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The Things We Do Grudgingly

Why do we bother doing things we don't want to?

Key points

  • People do things they don’t want to do, or refrain from doing things they do want to do, for practicality, obligation, or to help a loved one.
  • People society often devalues, such as single people, are sometimes stuck doing things grudgingly.
  • Other times, being single frees people from things they may have grudgingly done when they were part of a couple.

Think of all the things you do grudgingly–things you don’t want to do, but you do them anyway. They are the things you do half-heartedly or resentfully; you are just going through the motions rather than feeling invested in your actions. Grudging acts aren’t just things that you actively do; sometimes, they are things that you don’t do that you actually want to do, such as saying what you really think.

Why bother if we are grudgingly doing things (or not doing things)? That’s one of the questions addressed by University of Manchester sociologist Wendy Bottero in her article, “Grudging Acts,” published earlier this year in the journal Sociology.

What Makes Something Grudging?

Trying to define what makes something a grudging act isn’t always straightforward. For example, you can do pleasant things grudgingly and unpleasant things without any feelings of grudgingness. An example of something pleasant is a party you may have enjoyed if you decided on your own to attend. Instead, you felt obligated–maybe it was a work party, and you felt pressured to be there; or maybe it was a party your romantic partner wanted to attend and insisted that you go, too (when minus the pressure, you would have been happy to). Those dynamics can turn an enjoyable event into one you are attending grudgingly.

As for an unpleasant act done ungrudgingly, Bottero offers the example of changing a baby’s diaper. As gross as that diaper may be, a parent may change it as an act of caring and love, with no experience of grudgingness. However, if the parent is not a single parent and is instead part of a couple, and is doing far more of the diaper-changing than their partner, then diaper-changing can become something done quite grudgingly.

There are all sorts of things we do that we do not particularly enjoy doing, but we don’t feel resentful or grudging about doing. For example, if you are standing in line to get into an event you are really excited about, you might not feel any sense of grudgingness. However, if you learn that others paid someone to stand in line for them, you might feel differently about having to yourself.

Similarly, at work, you might not mind all those boring tasks that just have to get done until you learn that some of your coworkers somehow got away without doing any of them. Another work example: When one person wants to leave work early and asks another to cover for them, the person who stays late might not mind–unless, for example, the people who want to leave early are always the workers who are married or have kids, and the people expected to cover for them all the time are the single people without kids whose own reasons for wanting to leave early are not deemed sufficiently important.

So Why Bother Doing Those Things at All?

Bottero describes several reasons why people do things they really don’t want to do or refrain from doing things they do want to do. They include:

For practical reasons. If you hate your job, but it is the one you are stuck with, you will keep doing it because you need to pay your bills.

You feel a sense of obligation or moral responsibility. Bottero believes that friendships can fall into this category. Friendships that were once fulfilling can become annoying, draining, exasperating, or worse. Sometimes people feel reluctant to end those friendships because they believe it is morally wrong to turn their back on a friend. Other times they feel obligated to maintain the friendship because that friend is embedded in a network of friends, and ending it could send unpleasant ripples throughout the network.

Doing the grudging act helps someone you care about. Some people wore masks only grudgingly during the worst of the pandemic, but they wore them anyway because they cared about the people around them and did not want to put them at risk.

Doing the grudging act enables you to do something you do value. Standing in line for that concert or theme park, even when other people get in without waiting in line, is something you will do if you really want to attend.

Four other reasons Bottero describes often go together: “the weight of expectation,” “we fear how others might react if we do not,” “we feel we must pick our battles,” and “taking part is easier than swimming against the tide.”

If you are a single person invited to your fifth wedding of the season, knowing that you will be expected to pony up for still another expensive gift, you might be sorely tempted to make an excuse and skip it. But you might go anyway, however grudgingly. You know you are expected to attend. Other people, especially the newlyweds, might react badly if you do not. You feel you must pick your battles, and it is easier to just go to the wedding than to swim against the tide.

I think the same reasons are relevant to examples in which single people are reluctant to stand up to singlism (or women to sexism, or targets of the other isms). It is singlism when people expect single people to cover for others at work when the single people are not afforded the same opportunity to take time off to do what matters most to them.

Yet, it can be difficult to stand up for themselves: they know work expects them to go along with the request. They know that others could react badly if they don’t comply. They feel they have to pick their battles, and just saying yes is easier than swimming against the tide.

When Being Single Frees You From Those Grudging Acts

People society often devalues, such as single people, are sometimes stuck doing things grudgingly, as I just described. In interactions marked by power differentials and inequality, devalued people often have less power. But other times, being single frees them from things they may have done grudgingly if they were part of a couple.

A couple that often cooked together told me that tensions sometimes developed when they were missing an ingredient, and someone would have to go to the store to get it. Whoever got stuck with that task carried it out grudgingly. When the couple split up, and each person was single, they had a whole different experience. Each of them, independently, came up with the same solution: When they were missing an ingredient, they didn’t go to the store–they just worked around it.

Another example is from a study of single and married mothers (married to men) that produced findings that many found surprising: the single moms spent less time on housework, got more sleep, and did more fun things than the married moms. The authors suggested that the married mothers may have felt pressured to play the role of the good wife and mother who does lots of chores around the house. The single mothers, without a husband, were free to do only the necessary housework, leaving them more time for sleep and leisure.

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