Learning the art of Grumpiness 101

There is a really funny video clip doing the rounds at the moment. An old man with a towel around his shoulder and wearing a pair of board shorts is sauntering through a hotel lobby. He is whistling happily to himself. A young woman who clearly works for the hotel walks up to him and tells him that board shorts are not allowed in the lobby. He gives her a look and says "okay" and takes his shorts off and hands them to the shocked staff member. With that you see his bare bottom strolling off to the staircase and he, without a care, whistling his tune. The caption to the video is something like, 'Don't mess with old people. They're grumpy and don't give a damn.'

The epithet 'grumpy' is a bit misunderstood: there is grumpy and there is saying what you think and being labelled grumpy. As you can see these are two quite different things in the same way that beauty is in the eye of the beholder: it all depends on who's doing the looking (and sometimes the angle of the sun and how much anti-wrinkle cream one has used).

I've been working pretty hard at getting skilled in the art of the latter form of grumpy for the last couple of years. My better half just says I'm a grumpy old man and need to take a good dose of castor oil, which just goes to prove my point about how we perceive the whole grumpiness thing. I may even start running classes in it for the University of the Third Age: Being Grumpy 101.

We learn pretty early in life that complaining is not altogether acceptable. It seems to work for a few months when a good cry will get your nappy changed, a good feed and a nice cuddle. But this happy nappy state soon comes to an end and we work out that smiles, politeness, and cuteness are of a higher reinforcement value than a good whinge. In fact the latter is openly discouraged. Overall we learn to grin and bear it, don't upset the apple cart (especially don't upset Aunty Ethel), be a good citizen and toe the line. Mostly it works except for that 1-2% of psychopaths among us who don't have to worry much about all this social responsibility.

I think you do care a bit less about pleasing people when you get a bit older. Climbing the ladder of success at work, on the golf club social committee or the Dead Poets Society seem to matter less. Maybe by being older you've seen enough tragedy, nonsense and stupidity in your life that you don't want to put up with any more.

There comes a time to speak up and not put up with crap any longer: in the nicest possible way of course. Although no matter how you say it you'll always be labelled as grumpy or some other simile. The issue is to not care about what people think of you. In any case what business is it of yours what they think?

I used to see a lot of people in my clinical work who suffered from not being able to say what was on their mind when they were being hurt or disadvantaged in some way. They were much too polite or timid to complain, to say enough is enough or to cry out STOP! Usually they were hijacked by their fear of what people thought of them: a legacy of childhood learning gone awry with too much control. So, perhaps being grumpy is wasted on the old and is something we need to learn earlier in life. Maybe it will help do away with the nonsense, stupid behaviour and disregard of others that infects community living.

Being grumpy comes with responsibility though and needs to be tinged with respect, appropriateness, caring and thoughtfulness. Except for the really, really stupid where there should be open season.

Dr Stewart Hase is an Adjunct Fellow with Southern Cross University and a consultant psychologist.

You can visit Stewart's blog at http://stewarthase.blogspot.com/.

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