I’ve had what you might call an interesting couple of days, starting with a phone call I got from the twins (usually I work from home, but on this day was in the Salt Lake City office).
“Dad,” one of the twins said, “There’s a huge fire on the mountain behind our house. Do we have to evacuate?”
I looked out the window. Even from 30 miles away, I could see the giant plume of smoke rising into the air from the direction of home.
“I’ll call you back,” I said, and then called a neighbor to find out what was going on. Evidently, some people in my town had been evacuated. Our neighborhood was fine — for now — but it still seemed like a good idea to get some things packed up, just in case.
I called The Hammer.
“Can you get home right away?” I asked. “And let me know if I need to drop everything and get over there?”
She could, and did.
All through the evening and night, all anyone could do was stare at the mountain. The massive amount of smoke we could see during the day gave way to a snaking trail of fire we could see in the dark.
I got ready to go to bed, fairly confident I wouldn’t sleep well, but — for once — unwilling to Ambienize myself.
By morning, I was grumpy from worry and lack of sleep. And the mountain had gone from green to ashen.
And everything in the house — including, of course, the house itself — smelled strongly of smoke.
So I tweeted this:
Within a few minutes, I started getting responses to my complaint:
I read their advice and admonishment toward a new perspective with gratitude, put on a stiff upper lip, and went about my day, cheerfully enjoying my not-burned-down house, and not at all minding the fact that I’ve probably got thousands of dollars worth of damaged property to clean or replace.
Just kidding. Their responses actually made my blood boil.
Rules For Responding to Complaints
It’s really lucky (for me, and for anyone who reads this blog) that I had a lot of stuff to do yesterday, because otherwise I would have sat down and written a really angry post about how PEOPLE DON’T GET TO TELL ME THAT UNLESS MY HOUSE BURNS DOWN I SHOULD BE HAPPY.
Seriously, I probably would have written the whole thing in all caps. And I would have used a lot of words that I ban other people from commenting in this blog for.
But I had a ride planned, and a barbecue to do. And a stage of the Tour de France to watch (the first one, incidentally, that I did not accidentally learn the winner of before seeing the stage).
And so now that I have time to write, I’ve cooled down. I am much, much less likely to foam and spit as I make my point. Which is good, because I am a prolific foamer and spitter, when sufficiently provoked.
But I’ve still got some points I’d like to make.
Here’s the thing: bad things happen to people. Some of those bad things are really, really bad. And some of those bad things are only mildly bad, or — when you’re lucky — only barely bad at all.
Regardless of how bad that something that happened is, people want to communicate it. Why? For a bunch of reasons. Maybe just because it’s interesting or exciting — when something bad happens, there’s often the upside that you at least have something new to talk about.
Or maybe because they want sympathy. Or maybe because they want help.
“You Should be Grateful / It Could Have Been Worse”
Now, when someone complains to you, you get to decide how you’re going to react. You can sympathize. You can offer assistance.
Or you can deny the validity of the complaint by asserting that the bad thing that happened isn’t really bad at all, because something worse could have happened instead.
I’d like to assert that this “It could have been worse” response sucks.
Suppose, for example, you and I were having a conversation and you mentioned that your child was fighting a nasty cold. I could reply, “Well, it could be worse. Your child could have triple pneumonia, horrible breath, and leprosy all at the same time.”
The truth is, for pretty much any given problem, it could be worse. But that’s not what’s at issue, is it? When someone tells you about a problem, chances are they could come up with a way things could get worse — and in fact, the worry that it might get worse could be weighing on their mind.
OK, another example. Suppose I told you, “There was a big fire near my house, and now the house smells terrible and it’s really going to be a hassle to make it stop stinking of smoke.”
You could reply, “Well, you should be grateful your house didn’t burn down.”
And yeah, I suppose I should be grateful for that. And I should — while I’m at it — also be grateful all of the other catastrophes that could happen on any given day don’t happen. For example, no tornado struck. I should be grateful for that. A ravenous gang of rabid honey badgers did not attack the dog. I’ll be grateful for that, too. And there was no plague of locusts, and no door-to-door salespeople stopped by yesterday. And Aldo Nova didn’t decide to release a new album and subsequently claim my basement as the place where he’s going to rehearse for his upcoming world tour.
I’ll make time to be grateful for those things, too.
But you know what did happen? A big freaking fire soaked my house in smoke all night.
So, unless you actually did lose your house to fire, probably the best response is not to point out how much worse it could have been. Instead, maybe just say, “Wow, I’ve been wondering where that smell came from ever since you got here. That explains why I’m fighting the urge to roast a marshmallow right now.”
The Practical Part
So after I spent the first part of this post saying I’ve cooled down, I went ahead and attacked the poor people who told me that unless I’m currently sitting in a pile of ashes I have nothing to complain about.
Why’d I do that?
Well, because I think it’s worth reminding people: bad things happen to people, and then people complain about those bad things. If you want to help, offer actual information or assistance, like this:
You know, actually be part of the solution, as opposed to trivializing the problem.
Or just listen and say, from time to time, “Wow. That sucks.”
And if Aldo Nova is currently singing in your friend’s basement, feel free to say, “That sucks bad.”
PS: Angie left a comment I think is worth excerpting:
As for the folks who suggest it could be worse; I think that maybe they are doing this not because they don’t want to hear your complaint, but because they care about you and can’t do anything else to lessen your pain, so they try to point out the positive of the situation in hopes it will help you feel better.
I think this is probably exactly right. Like many people, when stressed I forget that people are generally not out to get me. I still think it’s OK to complain, but I need to remember that just because someone says something that doesn’t help doesn’t mean that they don’t want to help.