THE HUMAN CONDITION / NAGGING : Why We Carp and Harp
B ring those dishes down from your room! Put those scissors away. . . . I told you not to smoke in the kitchen and you shouldn’t be smoking anyway! Take your feet off the table! Why do I have to tell you again and again. . . ?!
The hills are alive with the sound of nagging--the gnawing, crescendoing timbre of people getting in each other’s face.
Parents nag children, wives nag husbands, husbands nag wives, friends nag friends . . . “ Use your fork . . . Stop spending money like water . . . Can’t you be ready on time? . . . Act like an adult. . . .”
Nagging, of course, has been around since the first cave husband refused to take out the cave garbage. But linguists, psychologists and other scholars are just now piecing together what nagging really is, why we do it, and how to stop it before we nag each other to death.
Common perception holds that a nag is an unreasonably demanding wife who carps at a long-suffering husband. But in truth, nagging is universal. It happens in romances, in families, in businesses, in society--wherever people gather and one person wants another to do something he or she doesn’t want to do.
“It’s a virus. You pick it up through kissing, shaking hands and standing in crowded rooms with people who have perfect children, wonderful husbands and sterilized homes,” says humor columnist Erma Bombeck, whose family members nag her as artfully as she nags them.
“It makes you feel good--like you’re getting something done. Most of us want perfection in this world,” she adds.
Thus, doctors can nag patients to lose their potbellies; accountants can nag timid clients to buy low; bosses can nag workers to get things done on time; special interest groups can nag the public to save the planet and send money, and the government can nag everyone to pay their taxes on time, to abstain from drink if they’re pregnant and, while they’re at it, to Buy American.
And when the going gets desperate, the desperate get nagging: Our recession-plagued nation, experts say, could be headed for a giant nag jag.
“When people are generally dissatisfied, they tend to harp at other people more,” says Bernard Zilbergeld, a Bay Area psychologist.
Naggers tend to fall into four categories--friendly, professional, social and domestic--that range from the socially acceptable to the toxic.
The Friendly Ones are proud of their art.
“My sisters call me a nag, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” says Bari Brenner, a 44-year-old Castro Valley resident who describes herself as “a third-generation nag” with a low tolerance for procrastinators. “I get things done. The truth is, I’m organized, they’re not. I can see the big picture. They can’t. We’re going on a trip to England. ‘Did you call the travel agent?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, call the travel agent . . . book the hotel . . . call now !’ It’s the same thing at work. Nagging can be a means to an end.”
Professional Nags--people who do it for a living--have to disguise what they do to get what they want.
“I have to nag all the time--but you have to be careful about using the word nag ,” says Ruth Holton, a lobbyist for Common Cause, the good-government advocacy group. “I have to ask (legislators) for the same thing over and over again, year in, year out. But if they perceive what you’re doing as nagging, they’ll say, ‘I’ve heard this 100 times before,’ and they’ll shut down. There’s a fine line between artful persistence and being perceived as a nag.”
Social nags don’t see themselves as naggers.
The U.S. Surgeon General’s office peppers us with health warnings and calls it education. Environmentalists harp on people to recycle and save the rain forest, all in the name of the Greater Good.
“One person’s nagger is another person trying to save the world,” says Arthur Asa Berger, a popular culture critic at San Francisco State University.
Then, somewhere beyond the limits of social convention, lies the dangerous world of the good old-fashioned Domestic Nag.
Observers of the human condition, from the Roman poets to the purveyors of prime-time TV, have mined domestic nagging’s quirkiness for laughs. But behavioral experts say that’s where nagging can run amok.
At best, domestic nagging is irritating. In Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” Felix wanted Oscar to clean up his act. Oscar liked being a slob, Felix nagged, nothing changed, and Felix finally moved out.
At its worst, domestic nagging is murderous. In England last May, a 44-year-old businessman strangled his wife after 15 years of her nagging finally made him snap. In January, a judge ruled that the wife’s verbal abuse justifiably provoked him and gave the husband an 18-month suspended sentence.
What causes this dynamic of domestic demolition?
At the root of nagging, behavioralists say, lies a battle for control.
It begins with a legitimate request: “I need you to hear me . . . to be with me . . . to be around, to do things like take out the garbage.” But the person being asked doesn’t want to change and sees the request as a threat to his or her control of the status quo.
So the request is ignored.
“From the nagger’s point of view, the naggee isn’t listening,” says Andrew Christensen, a UCLA psychology professor who has studied nagging for four years. “From there, it escalates. The further you withdraw, the more I nag. The naggee’s point of view is, ‘If I don’t respond, maybe you’ll shut up.’ ”
The original request gets lost in the power struggle. The nagging takes on a life of its own. The desperate refrain of “Take out the garbage!” can stand for a whole universe of complaints, from “You never do anything around here” to “I hate your stupid brown shoes!”
“Sometimes I go through the house saying, ‘Dammit, close the cupboards! Don’t leave the towels on the floor! What’s so hard about moving a vacuum cleaner across the hall. . . .’ Bang! Bang! Bang! The list goes on,” says a 40-year-old Mill Valley mother of two schoolchildren. “It’s like the tape is stuck on replay and nobody’s listening.”
UCLA’s Christensen calls it the “demand-withdraw pattern.”
In 60% of the couples he’s studied, women were in the demanding, or nagging, role. In 30% of the cases, men were the demanders. In 10%, the roles were equal.
“It may be that, traditionally, women have been more interested in closeness and sharing feelings, and men have been more interested in privacy,” he says.
The scenario of the man coming home from work and the woman spending the day with the kids feeds the gender stereotype of the female nag.
“He wants to sit in front of the TV, she’s primed to have an empathetic listener,” Christensen says. “The reverse is true with sex. There, men tend to be in the nagging role. Either way, one feels abandoned, neglected and deprived, the other feels intruded upon. It’s a stalemate.”
Communications experts say there is a way to end the nagging. Both people have the power to stop. What it takes is earnest willingness to step out of the ritual.
The naggee could say: “You keep bringing up the issue of the garbage. I’d like to sit down and talk about it.” But the gesture would have to be heartfelt, not an exercise in lip service.
The nagger could write a note instead of carping. “People tend to react differently to written communication,” says Zilbergeld.
In either case, the effect is paradoxical: When the nagger stops, it leaves room for the naggee to act. When the naggee listens, there’s nothing to nag about.
And if it doesn’t stop?
“It gets more and more robotic,” says Gahan Wilson, the New Yorker magazine artist who explored the fate of the Nag Eternal in a recent cartoon. “We spend much of our lives on automatic pilot.”