ONCE UPON A TIME I used to love reading the reviews in The Sunday Times. It was my most precious indulgence while I was a poor single mum living in Sweden. I’d pick up the thick envelope from my newsagents on a Wednesday and put it aside so I could enjoy all the different parts of it, with a cup o coffee, or three, over the weekend.
Like a character in one of my stories, I was in a bad place at the time and burns and sarcasm were nourishment to my soul. I would read those reviews and delight in how deliciously mean and fabulously funny some of the reviewers were. In my defence, I was young(ish) and the world looked different back then somehow.
Today, I’m not so sure I would find them funny. I abandoned The Sunday Times when I moved to England in 2005, and these days you don’t need to go and buy a newspaper to read reviews. They are everywhere now, but they seem to be particularly prevalent in people’s comment sections. And most of the time they just make me want to jump in there and tell people to stop being dicks.
Seriously, just don't be a dick!
I wonder if there’s a widespread confusion regarding the nature of criticism? Did someone pass a memo to say the definition had been changed to mean something inherently negative?
As a teacher and teacher trainer, I constantly had to remind my (adult) students about what was expected of them whenever we did anything that required feedback or reviews. It was like second nature to them to pick things apart and criticise everything (their own efforts included), but they really struggled to find positive things to say. Or to even try to understand why something was presented or described the way it was.
Clearly, when we think about criticism, we have come to equate it to being mean. As if that is the whole purpose of the critique. And I get it, to a certain extent. There’s not much about the word criticism that suggests we’re in for a pleasant experience. In fact, giving and receiving criticism can be so overwhelming to some people it may very well end in hurt feelings and fractured relationships. I genuinely believe this is because people equate criticism with being dicks. Or being subjected to them.
Here’s the deal though, for criticism to be useful it has to be beneficial and, ideally, presented in such a way it can help us grow and be better. Or make better choices and decisions. Which leads me to the person who is dishing it out. The critic.
Can anyone can be a critic?
So, essentially a critic is a person who delivers their assessment and/or opinion on whatever. Really. Traditionally, we had food critics, fashion critics, sports critics, literature critics, film critics etc. And back in the day, these people were usually professionals in their field. They would have experience and a frame of reference that made them qualified to give an informed opinion. Those were the days, my friend…
Nowadays, every single person with internet access can masquerade as a critic. Or an expert. Everyone has an opinion about everything and facts become irrelevant when there are dragons and windmills to be slain. Whether we’re talking about the coronavirus, Brexit, bush fires or the latest Marvel movie, people are fighting it out online. And while I believe that the opinions of ordinary people matter, some of them are downright vicious. And some are just dense. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)
A small disclaimer may be in order here. I started this blog to study storytelling and reviewing as many different books, films and games as possible whilst working on developing my creative writing skills. In a way, styling myself as some kind of expert whose opinion counts for anything. Well, let me tell you right now, I’m not an expert and my opinion is only relevant if it resonates with you. If you agree with me, or find my work useful, fine. Of course that makes me happy. But I won’t cry myself to sleep if you disagree with my findings or if you think I suck. (I do.)
In my defence, I do have a certain degree of knowledge, education and expertise in the areas I cover in this blog. And yet, I’m only here as a lifelong student of the noble art of storytelling. Yes, I will pick people’s stories apart, and I know there will be things that gall me. But I will always strive to present my critique in a way that promotes growth and opens the floor to healthy debates.
Now, back on topic. Obviously, it’s normal to have feelings and opinions about something, and to wish to share them with other people. We are social creatures after all. What is important, though, is to bear in mind that both positive and negative feelings can be valid and useful. Just like they can be invalid and useless.
It's all in the delivery
If delivered in a thoughtful manner, all criticism can have merit. The key here isn’t so much what’s said as how it’s said. You don’t have to be a dick to give a review tell someone your honest truth. It’s entirely possible to deliver your “verdict” while keeping their, and your own, dignity and integrity intact. Likewise, it’s possible to receive criticism without feeling guilt and shame. But it may take practice and reflection.
Hearing constructive criticism can trigger some intense defence mechanisms, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Often our reactions to any kind of feedback that isn’t “ohmegerd, you’re the best!” are linked to negative, or unpleasant, experiences in the past. If you’ve experienced harsh criticism, for example, it may have left a mark that makes all criticism seem painful and, potentially, threatening.
On the flip side, our reactions to feedback that is enthusiastic and positive may very well be disbelief and unease. We may even feel the need to belittle our effort and insist that the reviewer must be mistaken. Again, this kind of behaviour is often linked to experiences in our past.
We live in an age of like buttons, instant reviews and constant criticism. Too many of us crave positive reinforcement and likes and positive comments may give you that. A kind of artificial approval. If you crave that kind of attention and you attach too much value to the number of likes you get online, any kind of negative feedback can be crushing.
Knowing that most people are afraid to hear something negative can help you deliver critical feedback in better ways. It can also help you stop yourself when you instantly feel guarded and nervous about receiving a critique. In both cases, there is a general rule I find helpful in these situations. Never act on your first impulse!
Take your time to deconstruct the feeling/opinion you have. It’s not like shellfish or milk, so it won’t go off if you sit on it until you know how to proceed and what you want to say. Nothing good will come out of feedback, or opinions, offered in the heat of the moment. It only makes people more pigheaded and defensive and that’s a lose/lose situation. Think of what you want to say and how to explain it in a way that is helpful to the person you’re addressing. If you do better maybe they will get the message and do better too. How sweet would that be?
Criticism can be a very good thing. Work on your insecurities, be open-minded to healthy criticism and practice giving valuable feedback. It’s easier than you may think once you start thinking about the person you are addressing. Walk in their shoes and figure out why they see what they see before you tell them how you feel about it. And remember – don’t be a dick when you do.