Treading Gently

>> Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Why do we care what others think? OK, I don’t know the answer, really, but I’m going to talk about it anyway.

Oh, I know we don’t mean to, we say forget it. I’m going to be myself and to heck with everyone else. I only have to please myself. We dance our dance and sing our own song and take the slings and arrows that go with individuality with a grin, right?

I wish.

I’m thinking about this because of my sister’s post yesterday and my good buddy David’s post (watch out, there’s cursing) also yesterday. In both cases, their happiness and sense of well-being were assassinated by the thoughtless and/or malicious opinions of others.

David said that he was unable to take pride in a job (he sells real estate) no matter how hard he worked on it or how successful it is if someone criticizes him for it and he got an earful from clients (seller and buyer) who should have been grateful, not antagonistic. My sister’s enjoyment was torpedoed with thoughtless and judgmental criticisms on a harmless habit. It should be no surprise that I’m all out of sympathy with folks who spread around unhappiness for no real reason other than cause another’s pain.

But I’m trying to understand why it is we care. Oh, I told them not to sweat it, that they should discount those negative reactions (and I think that’s the right thing to do). Thing is, I know very well that actually doing so and knowing it’s the right thing to do are two completely separate things. I know from my own experience that, though I play someone with skin so thick I’m almost a solid on TV, I can still get hurt and saddened, angered and frustrated, with the criticism of others. I wish I didn’t – but I do.

One of the commenters on David’s post said, “Consider the source.” I think that’s excellent advice, but, of course, I’m going to expand on that.

When I first going umpteen gazillion years ago, I put a chapter up for others to look at and review. The first reaction I got was so violently judgmental, so unforgiving and vicious, I was stunned and devastated. I cried all night (and my husband’s reaction was to tell me to forgo gather altogether. I almost did). I called my sister in tears and she was as supportive as one can possibly be without actually saying she liked my work (which makes sense since she’s not a fan of SF/Fant). It hurt especially because (a) I didn’t see it coming and (b) the aspects attacked in my main character were aspects I treasured in my father and husband (where I’d gained them) and my father had died just weeks prior. It wasn’t the kind of feedback I normally received regarding writing.

I did get over it. I discussed my reaction and the comment with the commenter (who quickly was revealed as feeling oppressed by overt feminism and offended by the men in my story who were almost fervidly pro-women and children first) – but I also realized that my automatic presumption—that people would be sympathetic with taking out with violence slavers/rapists—might not have been accurate. That won’t change what I eventually do, but does mean that I need to set the story correctly to make the situation crystal. Will it still turn off some? Yep, but I can live with that.

But it also reminded me of some of the best advice my mother ever gave me (advice was notably not her strong suit): If someone criticizes you:
(a) If it’s a lie or just wrong, don’t worry about it. People want to believe what they want to believe and, if they are so separated from reality they can’t see the truth, nothing you say or do can change that.
(b) If it’s true but something you don’t want to change, don’t worry about it.
(c) If it’s true and something you’re not proud of, take the steps to address it.

Of course, this is also easier said than done, but it helps me when I deal with things criticism. Another thing I do goes back to what happened with the chapter at Gather – I try to understand why someone reacted the way they do. If it’s a kneejerk reaction because someone’s and ignorant boob :), I can usually let go of it pretty quick. If someone has adopted this opinion because accepting what I have to say reflects poorly on them (and this is fairly frequent in the safety world), I can remain professional and document my data and reasoning. Even if it is discounted, I have at least not been silent.

But we all have Achilles heels’ as it were, things we’re proud of that can be decimated. Expected support from loved ones that never materializes. Thoughtless comments by those we love that hurt us in those areas we are most vulnerable. Ironically, the people we love are best armed to hurt us – their opinions are most likely to matter and, let’s face us, they know the buttons to push if they want to spread hurt.

Truth is, I don’t expect that anything I’d right to have an effect on the kind of party pooper that takes pleasure in denying or decrying the happiness of others. But many of the rest of us can spread hurt and not see it - we can try to minimize it.

So, in the interest of not spreading more hurt than necessary, let me take it upon myself to suggest some rules of thumb:

  1. Be gentle with the ones you love. Your opinion may hold extra weight and even an off-hand discourtesy or comment can be painful and feel like betrayal. Even silence when the one you love needs support can be painful.
  2. Remember there are many ways to couch even a criticism. There’s a big difference between “This whole novel is crap.” and “I don’t like the dark pieces – they disturb me and taint the whole novel for me. It makes me uncomfortable.” A novelist can’t really do much with the first, but you have a working point in the second one. Even if the novelist doesn’t change those, they are forewarned about the reaction and can contemplate things to improve the situation.
  3. Be honest. Friendly lies can lead someone to think something is in one state, that they have support and approval when they don’t – and that can lead to a feeling of betrayal later.
  4. Try not to allow criticism of an activity to become criticism of a person. “ I wish you wouldn’t do that” is not the same as “You are a complete asshole.” Judging people is rarely well received.
  5. Tell why you feel the way you do. Many a criticism loses its power if one understands why someone feels the way they do.
  6. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re wrong or apologize if you hurt someone unnecessarily. A little remorse when something is taken a way you never intended or causes unplanned pain can go a long way to making it all better. An emotional bandaid. Don’t lie, don’t change your opinion if you haven’t – that’ll backfire, see 3. But, if your terms or tone made something more painful than it has to be, trying to be reasonable instead of belligerent can help smooth things. Let’s face it, we can’t always agree.
  7. Find common ground. If you can work it around to try to understand the other side (even if you don’t change your opinion) can help with differences. Many times, people are satisfied being heard without requiring agreement, but no one likes to be dismissed. And appreciating the strengths of another’s position, even if you don’t agree, can take the sting out of criticism.
  8. Think before you speak. If criticism serves no purpose, why do it?
  9. Never criticize just to cause pain. It’s hard when you’re angry and this is certainly easier said than done, but angry and vicious words are often the hardest to unsay. Get calm, get distance, and implement 8 before you say something that will only cause harm.
It won’t fix everything. And these rules are not set in stone. But a little patience and consideration can go a long long way.


  • The Mother

    Whoa--think before you speak???

    That requires that an enormous percentage of the population simply remain silent, constantly.

  • Richard

    I've always been partial to the phrase, "Think quickly. Speak slowly."

    ... remaining silent, constantly now. ;-)

  • Roy

    **sputter**snork** BWAHAHAHAHA!

    Pardon me while I recover from The Mother's comment. Oh, I so agree!

    I don't comment much on Gather these days, unless I know the writer/photographer/artist well. So many people drawn in in the MySpace influx expect a "Wow! I love it!" comment rather than an honest appraisal. Even something like a "Well, you know, if you did this or that to the first paragraph flow of the whole piece would be so much smoother" or a "Try cropping the shot a little tighter and eliminating all that shadow that does nothing in the lower right corner and you'll have a much better composition" gets an outraged reaction and accusations that you're attacking them personally, or being a nitpicky snobby elitist. I finally gave up random cruises through the content on Gather and decided just to stick with those I know. It's a lot less stressful.

  • flit

    I am SO SO SO glad that you didn't ditch Gather altogether!

    Just the THOUGHT of it! ACK!

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