Upon first recollection, these three words (complaining, whining, and bitching) all seem like the same thing.
They are used interchangeably in conversation, though they may each have different connotations. I will argue that their differences span more than just connotation, and while theses three words are related, they do not mean the same thing.
1. to express dissatisfaction, pain, uneasiness, censure, resentment, or grief; find fault: He complained constantly about the noise in the corridor.
2. to tell of one’s pains, ailments, etc.: to complain of a backache.
3. to make a formal accusation: If you think you’ve been swindled, complain to the police.
I think of complaining as a formal procedure, like in the above sample sentence. Or she complained to the customer service department when she was unable to return her merchandise. In this sense, you file a complaint. While you can use it to say something like the kids were complaining because we didn’t give them any ice cream, a better choice for that sentence would be whine.
Whining I associate with animals or small children. Whining is typically immature behavior. Think of an instance in which you witnessed an adult whining about something right now. Did you think very highly of this person on this occasion? Did you find them immature? When you complain about poor customer service at a retail store, you are not being immature, you are being a consumer. But if you are an adult and you are complaining about something, sometimes you can very easily be accused of bitching.
So obviously I am referring to the slang definition of bitching (specifically no. 7 in the above list). This definition includes the word complain, so now you’re thinking I’m wrong and that you’ve caught me! You haven’t. The lovely thing about slang is that it can be subjective and not everyone who speaks that language will use it the same way. When I’m bitching about something, yes I am complaining. But I’m not expecting anything to come of it. I’m simply communicating dissatisfaction in a sort of general and vague sense. Example: Erin kept bitching about the small selection of bagels at the bakery. I told her there wouldn’t be a good selection if she went after 11:00, but she bitched anyway. In this sentence, Erin doesn’t really expect anything to result from her bitching. She knows there’s nothing she can do about how few bagels there are, but she is still dissatisfied with the selection. She’s simply bitching.
It’s very important to know and understand the difference between these three. Especially if you want to be friends with me. You see, me dearest friends and I would frequently engage in what is called a “bitch session” where we would sit and bitch. We never expected anything to happen because of our bitching, we just wanted to sit and bitch. My best friend and I communicate almost solely by bitching (okay not almost solely but like we bitch a lot). We use bitching just to point things out to each other and hold a conversation. Wow that guy sure is full of shit isn’t he? I can’t believe they discontinued that flavor! Sonuvabitch, this coupon is expired. These are all examples of everyday things that we phrase in bitching manner.
Consequently when I try to communicate with other people this way, they don’t understand the nuanced differences between complaining, whining, and bitching, and they become annoyed with me and try to solve my “problem.” Well I think that guy was just stating his opinion. They have lots of other flavors you can choose from! Well I think I have another coupon here you could have…. I don’t need you to fix my problem, I’m merely starting a conversation with you. But now you are annoyed by my “whining/complaining” (because those things can get annoying) and don’t want to talk to me. In my life I’m now faced with two choices: I need to bitch less; or I need to find some people who also like to bitch. I’ll probably do the second one.