Monday, October 12, 2009

Should We Be Blunt?

In Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career, a man offers the protagonist his opinion on her. She accepts, and he says:

Well, you are not a bit like Mrs. Bossier or Mrs. Bell; they are both so good-looking. I was disappointed when I saw you had no pretensions to prettiness, as there's not a girl up these parts worth wasting a man's affections on, and I was building great hopes on you.

Is brutal honesty like that helpful, or is it purely harmful?

I do want to give credit where credit is due. He asked permission before sharing his opinion. Some people share their brutal opinions without being asked. Although, when someone offers their opinion, it creates an awkward situation. How do you say no without looking pathetic and weak? Plus, there's the whole curiosity issue. If I say No, thank you. I don't need to hear your opinion, I'm likely to obsess for days on what that opinion was.

Sometimes people seem to seek out harsh criticism. They go on shows like American Idol, knowing it's likely that they'll be torn apart. There's a blog called Ask And Ye Shall Receive. Here, a group of bloggers will read your blog (if you request), and then they'll rip you to sheds. This is my theory about all of this: I don't think people who flee to these sites (or shows) WANT criticism. I think it's the opposite in most cases. They're hoping they'll be the diamond in the rough. What praise is going to have more weight....that coming from someone who is inherently positive and has something good to say about everyone...OR that which comes from someone who is usually very negative.

In college, my ex-boyfriend and I went to his friend's apartment. Their cat jumped up happily on my lap and sat their comfortably. After a few minutes, the cat's humans expressed delighted shock that the cat had accepted me. They told me that he had been abused, and usually attacked people. I was slightly alarmed. But for the most part this knowledge was a HUGE compliment to me. I felt like a cat whisperer or something. I felt SPECIAL. Would I have felt as special if the owners said, Yeah Mr. Fishy LOVES everyone. He's such a easygoing happy cat.

So yeah. My feeling is most people don't seek out criticism. They seek out praise and validation from those who are very stingy about it.

We can all benefit from constructive criticism, though. It's just a matter of when it's appropriate or not; and whether it's more hurtful than helpful.

Unsolicited advice and criticism is usually more harmful than hurtful. But sometimes giving it can be too tempting to pass up. I've been guilty of it. I think (hope!) I do it less now than I did it in the past.

Sometimes people will solicit advice, either directly or indirectly.

I might say, What do you think of my novel? I'm directly asking for an opinion. If I ask this, I think it's only right that I expect an honest answer.

I might alternatively fish for information. I think my novel is horrible. It's shameful. Here I'm indirectly asking for an opinion.

Now some individuals would love this opportunity to smash my self-esteem. Your novel is AWFUL. Seriously. You need to find a new hobby. Writing is really NOT your thing. I think saying something like that is unhelpful, and it's just about someone wanting someone else to feel small. Of course, most people would NEVER admit that this is their intent. They'll pride themselves on being honest and helpful.

A truly helpful person (in my opinion) might say something like Well, I think you have potential. I liked most of your novel. Some of your minor characters are a bit flat and unbelievable, though. I think you might need to work on that.

What if they truly hated my novel though? Should they lie? Should they be blunt? I say there's a way to be honest without being rude and cruel. They could say, Well, it's personally NOT my kind of thing. But other people might have a different opinion. I prefer novels that have more description, and less dialogue.

What about more personal stuff? When should we shout out and speak our minds?

I don't know.

This is hard.

I think we've all had the experience where we've heard one person's side of the story, and we feel more sympathy for the other (unheard) side of the story. Someone bitches about their husband, and we have this urge to shout out, You're being such a bitch to him. Give the poor guy a break!
When it's a friend who vents....I try to act supportive and sympathetic. I might kind of TRY to give my friend the other person's probable perspective. Well, maybe she did that because she's.....

My friends do the same thing to me sometimes. The wise friends do it in a very loving way. I don' t feel judged or pathetic. It's all very subtle. I might be a LITTLE wounded. Hey, why isn't she totally on my side this time? But if you're friend ALWAYS acts 100% on your side, then it might begin to feel a bit fake.

If it's someone I don't know well (like a blogger), I'm more likely to keep my opinion to myself. My feeling is that they're venting about their personal life, and it's not my place to offer an opposing viewpoint or advice. If I can't find it in myself to offer any validation or support, I find it's probably best to avoid commenting on that post. I'm sure, though, that there have been times that I let my ego and self-righteousness get the best of me. My general rule of thumb though is that if the post is more of a commentary on life in opinion piece, I feel it's fine to speak up with my opposing viewpoint. If it's about a personal problem in the blogger's life, I find it best to TRY and keep my opinion to myself.

Anyway, in general....I think the two best times to speak up and share what's on our mind is when

A) Our friend's behavior or personality affects us PERSONALLY. Like....hey not to be blunt. But you're a compulsive liar and it's driving me insane. Or I'm really sorry, but your breath is horrible. I can't kiss you without feeling nauseated. Please use mouthwash or something!
B) We truly love and RESPECT the person with whom we're sharing our bluntness. If we don't have respect for the person we're offering criticism and/or advice to, I think it's more likely we're saying it to satisfy our own ego. And we might be making ourselves feel big by making someone else feel small. If we really love someone, we speak out because we truly care. Hopefully, what we say will be helpful....and won't sting too much.

Shit. This post is much longer than I wanted it to be. Now THAT is a case of SELF-criticism.

Edited to Add: Take the comment from Jeff D'Antonio with a grain of salt.   It ended up that he was a fake blogger....meaning he wasn't who he pretended to be.  And that includes the idea of being "compulsively honest".