On the Subject of Interpersonal Criticism

Our lives are perpetually in a state of flux and they should be because we grow through making mistakes and learning from them. Unfortunately, we are often too afraid of failure or being corrected and this can hold us back from reaching our true potential on individual and societal levels. We must both give and receive criticism in order to better ourselves.

Doesn’t it look like he is trying to eat the paper funnel rather than yell through it? But I digress…

I will be the first to admit that I correct others regarding spelling and grammar. There is sort of an inside (and perhaps outside) joke between my friends and family that I am a “grammar Nazi” (if this is your first time reading the term, get out from the rock you’re living under! Unless you’re a child…in which case, welcome to the wonderful world of sarcasm. Great to have you.) and there is an ever present threat of being corrected by me. This often leads to feelings of triumph when the tables are turned and they are able to call me out because I am indeed human and make mistakes.

I correct them because I would want them to correct me if I were to err in a similar fashion; at least, that’s what I tell myself. My father recently pointed out that I have a habit of saying “these ones,” which is not grammatically correct, and I encourage him to correct me when it happens because I often won’t notice on my own. The only way we can grow and avoid future mistakes is by being made aware of them when they arise and seeking to correct the behavior when it happens again.

Unfortunately, criticism has an inherently negative connotation (just look up the word online and the first definition often deals with some sort of fault finding) and people often think that I look down on them when I correct their grammar or spelling; that is not my intent. I am only trying to improve their use of language and while I realize not everyone wants that, I continue to do so out of both concern and personal habit.

Despite our best attempts, it is never easy to be criticized, especially in front of a group of our peers. This post is an offshoot of my earlier editorial, On the Subject of Literary Elitism, where I told the story of a fellow college student whose pronunciation was corrected in front of the rest of the class. He was visibly deflated with embarrassment and I took personal solace from this (I’m not always a kind person and he fit the stereotype of pretentious English major that I probably just perpetuated myself).

Pointing Fingers.jpg
Looking up “criticism” on Google Images yielded some…interesting results.

I could probably write an entire post about all of the times I was embarrassed to be corrected, but I won’t because that wouldn’t be constructive and I don’t want to dwell on my mistakes. What? You expect me to practice what I preach? Preposterous. I will, however, give an example of a professor who showed me the purest motivation behind correcting others.

The last required course for my Film Studies minor was Film Theory and Criticism (see where we’re going here, folks?). I don’t recall the exact subject we were discussing, nor the actual question my professor asked, but my response was “to who.” She said, without missing a beat, “To whom,” quickly following the correction with a smile and a well-meaning “sorry.” I threw up my hands in supplication and shook my head, saying, “No need to apologize.”

That was over a year and a half ago, but it caused me to think more about what I was saying than I had previously (it also led me to look up the rules for when to use who vs. whom). Her correction wasn’t condescending or meant to embarrass me; she was just showing me the right way to phrase that response. Allowing myself to be open to her correction and realizing that she was simply teaching me through her criticism of my incorrect English was a big step for me.

This goes for any criticism I receive at work as well. Whenever a supervisor or manager comes to me with feedback or to teach me something new, I strive to be open to the instruction and try not to take it personally. This has not always been the case and takes time, much like any skill worth learning.

Get it? Because it’s “constructive” like a “construction” site…never mind.

Regardless of how well we receive or give criticism, it is a two-way street (I apologize for the idiom); both parties need to be willing to participate. The giver cannot condescend and the receiver must be open to the advice, lest either party become upset or take the lesson as anything other than what it is.

A lot of us struggle with determining when it is appropriate to be critical of others, especially when it isn’t asked of us. I have had to rein in my impulse to correct the grammar or spelling of some of my Facebook (and real life) friends because I value their friendship more than being right, which is not what should foster criticism.

We should hold each other accountable and realize that the other person, be they criticizing us or receiving our criticism, is exactly that: another person. They have feelings and emotions just like us and this should be taken into account. It is often said that we are our own worst critics and while there are some harsh people in the world who will belittle us for making a mistake or failing at something, we all share this trait; by acknowledging it, we come a little closer as human beings.


The images featured in this post can be found through the hyperlinks below.
Title Image – Criticism
You Got It Wrong
Pointing Fingers
Constructive Criticism

4 thoughts on “On the Subject of Interpersonal Criticism

  1. Pingback: On the Subject of Condescension Toward Non-Native English Speakers – The Past Due Book Review

  2. I think part of the challenge lies in whether a person only cites what is wrong, without also offering any insights into what was done well.
    And in some cases, as you say, a person isn’t honestly open to feedback on how to improve.

    There are definitely times for me, particularly when I’ve just finished, where I’m worn from the effort, and the only thing I want is affirmation that my time was well spent. Later on I want help improving upon my creation, but not at first.
    Sometimes, in the eyes of the recipient, “it’s good enough”.
    That’s one reason, as a rule, I like to wait to be asked before offering an opinion, and since many are not shy about offering praise, my silence can itself serve as a warning, “do you really want to know my honest opinion?”

    Granted, there’s also a question of how the recipient chooses to receive the feedback, but at the end of the day we can only control our own words & actions.

    I also think there’s a way that our culture tends to portray mistakes or “failure” (I don’t like using that word), as a negative. In some cases it can almost feel like it’s better not to try than to try and fail. Not to say that’s accurate, but it can feel that way.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. If they are my true friends, then I’ll expect them to show me my mistakes! I often find myself agonizing over grammar errors (like those mistakes in my previous comments) and when it’s too late, but nobody seems to care (that feels lonely). To make mistakes is humane, but to refuse knowing when we’re making mistakes is stupid. If someone can point out the reasoning and show me the solution, that’s a treat, not a threat.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: On the Subject of Condescension Toward Non-Native English Speakers – Perpetually Past Due

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