucking all the joy out of our shared space” (much as you might feel that way). It can be much more mild, and you can even make it about you rather than about him. For example, you could say, “I know there are problems here, but I’m finding that the more I talk about them, the more frustrated I get. I’ve realized it’s better for my quality of life if I don’t complain as much as we’ve been doing. So I’d be grateful if we can rein in the complaints around each other.”

If that doesn’t work and his griping continues, you’ll need to get more pointed: “I know things here can be tough, but it’s making work harder for me when I stay so mired in these problems. For the sake of my mental health, I can’t be the person you vent to anymore.”

You still might need to do some work to reinforce that boundary, since complaining can be an ingrained habit that takes time to break. So if it starts up again after that, just remind him (“Like I said, I can’t be a sounding board on this stuff anymore”).

Frankly, you might be doing your co-worker a favor by declining to listen to endless complaints. Right now it sounds like you’re functioning as a sort of relief valve for him, a place where he can let off steam without taking any real action. If you stop providing that relief, it might nudge him to decide whether he’s willing to live with the conditions of his job or whether he’d be happier ramping up his job search.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 128 comments… read them below }

  1. Choggy*

    First of all, can you get OUT of your office for lunch, so he’s not hovering nearby? Can you walk away, take breaks, just to clear your head? But yes, ultimately, you will need to have a talk to him, openly and honestly, how his complaining is really adding to an already stressful situation. And then remind him each time he tries to rope you in. If you don’t provide him an audience, hopefully he’ll get it and stop.

    1. ComplainingAboutComplaintsOP*

      OP here. This is the kind of suggestion that is so common sense it makes me frustrated with myself. I should’ve spent more time away from the desk when I could’ve. I did take daily walks around my building (which helped), but would often eat lunch while working. Taking my lunch away from my desk would’ve been a great solution as I would’ve had more time to de-stress from the work itself as well as not have to hear my coworker complain constantly. I guess I was just so deep in the company’s problems at the time that I had trouble peeling myself away. I am definitely looking to improve upon this at my new job. Thank you for the advice.

  2. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    I had a friend like this, and one day I challenged him to say two positive things for every negative thing. So next time he complained, I’d say “OK, now the next two things out of your mouth have to be positive.”

    1. Nicotena*

      I need to do this to my friend, who some days texts me all day long with a running thread of complaints :P “Oh, this meeting is so boring … I have to wait in this terrible long line … my other friend/mother-in-law/husband is driving me crazy … ” I hope it is beneficial for her, cuz it ain’t doing much for me.

      1. Magenta Sky*

        ““Oh, this meeting is so boring”

        Not as boring as you complaining all day.

        “I have to wait in this terrible long line”

        It can’t be as terrible as you complaining all day.

        “my other friend/mother-in-law/husband is driving me crazy”

        The way you’re driving me crazy complaining all day.

      2. Richard Hershberger*

        I can’t imagine reading those texts. As in, I wouldn’t. Once the pattern was established, I would simply ignore them. Yes, I might miss something important, but probably not. I am willing to take that risk. The thing is, the recipient’s role in this is irrelevant. At most there only needs to be the illusion of someone listening to the complaining.

    2. The Rural Juror*

      I also had a friend like this who complained and complained. I tried a similar approach, albeit more subtly, by asking her what positive thing happened or what was something she liked about a person she was complaining about. She eventually caught on and got mad at me and stopped speaking to me. I counted that as a win. I don’t miss her. Unreasonable people will be unreasonable.

      1. Magenta Sky*

        Some people are born victims. They literally can’t be happy unless they are unhappy about something.

        The rest of us are really better off without them.

        1. anonymous73*

          Yup. I ended a friendship because she’s was a constant ball of negativity. I tend to lean negative if I’m around others who are also negative and I didn’t like what I was becoming when I was around her.

            1. too many too soon*

              Sometimes we just don’t have the energy to do the emotional labor involved. Ghosting is fine. There are folx paid to help people with negativity issues.

              1. Sea Anemone*

                Ghosting is really not fine for a friend. It’s down right hurtful, right on par with all the negativity. You are making a false choice of “ghost” or “help people with negativity issues.” There is a huge middle ground. A simple, “Hey, have you noticed how negative you tend to be? It makes me negative, so could you try to tone it down around me?” followed by “I really can’t listen to as much complaining, so I need to see you less often.” is like the bare minimum of courtesy appropriate for a friendship.

                1. RussianInTeaxs*

                  You can slowly withdraw from the friendship. There is doesn’t have to be a Big Conversation about it.

                2. banana pocket*

                  I don’t think it’s my responsibility to teach my friend to be self aware or coach them towards that. That’s extra emotional labor on my part, and it’s a lot harder to do that when I’m already exhausted because of the negativity.

                  Bare minimum of courtesy to me is not asking or expecting too much of a friend. Bare minimum is not to do things that make someone want to ghost in the first place.

                3. Despachito*

                  I ghosted my negative friend as well.

                  I know that it was not a perfect solution from a human point of view, and I am guilty of never saying anything, but I was pretty young and did not know how to do that.

                  She was a generation older than me, and she was complaining ALL.THE.TIME. Phone calls with her typically were her 2-hour ranting monologues about everything – her work, her ex…. you name it. It was difficult to interrupt her with anything about me, and she did not seem interested much, anyway.

                  At one point, it just dawned on me that this is the way she is, it is unlikely that she would change, and that I do not feel like investing any more emotional labour in her.

                  I was not acting as her good friend, and I fully own it up. I just wanted to get rid of the constant negativity.

                4. Galactica*

                  I have been that friend who was ghosted, and then abruptly dropped when I reached out, for “being a negative influence”. It still hurts to this day, and was worse because I had no idea she felt like that, or that I was bothering her. If I’d known, I could have tried to change, indeed, since then I have changed a lot, but it hurt that she never gave our friendship that chance.

                5. Despachito*

                  Galactica, I know that what I did was not kind, and that the ideal thing to do would probably be to frankly tell her that it is difficult for me to absorb the constant negativity and the lack of interest for me.

                  I reckon that our friendship was already naturally fading, as the spaces between our contacts were longer and longer. I remember the last time I spoke to her – I was about to marry and wanted to tell her, but didn’t because she herself was going to remarry (supposed to be a happy event, right?), and went into a two-hour, difficult-to-butt-into rant how everything is awful.

                  During this, something snapped in me realized then that this friendship is not worth salvaging for me, and that I do not want to invest any emotional labour to it anymore. Were she a REALLY good friend, I’d be willing to do that, but in this case I was not. And if I am going to burn in hell for it, so be it.

        2. CreepyPaper*

          Calling out my mum and my mum-in-law for both being this exact type of person. If we didn’t need them to dog-sit, I think we’d never speak to them.

          1. banoffee pie*

            Remember in Friends when Joey made a dog depressed because he complained too much about his love life? Something to watch out for ;)

      2. A Feast of Fools*

        There’s an acquaintance on the outer circle of one of my friends groups who is like this and I, too, tried the approach of asking her what positive thing happened to her since the last time I saw her (weeks and sometimes months go by before we’ll see each other).

        She has never, not once, had a single positive thing happen to her. Even when prodded for things I know she views as positives — like getting to spend time with her nieces and nephews or going on a cruise — she will spin into a negative for the sake of always being a victim.

        Since I don’t see her often, I treat it as a game. That way it’s not as painful to listen her endless tales of woe.

        If she were an office mate, I’d have to shut it down ASAP.

      1. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

        “The sun is shining” is a perfectly OK positive thing. Or “I really like this shirt I’m wearing.”

        1. Heffalump*

          I know you didn’t mean that the positive statements had to be work-related. But “The sun is shining” would be work-related if you were a house painter, a carpenter, or some such.

          A friend of mine used to work construction in Denver and in the San Francisco Bay Area. He said that if people knocked off for inclement weather as readily in Denver as they did in the Bay Area, nothing would get built.

          1. allathian*

            I live in Southern Finland, and there’s no such thing as snow days here. Or extremely rarely, like once every 10 years when there’s a blizzard that drops 2 ft overnight. When we lived in the UK, there was a snow day once when the snow barely covered the ground, because there was no infrastructure to handle it.

            1. Medusa*

              When I lived in Northern England I was flabbergasted at how unprepared they were for snow. You’d think that with the same weather patterns happening every year they would know how to deal with it, but no.

              1. Rebecca Stewart*

                I always avoid driving anywhere the first day or so after we get the first good snow of the year here. Apparently the steam heat of our Midwestern summers bakes the “driving on snow” skillset right out of people’s heads and there are crashes galore, cars in ditches, etc. while everyone gets back up to speed on how to drive on winter roads.
                (It’s like heavy rain only a little more so. Not that difficult.)

      1. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

        I made it fun by teasing him about it. (This wasn’t someone who had a serious mental health issue, just a bit of an Eeyore.) “And what went RIGHT today, Mike?” “Now that you’ve gotten that off your chest, tell us your two positive things so you can go on to the next complaint.” After a while he realized how much complaining he was doing and backed off a bit. And then he moved away and we are distant friends on Facebook, which is fine.

        1. pancakes*

          That sounds more manageable, and sounds like a more familiar dynamic to me – I’ve seen that sort of teasing happen with coworkers, though not with the formality of having to trade two good things for one complaint. I think this only works when the complainer is self-aware and good-natured enough to respond to good-natured teasing in kind, though.

    3. gsa*

      Good advice Thin Mints!

      My wife has a co-worker that complains ad nausea… I think she shut it down, my wife that is, but definitely good advice.



  3. TryingHard*

    Declare a no complaint zone for x time and hold to it. Worked for us. Eventually we just pointed to the sign with no time marked on it. Just wrap it around getting distracted and being able to push forward on critical stuff.

    1. Not A Girl Boss*

      You can also try the opposite of this: dedicated complaint time. I’ve found that I enjoy venting for 5 minutes a week to a close coworker, but more than that we just wind each other up and make mountains out of molehills and just generally becoming embroiled in drama.
      So now during our weekly shared lunches, we try to each vent about our ONE most frustrating thing of the week, and then move on to non-work discussions.

      1. Butterfly Counter*

        This was going to be my suggestion. Maybe start long-ish and try to pare it down. I’d probably say something like, “I’ve found I can’t focus on the negatives of this job all day long because it’s messing with my head. How about we only vent from 9-10am?” And if he starts complaining outside of these hours you can say, “Let’s save this until tomorrow.”

        It might also underline to him how much he is complaining and he’ll stop doing it so much, even during the dedicated time unless it’s truly important.

      2. Tangerina Warbleworth*

        Like Butterfly Counter — oh, what a fantastic full-time job that would be — designate a time, and maybe make it not on work time. If he’s a reasonable dude, you could make it for, like, Thursday after work drinks.

        (Aside: the whole designated time thing works wonders on a lot of situations, because you’re telling that person that they will get what they want, just on your schedule. Worked on my kid: Saturday morning was Wii Time, so no more whining on school nights. Totally stole the idea from Dana Carvey (which shows how effing old I am) where, when he and his wife couldn’t get their two toddler boys to stay dressed at home, established “Naked Time”.)

    2. TardyTardis*

      Yes, this. I also was a complainer till I subscribed to a “This Day You Will Cheer Up Already” newsletter which offered many useful tips, like Stop The Damn Complaining Already. I gained a reputation after a year or so as being a non-complainer and someone who was a go-to person to get things done. Of course, that meant at the company I worked at that I cleaned up after the slackers, but eh, the benefits were wonderful.

  4. Nicotena*

    I love the advice column questions that are like, “I want someone to do something differently, but I don’t want to tell them and I don’t want them to be upset.” – classic across all genres!

    1. Hil*

      That’s not really what this is. There’s a big difference between, say, asking someone to turn down their radio, and telling them that what they think is you being friends/friendly is actually them annoying you. Being negative/a complainer is way more of a personality trait then the things that fit into that category, and youre basically telling someone that interacting with them is unpleasant. It’s a lot more awkward.

      1. anonymous73*

        Might be more awkward but it’s true. The answer to so many of these letters is “talk to them!”. Sure some people may need help finding the right words because they don’t want to be a jerk, but if you refuse to have a conversation with someone about a behavior that’s making you miserable, then you will continue to be miserable.

      2. New Yet Old*

        Yeah, that is what this is. Folks even want people to turn their radio down or off without telling them. It’s the mind reading expectation that is the commonality.

    2. Coder von Frankenstein*

      You’re not wrong; but often the underlying issue is “I know this conversation needs to happen, but I don’t know *how* to have this conversation in a productive way.” And that’s a real issue! It’s not easy to address a problem like this in a way that will lead to a solution instead of triggering a defensive reaction that makes everything worse.

      One of the things I love about Alison is that she is very good at zeroing in on the actual problem and tackling it, as she does in her answer to this letter.

      1. A Feast of Fools*

        Agreed. Thanks to Alison, I now know how [best] to have conversations like these. And I now know that when I’m having difficulty imaging approaching someone about something important, I need to ask for a sample script that I can tailor. Pre-AAM, I was primarily focused on the other person’s behaviors and would have had trouble even crafting an intelligible question about what was bugging me, let alone being able to articulate what kind of advice/help I needed.

      2. Koalafied*

        Totally agree. These are often novel situations that people have never had to deal with before, and never seen anyone else model how to deal with it, and some power dynamics and some cultures (in the general sense of the word, not specifically national/ethnic) in particular require a tactful approach to avoid poisoning the well.

        Also in particular, it’s a lot easier to imagine how you could politely ask someone to do some new thing they aren’t currently doing, than it is to figure out how to politely ask someone to stop doing something they’ve been doing without coming off like “your choices thus far are bad and you should feel bad.” (I have yet to figure out the optimal way to ask dog owners to leash their unleashed dogs. I’ve tried a lot of different phrasings/wordings and I still feel rude every time, even though they’re the ones being rude by letting their dog off leash in a public area that is not designated for off-leash dogs.)

    3. Purple Cat*

      Very true, but the scripts Alison provides and additional context is what puts this column over the top!

      1. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

        Just to wander far off from the topic, I have a beloved stuffed animal named Purple Cat (I got it for my 6th birthday, and apparently was going through a literal phase) and it always makes me smile to see your screen name!

    4. Daisy*

      Yes, and this one doesn’t even seem like a complicated situation? They’re friends and it’s not a particularly personal thing to say? It’s not like telling your horrible boss he has BO or something. Don’t get it.

    5. ComplainingAboutComplaintsOP*

      OP here. I don’t disagree. I think the post conveyed I knew I needed to do it, but really struggled with the “how”. As another commenter said, I think I was afraid of triggering a negative response from this person. My communication skills could definitely be better, and I’m working at it. My main issue is that I’m very monotone, and in past experiences I think people have zeroed in on how I said something and not the actual words I said. Tone is an important part of the message, and I need to work on my delivery. I think Alison honed in on this and I agree with her assessment. I should’ve just said something way before it started to build up. Struggling with my delivery in addition to letting things build up for so long was not a recipe for success.

  5. High Score!*

    Early in career, there was a dude like this in the office. He’d whine into any ear he could get and, as I was young and not good at extracting myself, I got stuck listening to him often.
    But then, we discovered that Whiny Whinerson had one of those car alarms that went off whenever his car was touched.
    Sooooo whenever he started whining in my ear, one of the other guys would go touch his car, the car alarm would sound – it was loud, and Whiny got some fresh air and exercise.

    1. Coder von Frankenstein*

      Finally, somebody has found a good use for those trigger-happy car alarms!

      From now on, whenever some car begins yapping like a tiny dog whose personal space has been Trespassed Upon, I’m going to imagine that it’s a deliberate ploy by the owner’s desperate coworkers to cut off a litany of complaints.

  6. TheyThemTheirs*

    AAM as always, fantastic read. I’ve had many great things come out of being direct (but polite) with my coworkers, and I hope the same does for you!

  7. Narise*

    I had a coworker who complained for weeks about the job. I finally had a direct conversation about how he didn’t sound happy at all and life was too short to be this unhappy and he should look for a job elsewhere. At the time he listened but later told someone else that someone told him he should quit but he took as a slight against him not his complaining. It did help a bit but ironically he raised his daughter to be the same way so at college all she did was complain but not actually address what the issues were i.e. with roommates or professors.

    1. ComplainingAboutComplaintsOP*

      I feel what you’re saying here. I’ve had a few similar experience and I always worry about how my direct feedback will be taken by an individual.

  8. learnedthehardway*

    You could address the overall issue and tell him that while you want to be supportive, the constant complaints are really wearing on you and you just can’t deal with it any more.

    Perhaps tell him that he’s limited to 3 complaints per day. After that, he needs to NOT complain. (My kids’ teacher did this when he was 7 yrs old and had ALL the questions all day long – a limit of 3 questions made him prioritize what he wanted to ask about, lol.)

  9. pets banshees*

    I used to be that complainer a long time ago. I knew I was doing it but I didn’t realize the extent or the effect it had on other around me, because I was doing it to connect. It was my way of making conversation – I wasn’t really that miserable. It wasn’t until a (very handsome) male friend looked at me very pointedly and said “Complaining is really unattractive, you know.” That caused me to pump the brakes hard and re-examine the negativity coming out of my mouth. Not that LW is looking to date this person in any way, but I’m all for speaking up, especially if your opinion carries weight.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      Sorry, but this makes me think of something I saw on social media recently where a guy said he’d told a woman something about her (her attitude maybe?) was unattractive and she said “serious question: what makes you think I’m trying to attract you?”

      1. Slig Tibbin*

        “Not that LW is looking to date this person in any way, but I’m all for speaking up, especially if your opinion carries weight.”

        That’s not gross. That’s their experience and they are offering an example of how speaking up can be helpful to someone, no matter the situation. If a handsome male doesn’t do it for you, that’s fine. Maybe your mom? Or a friend? Or your pastor? Or your the checkout lady in the grocery?

        1. pancakes*

          I don’t think “this thing you’re doing is unattractive” would be a better message coming from any one of those people. I also don’t agree that any suggestion that comes from experience or a desire to be helpful is bound to be helpful.

          1. Kal*

            I don’t think the point was to suggest that the LW should literally use the word “unattractive”, the point was to show how telling the complainer that the constant complaining is bad can help the complainer re-evaluate their behaviour, especially if the message is coming from someone they trust or otherwise value the opinion of. Just because the specific verbiage that helped pets banshees was calling it unattractive doesn’t mean that’s the only way to say that the constant complaining is bad and off-putting.

            1. pancakes*

              Of course it’s not the only way to frame the idea that constant complaining is off-putting, but I don’t think Alison’s answer or other commenters’ suggestions have discounted the idea that someone should help this guy re-evaluate his off-putting behavior.

        2. too many too soon*

          Humans have enough pressure on us to be attractive to anyone & everyone with an opinion.

        3. Emilia Bedelia*

          Seconded. It’s not about being attractive, it’s about being a person that other people want to talk to and be around, regardless of the context/ relationship.

          1. Need More Sunshine*

            But that’s just a form of being attractive. Attitudes and manners can be attractive/unattractive without being about looks or romantic/sexual attraction. They can be about friendly or coworker attraction, too. I absolutely agree that if a guy came up to me and said something about me was unattractive, my reaction would be “…so?” but if a trusted friend of mine said my attitude was unattractive in a general sense, it would make me check myself. (Well, it would need to be said to me constructively, of course.)

            1. Koalafied*

              Agreed. I come from a southern family where “ugly” is used far more often to describe someone or something mean-spirited than it’s used as a description of someone’s physical appearance. As a kid if I said something rude or nasty to someone else and my mom overheard, she would say, “Koalafied, don’t be ugly.” She was not coming on to me or making any sort of comment about my appearance. She was telling me that my behavior was unbecoming.

              1. Sue Wilson*

                I mean mine too, but it’s clear to me the south uses ugly because they already know the association with physical attractiveness is pretty important and so borrowing the connotations of physical ugliness is really useful. I don’t think it’s detached at all.

                1. pancakes*

                  Right, I don’t think it’s an inexplicable coincidence that a region known to have even more of an affinity for paternalism and traditional gender roles than the rest of the US has landed on this being a preferred framing.

  10. PrairieEffingDawn*

    In a couple of jobs I have found myself being the complaining person in the office and that’s usually when I realize it might be time for me to go.

  11. Data Bear*

    OP, why do you think you need to use nicer words than “your constant complaining is making me miserable”? Those seem like excellent words to convey to him that it’s making him unpleasant to work with and you would like him to cut it out.

    I mean, sure, soften it up a little bit, but there’s really no need to pussyfoot around the subject. He’s doing a thing you dislike and you would like to ask him to stop. That’s a perfectly reasonable request to ask from an officemate, and I think Alison’s phrasing is honestly a bit more gentle and over-apologetic than it needs to be. Just say it.

    “Dude, you’re right that everything sucks and I totally agree, but you complain about it a lot and it’s kinda making me miserable. Could we make the office a no-griping zone? Or at least rein it in by, like, 90%? That would help me a lot to cope with all this nonsense.”

    1. Free Meerkats*

      No, don’t soften it.

      There’s a meme currently going around that says,

      Normalize clear, direct communication.

      People are so used to hearing or being indirect or passive aggressive, that when someone is actually being clear and direct, it is often perceived aggressive or rude.

      Be clear and direct when you tell him he’s making your life more miserable.

      1. Wolfie*

        This! My friend and I are both reading The Stand, him on Kindle, me in paperback. He started sending me all these examples of typos he was finding (which, coincidentally, I haven’t seen in my version). It was annoying me, and I was going to blow up at him. But instead I said, “Please stop telling me about these. I don’t care.” He said, “Oh OK I’m sorry. Did I make you angry?” I said, “I just don’t understand why you keep telling me about them.”

        And later he wrote, “Do you know you hurt my feelings?”


      2. Sea Anemone*

        when someone is actually being clear and direct, it is often perceived aggressive or rude.

        Don’t we all know that person who says “I tell it like it is!” who is really just a glass bowl? The reason people soften things is to stay out of glass bowl territory, to which it is easy to drift if they are already at the eating crackers point. my 8th name, below, has a soft but still direct option.

        1. pancakes*

          Sure, but the fact that such people exist doesn’t mean that every clear and direct communication is a form of glass bowlism.

        2. Koalafied*

          Yes, being rude and abrasive is over-correcting for being indirect and passive. You want to be clear and direct while still considering the impact of your words and trying not to be an ass. For example, if someone is hanging around while you’re busy with something else and you don’t want to talk, indirect/passive is giving one-word responses to everything and then pointedly looking back at your book/computer in the hopes they’ll get the hint that you’re not interested in conversing and then being upset when they interpret this scenario as a conversational lull they need to fill. Abrasive/rude is saying, “Go away. I’m busy and I don’t care about any of what you have to say.” Direct and clear: “I’m pretty busy trying to get this task done, so I can’t chat right now.”

          1. pancakes*

            Sometimes it’s just plain rudeness, not an over-correction.

            When this topic comes up, it often feels like many people don’t trust their own judgment about what to say or self-control of their emotions to remain effective if they try to be direct, as if there’s no middle ground between hinting and exploding. Your example of direct and clear language is a great example of what the middle ground should look like.

  12. Amber Rose*

    I used to complain a lot because I had a lot of ideas to fix things and no power to even suggest any of them (you can only be shot down so many times). Once I started being heard, it really helped.

    Maybe challenge this guy to start thinking of solutions. “Yeah, that sucks, how would you fix it if you could?”

    Just see if that helps.

    1. AlwaysAnon*

      It’s not the letter writer’s job to make his coworker feel heard though. If the complainer wants to be heard, he should address someone who can actually impact the changes he wants to see.

    2. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

      Or just challenge him to think of something he could do to make things better, and when he comes up with an idea, say “Permission granted!” and refuse to listen to him until he’s done the thing.

    3. Rav*

      I think this is the best approach. Challenge him to find a solution.

      I remember in College had a huge problem with the lab on the weekend (IIRC, it was closed for the weekend after I was given confirmation it would be open), and came to complain. The grad student just asked me one question: “what can you do now?” It helped me shift focus from my complaints to possible solutions.

      I ended apologizing to him, and we were chilled the rest of my time there.

    4. ComplainingAboutComplaintsOP*

      OP here. I definitely encouraged this. But, at the end of the day management was seemingly apathetic and the leadership couldn’t have cared less about our problems. I made a lot of suggestions throughout my time there and none of them were ever taken seriously. This was the kind of company where virtually every department other than Sales were considered a cost generating endeavor. I encouraged him to voice his suggestions, hoping that things might be different for him than they were for me, but at the end of the day he was left feeling bitter and unheard. I felt the same way and maybe empathized with him a tad too much. That mixed with an anxiety about offending him I unfortunately never had the talk with him and the complaining continued until the day I quit.

      It’s not all doom and gloom though. I learned a lot through this experience (and through all you nice commenters) and am determined to improve my communication skills.

  13. 3DogNight*

    My husband was that co-worker for a couple of years, and it cost him a promotion. Luckily he had a manager that was able to provide that feedback to him, directly. Hubby took the weekend to think on it: read go over in his mind how unfair the feedback was, until he realized, holy cats, this is what they meant! It really changed his attitude, at work, and he does pretty well at reigning him in. This is a favor to your co-worker, letting him know. He may not realize how much he’s doing it.

    1. Res Admin*

      This has been my recent experience:

      My husband just started a new position last week–because he kept a positive attitude during a very unpleasant re-org. He was essentially given his choice of assignments with a bump in title and pay grade and real assurances that if he changes his mind, he can move to a different area later. (That is just his way–fix what he can and try not to worry about the rest). He is not the best trained and he doesn’t have the higher level degrees that the others have, but people like working with him and know he will adapt well anywhere.

      His extremely negative co-worker has complained the whole time, refused to learn anything new, take on new responsibilities, etc. Aside from the fact that they already have more than enough people to handle his current job focus (which he refuses to change), no one wants to work with him. So it is looking very much like he may not have a future at this organization. Which would stink for him because this is the biggest employer in the area.

      To be clear, they were all moved into another unit with no change in title or pay rate and minimal changes in duties. Others have rolled with it reasonably well and are either settling into the new unit or looking for other internal positions.

    2. ComplainingAboutComplaintsOP*

      Ah this makes me wish I would’ve said something even more. He’s a good guy and loves working with tech. I hope he finds a new position at a new company and finds he doesn’t have much to complain about.

  14. anonymous73*

    A few jobs ago it was brought to my attention by my manager (who had been approached by a few of the newbies) that I complained about my job constantly. The newbies asked why I was still there if I was that miserable. That was the wake up call I needed to stop complaining and start seriously looking for a new job. Being direct with someone is not rude. Next time he starts up, be matter of fact. “I really need you to stop constantly venting to me. I realize there are issues, but your constant complaints are making me miserable.”

  15. Momma Bear*

    Old company had a “generic (topic) complaint” rule. You could express frustration but not get into a long discussion about it. Then people could say, “Yeah, me, too” and everyone moves on.

  16. Koala dreams*

    The fact that your work needs focus is the perfect excuse if you want to go the indirect route. “Can’t talk now, need to focus on work” is hard to disagree with.

    But since you are friends, I would really recommend a version of “The complaining is making me miserable, let’s make this a neutral no-complaints-allowed space”.

  17. (insert clever name here)*

    Honestly, I’d start smaller and kind of train him into it.

    I don’t know if you need to start with a huge “big conversation about how your behavior is a problem”

    Just starting with something like “oof. I think I’ve hit my venting limit for the day. It’s not great for my mood. Can we try to avoid the negative for the day?”

    If he keeps venting after you’ve said that, then you have an opening for a big conversation, but you can also just change the dynamic more slowly. I’ve had this work so that the venting because jsut the really serious stuff that was actually actionable.

  18. Mischa*

    I have a coworker like this. He complains about silly, boring things–not wanting to work because it’s 4:30 on a Friday, not wanting to have to do X project, wanting it to be sunny, wanting it to be rainy, etc. Although the complaints are annoying, it’s the constant interruptions that drive me up a wall. I’ve had a direct conversation with my Complaining Coworker, telling him, “your constant distractions are making it hard for me to work. You know I have ADHD. An unplanned interruption, especially for something small and not-work related, is like a mental train derailment.” He got somewhat better, but there are still days where the constant interruptions leave me frustrated and nearly in tears. Since direct conversation didn’t work well, I’ve started giving him almost no attention when he comes in to complain at me. That’s slightly effective. I’ll take it.

    Yes, I know I need to be more direct. But it’s hard! I work in a male-dominated field and I have internalized that assertiveness and directness, especially towards men, is rude and hostile (thanks, Mom). Even if I want to be direct, my brain freezes up at the thought. I’m in therapy to unravel all of those distorted, toxic threads, but it will take time.

    1. Coder von Frankenstein*

      Just to point out: You *were* direct and he’s still doing it. You have done what, in a reasonable interaction with a reasonable person, would be your part in resolving the issue. He isn’t doing his. That’s on him.

      Obviously, that still leaves you with a problem and looking for a solution, and that solution may involve hammering on your direct response until it sinks in. But it isn’t because you didn’t clearly and directly state your needs here.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        Good point. You have (a) been direct and assertive, and (b) stopped rewarding his behavior. Seems like you’re actually handling it really well.

        1. Mischa*

          Thank you, truly. It feels like a huge personal failure, even though I logically know this is NOT a me issue.

        2. Tiny Soprano*

          In fact the only further thing I could suggest from a behavioural training point of view is c) break out the water squirter.

          1. TM*

            I work in a male-dominated profession as well, and I think the original request was perfectly good.

            So now expectations have been set, it’s time to reinforce the training indeed, in perhaps a more human-centric way.

            “Sorry, busy, can’t talk right now.” “Dude, this is the second time you’ve come over to complain to me today, can you please give it a rest?” [conspicuous silence]

            Being a little curt is fine when someone interrupts you constantly. If he sulks a bit, fine. If you want to reinforce it’s about him interrupting you and you want to keep friendly with him, stop by HIS desk as you’re leaving and have a brief friendly convo. That way you can escape when you need to as you’ll have “stuff to do” after work.

    2. ComplainingAboutComplaintsOP*

      As someone who had a very people-pleasing parent, I sympathize a lot with your last paragraph. It’s really hard to be direct with people when I have this little voice in that back in my head saying that I’m being rude and hostile. This is really good food for thought, thank you for sharing.

  19. Inot*

    My coworker bestie and I have a rule that we can only complain for 7 minutes about our jobs a day. We set a timer for it as well. For friends outside of my job who want to complain, I let them know we can only talk about work one hour from when we get off. It has made us all much happier.

  20. Gouda*

    Think of it this way — if you were complaining to your coworker for months and then found out that it was making them miserable, wouldn’t you wish they’d told you before? Other people will not magically understand what’s going on in your head, especially if it is counter to what you’re actually doing (to me, the responses you’re giving would indicate that we were having a conversation, not that you’d like me to stop talking about it.)

  21. Lacey*

    I love complaining, but even I couldn’t handle it if it was happening all the time!

    I’d probably just say, “I know, it sucks, but also I can’t keep talking about how much it sucks. It’s too much. It’s stressing me out even more”

  22. ErinWV*

    I had a friend like this in grad school. One time we had a lengthy b-session about our assignments, professors and other students we had problems with, etc. And from then on every time he came near me it was a litany of the latest atrocities in the department until it became really exhausting to be around him.

    Honestly I think we just fell into the roles of like, this is my complaining friend. I think the fact that complaining co-worker is new is significant – he is getting to know people, trying to build relationships, and this one started off on this foot and either he hasn’t noticed that yet, or he doesn’t know how to change it. Or, this is just his personality, but I think it’s very possible that drawing this to his attention will bring positive change.

    (I never did that with my grad school friend, just waited to graduate.)

    1. The Smiling Pug*

      One of my friends in college did this. He really only talked/complained about two things: his family and his crush. When I asked him if he knew any other topics of conversation, he looked at me blankly. Part of me was very relieved when he graduated.

  23. bopper*

    “Sounds like this might not be the job for you.”
    “You keep telling me this..have you tried talking to boss about it because there is nothing I can do.”
    “Yeah, you told me about that”

  24. Mstr*

    I recommend making it about you, something like “There are so many valid complaints about this workplace but I’ve decided I can’t worry about them anymore — it’s making me unhappy lately BUT I really depend on my job and have to be here even though it has a lot of problems. I can’t fix them. So I’m going to try to just do what I can at work & focus my energy on this class I’m taking/my family/networking, etc. I hope you understand I’m going to try not to talk about all the negatives anymore, it’s just too heavy.” (Probably I wouldn’t mention focusing on my job search even though that’s true too.)

  25. Anon (and on and on)*

    “I feel like I already know the answer is that I just need to be direct and tell him his constant complaining is making me miserable (but in nicer words somehow), but I am writing in the hopes that there may be an easier solution.” This describes 99% of letter writers to this site! Major kudos for being so self-aware. It’s farther than a lot of people get.

    When I’m procrastinating on something or hoping for an easier solution, it often helps me to be really honest with myself about what I’m worried about. What, specifically, makes it feel so hard to talk to him? That information will help you understand why you’ve been avoiding the conversation and come up with strategies for how to move forward.

  26. Rusty Shackelford*

    I worked on a project with a guy like this. The first time I ever spoke to him on the phone, he went on a profanity-ridden rant and I actually thought he was hilarious. But it never, ever stopped, and after the first time it wasn’t funny at all. Realizing “this is just how he is” was kind of a shock.

  27. Sad Desk Salad*

    This is a different kind of context, but on a trip with a large group of friends, my close friend and suitemate mentioned a few days in that she wanted to spend the day away from me because my complaining was getting her down. A number of things had gone wrong on the trip and she wanted to salvage the rest of the vacation without focusing on what had gone wrong. It was eye-opening. After the day apart, I apologized and agreed with her, and we enjoyed the rest of the week without almost any more mishaps. She lives on a different continent and yet I still think of her as one of my most honest and cool friends.

    If your officemate is reasonable at all, talk to him. Sometimes complaining is the default for some people–you’d be doing him a favor being honest with him. Is it your responsibility? No…but it is a kindness. And you may get a better officemate out of it.

  28. my 8th name*

    “Hey bud, while I completely agree and your complaints are super valid, it’s kind of bumming me out to constantly talk about how bad it is while also living it. Can we have a complaint-free lunch break. I just need a break from thinking about it. Can we talk about X instead?”

    I’m 98% sure you’ll get a “Yeah, dude, totally,” in response.”

  29. Tessie Mae*

    Very good advice from Alison, as usual. Of course.

    One of my former co-workers was a nice guy, but Mr. Complainer. Fortunately, it wasn’t all day long–just intermittently (but regularly), throughout the day. If it was worse/more often, I would have been in LW’s position.

    Since it wasn’t constant, it was tolerable, and I made a game of it with myself. First thing in the morning: How long before he complains about the commute or the weather or both? I’d give him 10 minutes, and, yup, he usually delivered by then (to be fair, he had a long-ish and not a good commute, but then again, other co-workers had worse commutes and they didn’t bellyache like he did). How many times will he complain this morning, afternoon, etc.? I don’t think he ever went an entire day without any complaints at all, although, well, I could be wrong. (I don’t think so.)

    I definitely do not miss his complaints. He–and others in my life who seem to complain more than their “fair share” (whatever that is–obviously undefinable)–have made me look at myself and vow to Not Be that Complaining Person. I’m no Pollyanna, but I do try to focus on the good things.

  30. pagooey*

    My mom is an Olympic-level complainer, and in her 70s, so we kids have learned to live with it, grimly. I don’t think it would help the OP in a professional situation…but for my own amusement, I once tried to double down on the commiserating: “Oh NO! I’m so SORRY you have to go to A BABY SHOWER! What are you going to DO?”

    …now that I look at it, maybe there’s a key in that last sentence: what are you going to do about this problem? It would at least trip mom up for a moment, and she’d backtrack, so it “worked” in a sense. If all else fails, maybe this might make it a distracting entertainment, for a minute or two?

  31. Soupspoon McGee*

    My coworker and I worked in a dysfunctional place, and we both got caught in a complaining cycle. It was refreshing that at least one other person got it. But over time, I realized the complaining was making us feel worse, not better. We wallowed in the misery and spread it around like stinky, toxic mud. So I framed it as something I was trying to do differently. “I realized that I complain a lot, and I’m making myself more miserable, so can you help me ease up? I know everything about this place sucks and isn’t going to change.” It worked. We still vented, but every conversation wasn’t negative.

  32. letitgo*

    Can you just work from home instead?

    (This is meant as a serious suggestion, not a flippant remark. Working from home has solved pretty much every workplace problem I had pre-COVID.)

  33. CaptainMouse*

    If you think this would help, suggest it to your co-worker after saying that you can’t listen to the complaints all the time. (It’s a variation of a therapeutic technique for anxious worried folk.) Suggest that complaining co-worker get a small notebook and every time they want to complain out loud they write it down instead. If you feeling extra generous you can offer to read the notebook for a few minutes each day or listen to the top complaint of the day for 5 minutes at a specific time.

  34. Amaranth*

    I think LW needs to stop making this a ‘we’ issue and make it a bout ‘me’. Being pals with Chris and soft pedaling ‘oh we just have to hang in there’ sounds sympathetic. They need to say ‘Chris, I agree about the frustrations but hearing you talk about them all day isn’t actually a stress reliever for me, it makes me feel anxious and depressed. Can you ease up on it please?’ And then maybe say that if he needs help with a specific client or problem in the moment, of course you are willing to listen, its just the rehashing that makes you want to run from the room screaming.

    Or, you know, get a really good headset.

  35. Yup*

    I get why he wanted an easier solution. Like many others, I have experienced having the odd person explode in rage out of all proportion to a simple request that most humans would not take offense at. Sometimes, it’s just easier to not say anything, although in this case dude has to say something or it will never change.

  36. ComplainingAboutComplaintsOP*

    Hi all, I apologize for my late response here as I was beginning on-boarding process at a new job! That being said, I truly appreciate all of your comments and Alison taking the time to respond to email. I guess now I can say I’m “published in the New York Magazine”….kidding of course.

    Unfortunately I just tolerated the complaining up until the very end. There are many common sense suggestions here that I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t think of myself. I do struggle with being frank with people, as I’m a somewhat monotone individual and past experiences being honest (yet professional) have not gone as well in the work place as I’d like. It is a skill I’m actively trying to develop in many different areas of my life (personal, professional, etc.).

    I’m still grateful for all of the advice here, as I’m sure a situation like this could easily happen again. Thank you again to everyone for their advice and well wishes!

  37. Anon for this*

    I had a similar issue like this, except I was the complainer. I think some people are picturing a really negative person.

    I just want to give a different perspective. I have friends and family where we communicate to each other in this “venting” way and it makes us feel comfortable and happy. It’s our catharsis, it’s just how we communicate. It makes us laugh, it feels good, etc.

    However, I learned a good lesson when a coworker told me that ANOTHER coworker said that I “complain too much”. In fact, I thought I was just chatting normally. It was a good wake up call that not everyone communicates this way. Just in case this story might help someone.

    1. Anon for this*

      Picture Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Watching stuff like that is incredibly cathartic to me because that’s how I look at life too.

      1. Anon for this*

        I just want to make it clear that I definitely changed how I communicate at work and am way more conscious about it now.

  38. Despachito*

    With the years I am arriving to a conclusion that venting is generally the sign of powerlessness.

    There are situations when you objectively cannot change much, and only have to endure them (care for elderly relatives, the antics of teenage kids, sometimes work when you cannot afford to change jobs at the moment). Venting then can help a little bit but I perceive it like seasoning: a little bit of pepper can make the dish tastier but too much of it will definitely spoil it for anyone.

    I have seen too many people ranting and raving about their situation but doing nothing practical for it to change, and my impression was that if they invested half the energy they put into the ranting in finding a solution, they’d be good by now.

    This made me much less tolerant towards ranting exceeding the amount of a “pinch of pepper”. I can, and do, lend my shoulder to vent to friends and family, but it does not have to be too often, and I am trying to limit my own venting as much as possible. I found out that sometimes I even tend to do it out of boredom, and that if it exceeds a certain (quite low) limit, it tends to poison my mind with unnecessary negativity, and I decided I did not want or need this.

  39. Molly Malone*

    I really needed this today, thanks Alison and all the readers for your good advice.

    I am trapped in a job with some difficult colleagues who don’t pull their weight and a lot of extra work is devolving down on to me which I’m handling well but the unfairness of the whole thing is winding me up like a clockwork mouse and I cannot stop complaining to friends and family about it and, sometimes, work colleagues too. It has become a habit now, a runaway train I am struggling to get off, I don’t think it’s healthy and I don’t like it about myself.

    I was called into a ridiculous meeting yesterday where an over the top solution was proposed for a one-off problem arising out of poor communications by the boss and I was so mad, I just couldn’t hide it.

    Because of the pandemic and a few personal factors I don’t want to job hunt right now (or indeed ever, I hate job hunting!) and in any event, it’s a good job with good pay and benefits and a good employer but the local management issues are working on my nerves to the point where I think I am going to have to leave or risk it leaving a permanent mark on my psyche!

    I think I will look job hunt in the spring but, in the meantime, I’m going to try to train myself out of the constant complaining by following some of your advice and trying to re-frame the situation.

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