The XX Factor

Women Complain About Bad Consumer Experiences to Loved Ones. Men Complain to Everyone.

If the coffee’s not hot, and this woman loves you, you’ll hear about it.

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

What’s simpler than complaining? Your waitress totally forgets about you for 90 minutes, so you go on Yelp and vent. Or that splurge of a haircut makes you look like a poodle, so you go bark about it to your friends and family. In a competitive marketplace, such ripples of ire can spread outward and substantially impact businesses, so it’s no surprise that the etiology of The Gripe keeps researchers up at night.    

Straightforward though it seems, giving a product or a consumer experience a negative review is actually a complex operation, unfolding according to a vertigo of factors. Studies have already shown that people complain more when the product is expensive or when they’re pretty certain the crappy outcome wasn’t their fault.

A new paper in the Journal of Consumer Research goes deeper, teasing apart how social and psychological forces determine when and how we whine. For most people, write authors Yinlong Zhang and Lawrence Feick, the desire to grouch about a consumer experience is filtered through two drives. The first, “image impairment concern,” or IIC, is the wish to look good in others’ eyes. Those with high IIC tend to avoid complaining because it might make them appear whiny or less than savvy in their purchasing decisions. The second drive, an inclination to warn the people you care about away from terrible restaurants or easily breakable toys, counteracts the first. Interweaving the two desires will produce an individual pattern of bitching about things, a peevishness MO. What the researchers wanted to know was: Do men and women tend to follow different blueprints for expressing customer dissatisfaction?

To find out, Zhang and Feick had 425 adults from all over the country answer questions about hauntingly awful consumer experiences, then take a test assessing their image impairment concern. Next, the participants, asked to imagine meeting either their closest friend or a casual acquaintance on the street, were told to rate the likelihood that they’d complain about the teeth-grindingly bad product or service. In women, an interaction emerged between the intensity of the bond and the strength of IIC in deterring complaints. In other words, a high IIC had more power to silence women in the “acquaintance” condition than it did in the “best friend” condition. For men, the strength of the social tie had no bearing on their inclination to moan or keep quiet. Guys with high IIC kept their annoyances to themselves. Guys with low IIC vented to everybody. (The way women calculate whether to whine makes perfect sense to me, by the way. I guess because I am one.)

So why the gender difference? The researchers posit that while men generally have an agentic orientation (their goals revolve around achievement, reputation, and the self), women generally have a communal one (they care more about nurturing or protecting others). According to them, in the psychic battle between not wanting to appear whiny and wanting to warn beloved friends about lukewarm pasta, a woman’s desire to protect her friends will win out, but a man’s will not.

But what if the women who care a lot about image management just feel confident their close friends won’t write them off as sourpusses for moaning? Researchers controlled for this possibility by priming all participants not to focus on communal goals and then repeating the experiment. The results: High-IIC women were less likely to complain, even to loved ones, when they weren’t worried about protecting others.

I can’t say I’m sold on the researchers’ old-fashioned explanation of the data—that men simply care more about themselves, and that’s why they don’t warn close friends about bad consumer experiences when their reputations are at stake. Yet I’m not sure how else to gloss the fact that dudes who perceive a social cost in complaining don’t grump at anyone, whereas women with the same anxieties grump bravely around people they love. Maybe complaining to loved ones gives back in ways researchers have yet to figure out, but does that benefit women more than men? Maybe women are just more inclined than men to share everything—complaints, praise, the works—with the people they are closest to? In any case, I’m glad this woman spoke up.