For the past three summers, I’ve had internships that have largely entailed filing, photocopying and data entry. At Yale, I’ve taken some bad classes and have had to attend some bad sections. I do a lot of classwork that isn’t necessarily illuminating or helpful or even educational. I’m not in Berkeley, so I have to wait in line if I want to eat in its dining hall. I know a lot of annoying people. None of this is bound to sound strange or surprising to other Yale students or to pretty much anyone who’s been 20 years old and in college. It’s bound to sound familiar because these little vexations come with the territory.
We owe it to ourselves to voice legitimate complaints. If a teaching assistant is under-qualified, or if the food in our own dining halls is really atrocious, or if a summertime boss has us picking up her laundry, we aren’t really being given our due. Most of the time though, the way my peers and I complain about everything — and I really do mean everything — is counterproductive and unbecoming. Our responsibility is to assess the criteria that determine which of our complaints are actually legitimate, and to save our gripes for the legitimate issues only.
It is worth complaining when situations arise that fall into one of two categories. First, we should not tolerate actual harm. If a teacher gives us bad information or advice that negatively alters our education, we must have the maturity to recognize and reverse the problem. If the food in our dining halls is unsafe or inedible, then clearly something has to be done. These are situations that necessitate complaints, even irritating ones.
The other type of inexcusable situation is one in which you just don’t get what you pay for. Once I ate a meal at that “Bistro Italiano,” La Piazza, next door to the Bookstore, and the entire dining experience just didn’t measure up to the figure at the bottom of the check. I didn’t complain, but I think that I was ripped off and that I should have made it known. When you get ripped off, you’re right to complain. If you agree to an internship that promises hands-on experience in important laboratory procedures and you end up answering the phone in the other room, you’ve been duped. In these cases, I actually encourage complaining because it can solve important problems.
But we don’t bother to make these distinctions and our complaints just muddle into each other, making all of them — even the fair ones — arbitrary. Everybody here seems to return from summer vacation with complaints about their boring internships, how they didn’t get to do enough work, how they were forced to work too hard. We sit around the dining halls cursing the Yale Sustainable Food Project’s exclusivity, but when it stocks organic coffee in the college dining halls, people complain that it’s too weak. The problem is twofold: We sound like hypocrites and ingrates, but even worse, we fail to recognize the value of great opportunities that bombard us from all directions here.
And then there are those completely useless complaints: It’s so cold that I’m going to die! I hate waking up early to go to class! Walking all the way up Science Hill is going to absolutely ruin me! Of course, sometimes we just need to let off a little steam, but the tone of these complaints is often so vehement and the complainer so unwilling to be reasonable that the effect can be scary — making everyone even more uneasy than they already were from cold or lack of sleep.
I’m going to curtail my griping now because the obvious problem here is that what I’ve just written is one big annoying complaint, and the idea of having a column at all is really a self-indulgent excuse to complain about something on a scheduled basis. First of all, I apologize because that’s true. But I think that our most important consideration should always be whether our behavior is appropriate to its context. If we are asked for complaints, then we can safely offer ones that might not be appropriate otherwise. Some people struggle to identify situations that welcome complaining, so I offer this ambiguous advice: Use your judgment. If you’re sitting around with friends and everyone is stressed out and moody, be as irrational and unpleasant as you can be. But when you’re telling me about your summer internship, don’t complain that they didn’t let you run staff meetings and read confidential documents. When your professor asks for questions about the reading, don’t ask why there had to be so much of it. And as you’re about to devour a locally grown apple in the dining hall, don’t complain that it has a couple of brown spots.
Helen Vera is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.