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THE HUMAN CONDITION / NAGGING : Why We Carp and Harp

March 10, 1992|MARY ANN HOGAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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 \o7 picture. \f7 They can't. We're going on a trip to England. 'Did you call the travel agent?' 'No.' 'Well, \o7 call\f7 the travel agent . . . book the hotel . . . call \o7 now\f7 !' 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 \o7 nag\f7 ," 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.

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