The lost art of kvetching

Not all complaining is made equal. 

When a concept is important to us as a species, we invent a ton of different words to describe it. It’s why the English language has fifteen thousand words to categorize personality, three thousand words that grapple with the nuances of emotion — and a seemingly endless fountain of terms to describe the simple act of being annoyed about something and telling someone about it.

Most synonyms of complaining have one thing in common: they make you really not fun to be around at parties. Whining, bitching, moaning, criticizing, griping, grumbling, and making a stink, if done to excess, are all likely to put a swift end to friendships, relationships, and careers.

Consequently, “complainer” is often seen as a dirty word. Nobody wants to be the squeaky wheel that ruins everyone else’s day, and so we take great pains to paint ourselves as unceasing beacons of positivity. Yes, my meal was wonderful, thank you, even though it came to the table ice cold an hour after I ordered it. No, I’m not upset the bus isn’t running today — I needed to get my ten thousand steps in somehow. Why, I just love paying parking tickets; my money’s going back to support the community!

It’s a very American notion, and it’s ingrained in everything from our politics to our education system to the cultural slang we use. We’re taught from birth to “suck it up”, that it’s impossible to succeed without a “can-do attitude”, that nobody likes a “Debbie Downer”. The unspoken message: complaining is nothing but an obstacle to pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, achieving the American Dream and creating your ideal life.

But what about all the ways complaining can make our lives more bearable? Where’s the word to describe complaining as bonding, complaining as catharsis, complaining as calling out into the void and knowing that your voice is heard?

Enter the humble kvetch.

When a language lacks a word for something, it sometimes fills the gap by borrowing a word from a foreign tongue — and, over the past century or so, the English language has received a wonderful influx of Yiddish words on loan. What would we as a society do without insults like schmuck and klutz, without the newly omnipresent glitch, without that ultimate expression of indifference, meh?

Kvetching is one of those loaner words that describes an important yet formerly unnamed concept: the act of complaining about trivial matters, but seen as a good thing. For a complaining session to qualify as kvetching, it has to meet a few criteria.

One: it’s self-aware. Yes, our lives are actually pretty decent in the grand scheme of things. Yes, the fact that we have time to spend complaining about minor problems is a testament to all the life-destroying catastrophes we don’t have to deal with. But our problems are real nonetheless, and they’re worthy of recognition. 

Two: it’s cathartic. There isn’t an expectation that a solution to the issue at hand will be found, or that anything productive will come of voicing our woes. All we’re doing is taking our daily troubles and expelling them from our minds so they’re unable to sit and fester. (Even the anti-complaining crowd concedes the value of not keeping our feelings bottled up; that’s why we have therapy and rage journaling.)

Three: it’s communal. Kvetching involves a call and a response — one person vents, and the other reassures them that their problems are valid and they are not alone. Then the roles reverse, the reassurer becoming the kvetcher, confident they will be given the same empathetic treatment. Through this intricate dance, a bond of shared understanding and loyalty is formed. 

I’m Jewish. I hail from a long line of kvetchers, who began training me in the art sometime between my first word and my first steps. I can’t remember a gathering with my extended family that didn’t involve a good old kvetching circle. 

And I’m endlessly grateful for it. It was a balm on bad days, a reminder that others had to cope with the same insecurities and daily annoyances that occupied my life. It gave me identity at an age when every kid was struggling to find theirs; no matter what, I knew I was a member of a community that cared about my problems. It taught me to advocate for myself — when you bring up small issues, and you’re listened to and understood, it strengthens your ability to bring up much larger issues when the stakes are exponentially higher.

As we approached our first semi-normal Thanksgiving in the era of COVID-19, I thought a lot about kvetching. A Thanksgiving celebration usually goes one of two ways: either it’s exclusively time for gratefulness and positivity, no problems allowed, or vicious arguments start and familial bonds are forever broken. 

All of us have just lived through — are still living through — a global pandemic. A year and a half ago, our lives were completely uprooted, and that triggered an avalanche of physical, financial, social, and emotional problems that most of us have yet to fully resolve. 

We’re still healing, still fragile. This isn’t the time to tear each other down over petty squabbles, but it’s also not the time to pretend our lives are amazing and worry-free. We need to create a space where imperfection is okay, where we can bare our wounds and know we will be seen, heard, and accepted by the people we love. 

And so I hope you kvetch with me this holiday season. 


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