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Why do Seattleites complain so much?

caption: File: Space Needle shown in November, 2017.
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File: Space Needle shown in November, 2017.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Over the summer, the SoundQs team has gotten some questions that double as complaints about the Seattle region. So we're re-playing one of our favorite episodes from the last year - about Seattleites and complaining.

Here's a couple of examples of complaint/questions:

"Why is Seattle the only place in the nation that requires drivers to carry a compass to know how to park?"

"The freeway exchange in Tacoma. WTF?!"

This archive episode was made back in February 2019, during the big snowstorm. That's when a listener asked the SoundQs team, "Why do people complain so much?"

Listen to the episode by clicking the play button above or on your favorite podcast app. SoundQs is a weekly podcast where our KUOW reporters tackle questions submitted by our listeners.

Have a question about the Seattle region for us to answer? Drop it here:

Full transcript

Anna Boiko-Weyrauch: Over the summer, the SoundQs team has gotten a lot of questions that double as complaints. Questions like: “Why is Seattle the only place in the nation that requires drivers to carry a compass to know how to park?” Or “The freeway exchange in Tacoma. WTF?” So this got us thinking about an episode we made in early 2019, during the snowstorm, about complaining. Here's Deb Wang with the listener question and the full story.

Deborah Wang: Our job here at SoundQs is to answer listener questions and we get a lot of questions about local history. Things that people do differently here things that people wonder about in their everyday lives. But because we solicit feedback on the Internet, we also get complaints people's pet peeves. Things we do that really bug them. Things other people do that really bug them. But then we get this question and it kind of made us laugh. Listener Suzanne Morrison asked, “Why do people complain so much?”

That is a good question.

From KUOW in Seattle, this is SoundQs. A podcast fueled by listener curiosity. I'm your host Deborah Wang. And today we'll look at complaining. We all do it, but is it always bad? Is it helpful sometimes? Also, what do we complain about in Seattle? You know, besides snowstorms.

Producer Caroline Chamberlain Gomez is here to talk about complaining. Hi Caroline.

Caroline Chamberlain Gomez: Hi Deb.

Deborah Wang: And when this listener asked why people complain so much, I think she also might have meant why do people around here complain so much.

Caroline Chamberlain Gomez: I mean that's a really good question, and it's frankly I think a little too hard to say if people here in Seattle complain more than other places. I would say sometimes it certainly feels that way. Does that people kvetch gripe moan. What's a Seattle way of saying complain?

Deborah Wang: Well they also say like you know they give a lot of feedback maybe when it's not welcome.

Caroline Chamberlain Gomez: Yes and I'm sure it's not always welcome. But I wanted to know what the typical things that people here in Seattle complain about. So I spoke to two born-and-raised Seattleites to get their thoughts. Eula Scott Bynoe hosts the Battle Tactics For Your Sexist Workplace podcast here at KUOW, and Knute Berger is a writer at Crosscut. They had some feedback about what people complain about here.

Eula Scott Bynoe: Well I feel like if they're from Seattle they're complaining about the rain and it's barely sprinkling too rainy, too warm, too cold, too cloudy, windy. We're complaining about the sun and it's 81 degrees.

Knute Berger: Transportation is a huge topic of complaint. Traffic.

Eula Scott Bynoe: We have every right to be mad about traffic. I mean we only have one real freeway and it's backed up you know a majority of the day Seattle's hard to find your way around. How can the buses aren't faster? How come we don't have mass transit and you can't even walk from my house? You can't even get downtown in 15 minutes.

Knute Berger: Certainly you know someone's from Seattle if they complain about Seattle process how we do politics how we make decisions or how we don't make decisions or how we make decisions.

Eula Scott Bynoe: Amazon is one that I think bothers me the most. Amazon has gotten so many transplants and then and so often they're not even really like excited about Seattle.

Knute Berger: My favorite thing to complain about is change can I complain about it not only in my writing you know but I a bitch about it around the house.

Eula Scott Bynoe: But then the culture that's been coming in isn't artsy fartsy people. They're not here for underwater basket weaving.

Knute Berger: I think it's something I just kind - it's sort of like having lumbago or something you know? It's like a constant ache that, you know, you gotta get up and go out in that city again and it's not as fun as it used to be.

Deborah Wang: Lumbago. Okay. So there's a lot of complaining about change because this place has changed so much in recent years it's really hard for some people.

Caroline Chamberlain Gomez: Yeah but I think it may be cultural as well. A lot of people think that we have a sort of passive aggressive culture. People aren't all that direct when it comes to communication. East Coast transplants notice this all the time about people here in Seattle. Monica Guzman is the director of The Evergrey. And she said that there's one word that kind of sums up this whole passive aggressive complaining culture we have here.

Monica Guzman: Well there's there's one thing that I hear a lot when Seattleites are in the complaining mode and it's the word problematic. If you really listen for it, you'll hear it so often problematic is this amazing sort of package bundle of all these vague complaints in this smart package. And so you just say that something is problematic and people just nod and go “yeah yeah you're right it is problematic” and you don't have to say why. You've've just complained effectively in Seattle.

Deborah Wang: All right, well that personally stings because I use that word all the time.

Caroline Chamberlain Gomez: Well, I think the thing to keep in mind with all this is just because something can be categorized as a complaint doesn't mean it's necessarily bad or wrong. And in fact complaints can be very effective if you want to change something. Do you remember the snow apocalypse of 2008?

Deborah Wang: I'm still trying to get over snow apocalypse 2019. But yeah, 2008 was way worse. The city was shut down for like days. People lost power. Buses couldn't run, you just couldn't get anywhere.

Caroline Chamberlain Gomez: Marcie Sillman is the arts and culture reporter here at KUOW. She remembers it like it was yesterday.

Marcie Sillman: Oh. We complained a lot. We complained a lot. Why couldn't the city clean a street? Did we have no snowplows? We were paralyzed. We couldn't move. Garbage wasn't being collected. Mail wasn't getting delivered. It was not in control. It was I felt like I was in the Siege of Leningrad.

Deborah Wang: Oh Marcie! The Siege of Leningrad!

Caroline Chamberlain Gomez: It might not have been Leningrad level but the complaints were. And Seattle voters basically complained the mayor out of a job. Mayor Greg Nickels he lost the primary shortly after that. It was a huge surprise and a lot of it had to do with his handling of the snow. Deborah Wang: And it's not just the mayor who gets complaints at City Hall. Caroline Chamberlain Gomez: That is correct. There are people who work in Seattle City Hall whose sole job is to handle complaints.

Roxana Mincu: My name is Roxana Mincu. I'm a complaint investigator for the city of Seattle.

Deborah Wang: Complaint investigator! What a great title.

Caroline Chamberlain Gomez: Yeah, she makes it sound like she's a private eye for Seattle city dysfunction. But in all seriousness, it seems like a cool job and one aspect of it that fascinates me is that there are people - you know, just regular people here in Seattle - who call her office constantly. And not about their own personal complaints. They're kind of on the lookout for problems before they become bigger problems and they report them to her office.

Roxana Mincu: We have people that are regulars that call us or write to us a lot but they make sense and we're happy that they are you know telling us about what's out there what they find.

Deborah Wang: What are the types of things that she gets complaints about?

Caroline Chamberlain Gomez: Overgrown vegetation, it could be potholes, it could be clogged drains. It really depends also on the season. Trees downed blocking a sidewalk. They called some other department and someone didn't call back. Towing inquiries. So she handles a wide variety of problems. And so that affects how long it takes for her to resolve each particular complaint - a complaint can take forever or can last for two minutes. Shecan make a call and solve it all or it can last for a month. It really depends on the case. Sometimes a complaint is something that can be resolved immediately over the phone or email but sometimes it requires thorough research and coordination between other departments.

Deborah Wang: So I imagine in her job she probably receives a lot of negativity from people. How does she deal with that?

Caroline Chamberlain Gomez: Anyone who's ever worked on customer service job has grappled with this and Roxana tries to keep this in perspective.

Roxana Mincu: I try to understand that it's nothing personal. They're calling our office and he's kind of the last resort or they don't have patients to call around. They just want things to happen for them. I I literally tell myself this is not personal. Yes that person is yelling or is frustrated. It's not with me. They're frustrated because of the situation they're in. So I think of that and I tell myself that. Then I go home and exercise and do push-ups and all that fun stuff and yoga to leave it all aside.

Deborah Wang: That sounds like a really good strategy. Just keep cool a little detached you probably takes a certain kind of personality to do a job like that. I don't think that I could do it. All right let's circle back to the original question why do people complain. We'll take a look at the psychology of complaining after the break.


Deborah Wang: So we've been talking about complaining and the kind of complaints you hear around these parts. And it got us wondering why is it that people complain. What psychological purpose does it serve. We thought a psychologist would be the best person to answer that question. So we called up the psychology department at Seattle University and we spoke to Dr. Kathleen Cook, the department chair. Now she told us she wasn't an expert on complaining but she said she'd email around her department in search of one.

Dr. Kathleen Cook: Well I sent this out to all the faculty to see if anyone had any expertise on complaining which of course there are many jokes about how we're all experts at that. And I had a one faculty member send back to all of us - “I would but my toe hurts. And this weather stinks and I wish I were on vacation and I can never find a single decent breakfast spot in the north end”.

Deborah Wang: So her colleagues didn't take the bait. But Dr. Cook was a good sport and she sat down with us in her office at Seattle University and she explained from a psychological perspective why people like to complain.

Dr. Kathleen Cook: Doesn't it feel good? Don't you enjoy complaining a little bit and after you have shared your complaints and someone else has said I know totally or so right then you're like, oh we've just connected around this place or this thing that about which we both have concern and it validates your perspective and your view of the world. When someone joins you in that complaint. So in Seattle as a relatively liberal city if I were to throw out something you know read off a tweet or something that I just read from our president then I could get probably a lot of people going “Really! Yeah! Listen to this one” or something and we would automatically have community.

Deborah Wang: So people complain because they want that social connection, they want to create social connections?

Dr. Kathleen Cook: Paradoxically, yes. I think that very often when we are complaining we're throwing out a bid if you will to say this is how I see the world, this is what I think, this is what I find upsetting, do you join me in that.

Deborah Wang: Why else do people complain?

Dr. Kathleen Cook: Well there is an old idea of catharsis that when we have something weighing on us and bothering us that if we were to share that it would know there's that old adage about something shared is halved. And so I think there is something about the idea that just letting go of something, putting it out there, takes it away from us it's now no longer a burden we're carrying just ourselves. There's some research that indicates that when we do that, even if it's not to another person, it's just out there in some way, maybe on a piece of paper or a blog or something that we put up, that when we put that piece of information...that that disclosure out there, that then we no longer have to carry it. And it lessens its weight on us.

Deborah Wang: So it sounds like there's actually benefits to complaining if you're making social connections if you're sort of lessening a weight off of your own psyche that those are pretty important good things.

Dr. Kathleen Cook: You know I think that complaining in and of itself isn't a terrible thing, and I think that we would all be very...I think we'd all be stymied about what to do with some things if we didn't complain.

Deborah Wang: What are the pitfalls of complaining? I mean you said, you know, there are benefits to your emotional life. What are the pitfalls?

Dr. Kathleen Cook: Well, complaining if it's just that that I'm stating a problem and I'm going to use that to let go or to move forward or to devise a plan of action, that's all good. But if I keep doing that - if I am ruminating and revisiting and dwelling and spinning and and I'm doing that over and over - that's not good for probably my social relationships and not good for my own mental health. When people complain a lot they're usually blaming other people or other institutions or other companies for something that doesn't make them happy.

Deborah Wang: Why? I mean does that serve a function? What is it that when people are doing that?

Dr. Kathleen Cook: I mean in a way it's like you're externalizing your own unhappiness. Right sorry. Is are you looking at some for some reason other than looking at yourself for why you're unhappy. So as a social psychologist I would say we are always looking for reasons and if they're not there we'll supply them. And when we are looking at when we are complaining and there is...we often ascribe implicitly maybe we won't actually state that the situation is something’s fault and it is a really self-protective function any time that we can make it be someone else's responsibility, then we are absolved.

Caroline Chamberlain Gomez: All right. So if I make something your fault then it's your job to fix it and not mine. And so anytime we can do that, we protect ourselves and our self-esteem from any sort of threats. If something is my fault, then that might mean that I've done something wrong that I've done something - a mess or something - I must compensate for or apologize for or fix, and who wants to do that?

Deborah Wang: Yeah. Who wants to do that? But Caroline, Dr. Cook has one more idea for how you can you know stop complaining as much. Just like people who are on diets keep a food journal to see how much food they're eating, if you're a complainer, you can keep a complaints journal. And whenever you complain about something, you write it down so at the end of the day you see like how many times you've complained in a day and it might be kind of shocking.

Caroline Chamberlain Gomez: That sounds exhausting. I don't know if I would love to do that myself, but I think another thing to keep in mind is that resolving a complaint can be quite satisfying. Here's Roxana Mincu who from the city of Seattle again.

Roxana Mincu: I cannot compare with anything else the feeling when I really helped somebody. And I can tell, even though I don't see them, I can tell from the tone of their voice, from how the conversation goes or over the phone, how happy they are that somebody listened to them. First of all understood their concerns and did something to help them. It's very rewarding. I love it.

Deborah Wang: Everybody loves a happy ending. Thanks Caroline for your help on this.

Caroline Chamberlain Gomez: Yeah it's been fun. Sort of. I mean wouldn't have been great if we didn't have to do the story during a snowstorm.

Deborah Wang: Yeah absolutely. Why don't you call Roxana and complain about that, and also let's write it down in our complaints journal.

Caroline Chamberlain Gomez: Yes will do. Thank you. That'll help.

Deborah Wang: Producer Caroline Chamberlain Gomez, uncomplaining. Thanks to listener Susanne Morrison for her question. If you have a question about Seattle or our region head over to our website KUOW dot org. Your question might be featured in a future episode. Sound cues is a production of KUOW in Seattle. Our editor is Jim Gates. Our production team includes Anna Boiko-Weyrauch, David Hyde, Gill Aegeter, Jill Jackson, and Brendan Sweeney. Michael Parker composed our theme music. Other music in this episode is by Blue Dot sessions. I'm your host Deborah Wang. Thanks for listening.

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