Cultural differences in complaining: 'moaning' vs 'whingeing'
Kelly Osbourne – reality TV star and daughter of Ozzie – recently made headlines by calling Prince Harry a ‘fucking twat’ and accusing him of always ‘whining, whingeing, complaining’ about how hard his life is. Putting aside the hotly-debated question of whether Prince Harry is or isn’t a twat,1 I was intrigued by Osbourne’s invocation of ‘whining’, ‘whinging’ and ‘complaining’ to characterise his actions – as if she was keen to ensure that she included every sub-variant of the genre.
Although the words seem like synonyms, a moment’s pause should reveal that they are not exactly the same thing – or, at least, that complaining is something different from whining and whingeing. An easy way to illustrate the difference is to consider the headline of a recent article in The Economist: ‘Prince Harry complains again, this time in court’. Now imagine the piece was titled ‘Prince Harry whines again, this time in court’ or ‘Prince Harry whinges again, this time in court’. Beyond sounding like an article in the Daily Mail, the meaning has now changed completely. In essence, what was implicit in the first headline2 has now become explicit in the latter two versions: the legitimacy of Prince Harry’s complaints has been judged and found wanting.
As the anthropological linguist Anna Wierzbicka notes, although the words ‘complain’, ‘whine’ and ‘whinge’ are closely related, their meanings are different. First, ‘complain’ is a neutral term; it doesn’t express any evaluation of the activity in question. After all, complaints can be valid as well as unreasonable. Second, complaining is purely verbal; there isn’t a particular tone or pitch attached. Third, complaining is fully intentional – when someone asks to see the manager, they have something very specific (and invariably negative) that they want to say.
The linguists Elite Olshtain and Liora Weinbach characterise this desire for redress as a key aspect of complaining. In their words,
‘In the speech act of complaining, the speaker (S) expresses displeasure or annoyance – censure – as a reaction to a past or ongoing action, the consequences of which are perceived by S as affecting her unfavorably. This complaint is usually addressed to the hearer (H) whom the speaker holds, at least partially, responsible for the offensive action’.
Whining and whingeing, on the other hand, are rarely directed at the cause of the problem, which might not even have a human origin (the weather being a prime example). Thus, they typically take the form of a bystander (B) subjected to expressions of displeasure from a speaker (S) about a past or ongoing action that the bystander has no control over.3
In what follows, I want to consider in more detail the act of trivial complaining via two examples: ‘moaning’ – the preferred term in England for the activity, and ‘whingeing’ – its Australian counterpart. Although they share much in common with ‘whining’, the preferred term amongst Americans, these words are tied up with distinct norms and values that make them a fascinating lens into the differences between English and Australian culture.
According to Kate Fox, moaning is something of a national pastime in England. ‘There is nothing the English love so much as a good moan’, she informs the reader in her book Watching the English. If, like me when I first arrived in England, you think that moaning is something people do when they’re having sex or in severe pain, you might assume that ‘having a good moan’ is some sort of English euphemism for sexual intercourse.4 Sadly, it’s much less interesting.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘moan’ as follows: ‘1) to make a long, low sound of pain, suffering, or another strong emotion, or 2) to make a complaint in an unhappy voice, usually about something that does not seem important to other people’. While most readers will be familiar with the former definition, the latter meaning is confined largely to the UK. Indeed, Kate Fox suggests that English moaning is qualitatively distinctive from other types of complaining insofar as it follows a number of distinct rules.
First, moaning occurs in specific contexts (like Monday morning at the office or before a meeting) and has certain core topics (like the weather or transit issues). Second, you must moan in a good-humoured and light-hearted manner – i.e., ‘mock moaning’; serious moaning is reserved for family and close friends. In essence, moaning is okay; being a perpetual moaner is not.
This is why ‘typical!’ is the ideal catchphrase of the moan-ritual. As Fox notes, ‘A generic, all-purpose term of disapproval, it can be applied to any problem, annoyance, mishap or disaster, from the most insignificant irritation to adverse events of national or even international importance’. This is because it basically conveys disapproval without visible emotion attached, allowing the hearer to infer whatever sentiment they wish, from outrage to mild annoyance.5
Importantly, moaning doesn’t involve redress; nor is it intended to. In Fox’s words, ‘It is utterly ineffectual: we never complain to or confront the source of our discontent, but only whinge6 endlessly to one another, and proposing practical solutions is forbidden by the moaning rules’. Instead, its primary role is to facilitate social interaction and bonding. This is why there is a moan-exception to the ‘pretend you’re alone on public transport’ rule (Fox calls this the ‘Denial Rule’). The moan-exception is a form of social bonding where everyone moans to each other about delayed trains or buses, before returning to pretending that their travelling companions don’t exist.
In Australia, people don’t moan – or whine, for that matter – they whinge. Although ‘whinge’ is British in origin (or, at least, northern English and Scottish), in Understanding Cultures Through Their Key Words, the anthropological linguist Anna Wierzbicka suggests that its contemporary use is somewhat marginal outside Australia. Conversely, ‘whinge’ is what she calls a ‘cultural key word’ in Australian English: a word that provides a lens into core cultural values.
So what is whingeing? According to Wierzbicka, while whingeing is closely related to complaining, it has several key differences. First, ‘whinge’ is, by definition, a critical and derogatory term. Nobody wants to be called a whinger. Whingeing is also not purely verbal, but ‘suggests something that sounds like an inarticulate animal cry’. Third, and relatedly, whingeing is seen as only semi-intentional and semi-controlled. Finally, unlike complaining, whingeing suggests a feeling of total helplessness, passivity, reliance on others, monotonous repetition, and an element of childish resentment and self-pity.
This definition would suggest that ‘whinge’ is closely related to ‘whine’. To quote the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘Whine: to make a long, high, sad sound… If you whine, especially as a child, you complain or express disappointment or unhappiness repeatedly’. However, although etymologically connected, I’m not convinced they are the same thing – at least in Australian English (English English is another matter). This is primarily because whining is associated with a particular sound (whining, unlike moaning, is high-pitched) and is something that primarily children do.
Whingeing, on the other hand, is not pitch-specific, and while it’s associated with childishness, it’s not specifically associated with children. Instead, it is connected with being a ‘sook’: another Australian cultural key word that simultaneously means ‘a crybaby, a complainer, a whinger; a shy or timid person, a wimp; a coward’. Thus, while the concept plays a crucial role in the socialisation of children,7 anyone of any age can be a whinger.8
Wierzbicka observes that a whinger is someone who lacks the toughness and resilience that are ideal cultural traits in Australia. According to the anthropologist Bruce Kapferer, the value placed on these attributes has its roots in the founding myth of Australian nationalism: the Anzac tradition. To quote Donald Horne in The Lucky Country, ‘The early explorers, Anzac Day, these commemorate comradeship, gameness, exertion of the Will, suffering in silence. To be game, not to whinge – that’s the thing’.
A perfect illustration of this attitude can be found in the satiric series of Chopper Read skits in the Ronnie Johns Half Hour, a mid-2000s Australian sketch show. In the skits, the comedian Heath Franklin, dressed as the notorious criminal Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, goes around telling people to stop whingeing and ‘harden the fuck up!’.
When moaning is mistaken for whingeing
Because of the cultural meanings of whingeing, its role in social relationships in Australia is purely negative. Unlike the social functions of moaning in the UK, whingeing in Australia doesn’t bring people together; it sets them apart. Nobody likes a whinger. It’s precisely these different cultural meanings of trivial complaining that lie at the heart of the stereotype that has long dogged English people emigrating to (or even just visiting) Australia: that of the ‘whingeing Pom’.9
Although Urban Dictionary describes it as ‘A slightly racist, but joking term’, in my view it’s best understood as an illustration of the clashing cultural meanings of trivial complaining. The problem is that Australians treat moaning as whingeing. This is primarily because we don’t have a cultural equivalent of moaning that is used as a form of social bonding, so the activity has exactly the opposite effect in Australia.10
For better or worse, this difference between Australia and England has come to take on particular cultural significance. As Wierbicka notes, whingeing is part of how Australians identify themselves in relation to the English. As she puts it, in the Australian cultural imagination, ‘English people are, above all, “whingers”, whereas Australians are, above all, “non-whingers”’.
Complicating matters further, if English people complain about being called whingers, this merely reinforces their reputation for being whingers. I can think of no better demonstration than a cricket match at the Brisbane Gabba in the Ashes 2006-007 series. During the event, Queensland Cricket adapted the words of the song ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ to taunt the English supporters in attendance (the ‘Barmy Army’); the refrain of the chorus was changed from ‘a-wimoweh, a-wimoweh’ to ‘They whinge away, they whinge away’.
The Barmy Army immediately complained about the offensive lyrics, resulting in an official apology from Cricket Australia. However, in the eyes of most Australians, this merely reinforced the very stereotype the English supporters were complaining about: clearly, the whingeing Poms were living up to their reputation by their inability to handle a bit of good-humoured piss-taking.
The moral of the story is that ‘moaning’ and ‘whingeing’ are two entirely different things. They might seem similar, but are embedded in contrasting cultural frameworks, with very different meanings and effects. As many an English tourist and immigrant in Australia has learned the hard way, a ‘moan’ is always taken as a ‘whinge’, regardless of its content or intent. Still, I feel like a lot of stereotypes could have been avoided if Australians and English people had understood that the terms are not the synonyms they first appear. But then, what would the Ashes be without them?
1 Although perhaps less hotly debated following the publication of Spare, which the satirist John Crace has helpfully digested for the masses.
2 This critique becomes explicit in the article itself, which goes on to state, ‘“Never complain, never explain” was said to be the late queen’s unofficial motto. It also appears to be Prince Harry’s, except that he has changed “never” for “perpetually”’.
3 Think of it as ‘BS’ for short.
4 For the record, expressions like ‘She’s a real moaner’ hardly clarify matters.
6 Notice that Fox uses ‘whinge’ as a straight synonym for ‘moan’, which I think is her only mistake in an otherwise enlightening analysis. Even in England, I don’t think moaning and whingeing are the same thing. The former has an accepted place; the latter doesn’t. I suspect that a thesis could be written on the lines between moaning and whingeing, but my general sense is that whingeing is distinct from moaning in both its context and focus, but can also include moaning that has been taken too far.
7 ‘Stop whingeing!’ is a key expression in any Australian parent’s linguistic repertoire, along with, ‘I’ll give you something to cry about’, and, at least in my father’s case, ‘It’ll stop hurting when the pain goes’.
8 In fact, according to Gina Rinehart, a billionaire mining magnate who inherited her company from her father, Australia is a nation of whingers. ‘Don’t just sit there and complain’, she admonished in 2012, in reference to critical comments regarding her inherited wealth. ‘Do something to make more money yourself – spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working’. The problem is that complaining about whingeing is, you guessed it, whingeing. And if you’re whingeing about people whingeing about your inherited wealth, while telling them to get off their arses and work harder, well, that makes you both a whinger and a wanker (or, at the very least, the world’s biggest troll).
9 ‘Pom’ or ‘Pommie’ is a common term for English* people in Australia. There are lots of theories regarding the roots of the term, the primary contenders being that it’s what English people look like after baking in Australia’s sun all day (‘pomegranates’), that ‘pomegranate’ is rhyming slang for immigrant and was later shortened to ‘Pom’, and that it started as an acronym for ‘Prisoner Of Mother England’ (this latter theory has been comprehensively discredited).
*Although it’s frequently treated as a general term for ‘Brits’, that’s only because of the widespread conflation between ‘British’ and ‘English’ outside of Great Britain. I have never heard the term used to describe Scots; the Welsh are touch and go, but primarily because Australians generally can’t tell the difference between Welsh and English accents unless the former are particularly thick (er, their accents, not their intellect).
10 The closest would be ‘taking the piss’, which is always a discrete activity Down Under, rather than being embedded in moaning itself, as it often is in England. Of course, this is exactly what the term ‘whingeing Pom’ is doing: taking the piss out of English people. Thus, anyone who objects to being called a ‘whingeing Pom’ is violating two fundamental Australian values: 1) they are being a whinger, and 2) they have demonstrated their inability to withstand piss-taking* (a capital Australian offence).
*Even though not all piss-taking is good humoured, it is your obligation as an Australian not to be offended by it. Basically, it’s like living in a perpetual Hollywood roast situation, where you must, under no circumstances, indicate that you’re taking offence to what is being said – if, that is, you want to survive the experience with your reputation intact.