Saturday, June 18, 2005

Complaining, or Solution-Seeking?

I'm a problem-solver; I tend to regard a complaint as indicating a desire that something should be fixed. Consider this conversation:

A: "I don't like the way the couch looks in this room. It clashes with the drapes."
B: "What color or fabric would you prefer? Maybe we could get it reupholstered."

Notice that B skipped right past the problem. He could have spent a while agreeing with the complaint, but instead focused on addressing it. He answered the subtext rather than the text, and interpreted that as: "I'm not happy with the status quo in our room decor and would like to change something." The focus is on what needs to change. To people with the male/problem-solver/engineer/economist worldview, whining about a perceived problem is pointless unless there's something to be done about it.

Consider an alternative complaint:

A: "I really hate how blue the sky is. Every time I look outside during the day and the sun is out from the clouds, the sky is always blue. Sky-colored. You know? I sometimes wish it were green. Hey, if we passed a law requiring everybody to wear colored contact lenses all the time, then people wouldn't have to deal with all this blueness up there!"

What's funny about A's complaint? It's about a fact of life, something immutable. The sky is blue, and a sensible person accepts that.

So when I - being a guy - hear somebody complain about something, it implies to me that they think a solution exists. And that's the interesting part of the story. If no solution exists, or if the implied solution is obviously worse than the problem, that means the problem doesn't really exist. It's not a problem - problems have solutions - it is merely an observation.

I'm not denying that observation may have validity for the person who makes it. But it's whining. You find voluntary choice irritating? Fine. Me, I find gravity irritating. It'd be so much nicer if I could cross the room by just pushing off one wall and coasting until I reach the other one. There's just no reasonable alternative to voluntary choice. It doesn't just lay the golden eggs, it lays all the eggs; without it we'd have no breakfast. So I can't take the complaint seriously unless it comes with a proposal that passes muster. Otherwise it's just griping.

"Yeah, but whaddaya gonna do?" Shrug.

The Paradox of Choice

It is silly to assume that every human being on the planet should be happy every instant of the time. We're bound to be unhappy about something; it's in our nature to be less than perfectly happy. So why shouldn't the something that we're dissatisfied with be excessive choice? Doesn't that beat most of the alternatives, especially the most obvious one of too little choice?

Maybe the market is "maximizing the human happiness of every human being on the planet", but the maximum level of happiness for people isn't 100%. And there are inevitable tradeoffs such that some of the things that make other people happy make you unhappy and vice-versa. So just as there are facts of the world that make you unhappy (sky too blue, gravity too strong, life too short...), there are facts of society that make you unhappy (too many choices in the supermarket aisle, too many people standing in line at the movie theater, too few unattached people of the opposite sex attracted to you...)

So, yes, occasionally I find making choices difficult. But the necessity of making choices is a fundamental part of the human experience. It's part of being an adult. I can delegate some of it by picking the right retail outlet or brand. I can go to Costco and have ONE choice of strawberry jam, go to Safeway and have a small aisle of choices, go to a specialty store and have a large aisle. I can pick one brand that is my brand and always look for that - it's not usually difficult to find. Or I can cultivate indifference and correctly assume that any brand stocked by any major retailor is probably a decent value. (In the cereal aisle I crave diversity and cycle through many over time - I have no permanent favorite)

Too much choice just isn't a problem I have when it comes to shopping. Instead, I have that problem in life. I can find it agonizing to pick the best job, the best career, the best significant other. Compared to that, picking the best peanut butter seems pretty trivial.