They say that talk is cheap, but is it really?

In a recent paper  (yes – the old fashioned, peer review type) I talked about the phenomenon of ‘troubles talk’ between research students. In Australia we call this ‘whingeing’; in the UK they might call it ‘having a moan’. Interestingly, the word ‘whingeing’ is derived from the Old English ‘hwinan’ : “the sound of arrows whizzing through the air” and ‘hwinsian’:  “to whine like a dog”. This derivation implies whingeing is a form of passive warfare, or social irritant, which is perhaps best ignored. However, when someone tells a trouble to another, the opposite is more likely to be true – telling troubles can bind us together. In fact, sites like PhD Comics or this blog wouldn’t be nearly as popular if they weren’t full of troubles talk! 

In this guest post Dr Shari Walsh, careers counsellor extraordinaire at Queensland University of Technology, talks about the benefits – and drawbacks – of whingeing. Shari introduces us to the idea of ‘whingeing Wednesdays’ and ‘bitch buddies’  as well as a few more positive strategies.

What do you talk about with your PhD colleagues? Are you supportive of each other or do you tend to complain about the PhD process, supervisors, administrative procedures? Often, it is easier to bond with people by sharing and empathising with problems. Although this can be constructive and supportive it can also lead to a ‘culture of complaint’. So, is this a bad thing?

Not necessarily. The sharing of difficulties can lead to offers of support, shared understanding, and start the process of managing and solving the problem. The difficulty arises if complaining is the focus of most conversations and a negative or toxic environment develops. Giving time to and sharing difficulties is an important strategy to keep your sanity during process of completing your PhD and some student groups I have encountered have devised fantastic strategies to enable this to happen.

For instance, one group I know has a ‘whingeing Wednesday’ get together, in which, the group sets aside an hour every Wednesday to simply pour out their problems to each other. Discussion of problems is minimised at any other time and group members hold on to their problem until that time. This allows problems to be heard and gives a dedicated time for this to happen. It also encourages positive talk outside the time.

Another group has regular coffee catch ups throughout the week with each other. The catch up starts with the difficulties of the time and ends with a good news session. Another strategy is to find a ‘bitch buddy’. This is someone with whom you can simply let it all out (rant and rave) for 15 – 20 mins. Then it is their turn. While each buddy is talking, the other one is not allowed to say a word, simply to listen, nod, acknowledge etc.Obviously the buddy has to be someone you trust and the conversation remains confidential.

Similarly, it is important to find time to acknowledge and share successes. Here are some ideas:

  • Having a weekly or monthly good news time where every person mentions something (anything!) that has gone well for them.
  • Writing a piece in every School, Faculty, or Divisional newsletter about what the PhD cohort is achieving. This also reminds everyone within the university about how great you all are!
  • Organising a regular celebration with your colleagues and/or supervisor.

So take regular moments to look around and listen to the conversation. Are the themes negative or positive? If skewed either way, then you have the power to take corrective action!

Thanks Shari! If you are interested in how complaining can be a bonding experience, have a read of the user friendly version of the paper I published on the RMIT blog called “Why do academics complain so much?” or tell us in the comments – why do you love to have a whinge?

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