This handy rule for when to complain and to whom has buzzed around my Facebook feed this week, with lots of passionate commendations:
When Susan had breast cancer, we heard a lot of lame remarks, but our favorite came from one of Susan’s colleagues. She wanted, she needed, to visit Susan after the surgery, but Susan didn’t feel like having visitors, and she said so. Her colleague’s response? “This isn’t just about you.”
“It’s not?” Susan wondered. “My breast cancer is not about me? It’s about you?”
Susan has since developed a simple technique to help people avoid this mistake. It works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential. She calls it the Ring Theory.
Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan’s patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator.
Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.
Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.
When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.”
If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.
Comfort IN, dump OUT.
Simple genius, codifying what many of us know instinctively, and many of us… don’t. A beautiful diagram (the one below is by Wes Bausmith, from the LA Times article) to help us feel more confident about both sharing our vulnerabilities with each other (it’s safer if you know people will follow the Silk Ring of Kvetching) and offering support to people in hardship (it can be hard to know what to say and this is a good guide.)
I think there’s a similar Ring of Kvetching that applies to complaining more generally, and is particularly important for tactful usage of Facebook and other social media where you have a large and diverse audience.
If you feel like complaining about something – say, how tired you are after being up all night with a teething baby, or how poverty-stricken you feel after buying your smartphone – draw yourself a modified Silk Ring of Kvetching.
Right in the middle, put someone you know who has it really hard, in a way that’s related to your complaint. In the case of the tired parent, put in the middle of your Silk Ring the parent of a child in hospital, or someone who would love to have kids but can’t. The phone-buyer shouldn’t find it hard to think of someone who can’t afford the phone, let alone the groceries for the week.
Before you update your status to say how hard this parenting lark is or how broke you feel, consider your friends who are in the inner circles at the moment. It’s not super tactful to complain about babies to those who long for them, or to bemoan your sleepless night when someone else is awake all night beside a hospital cot.
Of course your own hard things need to be shared. You do have your own circle of suffering, and it’s not unimportant. I’m not suggesting that everything we find a bit tough needs to be slapped with a #firstworldproblems hashtag and sarcastically dismissed. In the original Silk Ring, Susan’s friends had genuine sadness and fear they needed to express. Just not to her. Comfort in, dump out.
So pick someone in the same sort of ring as you – perhaps another parent of small kids – and get all the sympathy your sleepless night warrants. You can even do that on Facebook if you filter who your status updates go to, but there’s much less risk if you just pick a person to talk to less publicly.
And then send a short note to the people in the inner circle saying you’re thinking of them.
The trouble, I think, is the blurry facelessness of our large audience in social media settings. If you were sitting down to coffee with the parent of that seriously ill child, of course you wouldn’t complain about your healthy baby. But we can forget, online, that our suffering friends are among the hundreds we are broadcasting to.
The more friends or ‘friends’ you have, the easier it is to unintentionally hurt or offend someone with public posts that go to everyone. This web world is all still too new for us to have good collective instincts, or a common etiquette.
My own practice, as far as I can, with many slips, falls and yieldings to temptation, is this:
- try to avoid complaining about my life (politics or media complaints are different!) in my public posts
- be sparing with celebratory posts that may cause pain to friends and word them carefully
- use filters and lists to limit some of these traps (so the parents of the sick child don’t see me moaning about my healthy one)
- hope that my friends do the same – you should feel absolutely free to hide me from your newsfeed if you are sick of pictures of SBJ, for instance!
- give people a break if they don’t follow the the Ring of Kvetching rule, and offer sympathy regardless of which rings we’re in.
These are tricky waters to navigate, and we’ll all have different feelings, tolerance levels and goals that govern our social media usage. I’m a huge fan and user of a bunch of different platforms, and I don’t mean to take all the usefulness or fun out of them. I’m just also a fan of public civility, courtesy and kindness, and I find that these all take a bit of extra thought and effort online.
The Silk Ring of Kvetching is a brilliant tool to clarify helpful behaviour, and just as helpfully, the fact that so many people are sharing it online will make us all a bit more aware of the delicacies of communication with people in real hardship. We need to keep talking about these subtle communication problems because they are magnified as we do more communicating without faces and voices as part of the package.
My Facebook Ring of Kvetching is a work in progress and about three days old. What do you think? How can we make it better? What would you add or change? How do you approach such things online?