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At my last job, everybody loved to complain. The developers, the tech support, the salespeople, even management; I never really could understand it.

For the most part, all the complaints people had were split between the customers, third parties we needed to work with, and technology in general (slow internet, old computers, etc...). Though to their credit, I never once heard a complaint about other coworkers or departments except in jest, so it's not as though it felt like the work environment was a toxic workplace.

But this culture of complaining created something of a disconnect between me and many coworkers and I don't think I ever found the correct way to deal with it before I left that job. Several times I tried to get in on complaining and add my own complains to the pyre that was perpetually burning in the office, but they were never received with much enthusiasm. I expect that it was because they were insincere; I've never been big on complaining about things I couldn't change so I suppose I wasn't any good at trying to pretend like I was.

For my relatively short time there, this had been a baffling social experience. I'm sure I'll encounter other workplaces where this is the norm in the work culture since there are many people who like to complain all the time about anything. I've never had an issue with people when I'd meet them out in the world, but when it is sort of ingrained in the culture, it feels like a whole different beast that I have no idea how to handle correctly.

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I've never been big on complaining about things I couldn't change

That right there is the key to dealing with it - at least internally for your own peace of mind. It's bad for your psyche to be in continual complaint mode, but be aware that many of your coworkers probably gain validation and self-worth through complaining. (And if you think working with them is tough, have pity on their managers.)

I think you want to accomplish two things:

  1. Avoid being forced into insincerely complaining about things.

  2. Avoid being ostracized by your coworkers.

When you're in a small conversation, and someone else says "Our piece-of-crap Internet is so slow!", you shrug and say "Yeah, I know, but what can you do? We just have to put up with it. I've had other jobs with the same problem." You acknowledge their complaint, but you don't join in the pile and you don't try to solve the underlying problem.

3

Complaining is a normal human reaction for many people. The best thing you can do is to empathize with those who are complaining. Just listen in a non-judgmental way, that's all they're expecting of you.

Piling on inauthentic complaints in an attempt to fit in will only make both sides feel awkward. And although it may be tempting to do, neither suggesting a long-shot fix nor explaining why it can't be helped will be welcomed. Complaining is merely an outlet. All you have to do is listen.

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    Totally agree. I wouldn't think of a reason to complain about things if you don't want to complain. Not complaining is a nice character trait! Be the example and don't force yourself into complaining. It only would add to a negative atmosphere. – Luchadora Dec 19 '16 at 11:57
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There are cultural variations which go into this.

New Yorkers, for example, love to complain about government, upper management, weather, traffic -- all the annoyances of life that we can't really do much about -- and find it a bonding experience; "It's our team against the world, and I'm glad to have you on the team." Midwesterners dropped into a NY-style group hear only the annoyance and may worry it will be turned against them next, which of course is anything but bonding for them.

Sheri Tepper has a bad habit of overgeneralizing from an inadequate sample and sometimes gets it badly wrong, but her book That's Not What I Meant! has some good discussions of this sort of meta-communication and how it can be misunderstood. Might be worth glancing at for ideas on how to understand the group's dynamics

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