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. You're 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 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". 


Jeff D'Antonio said...

I'm known for being brutally honest, but I won't give a negative opinion unless I'm asked directly for it. People who know me know not to ask for my opinion unless they are prepared for an honest answer.

In general, if I think you look nice or you did a good job at something, I'll tell you so; and if I think you look terrible or you did a lousy job I'll either say nothing or find some minor detail I can say something positive about. But if you ask me for specifics, you'll get what you asked for. And I expect the same kind of honesty from others.

Dina said...


I can't imagine you being "brutal". I imagine you can be VERY honest. But I think you'd do it in a kind way. But extreme honesty can always be painful. So I guess it can be brutal in that way.

Painful honesty need not be nasty honesty. And I don't think you'd be nasty.

I'm a bit blunt at times...and very honest. I think two things I do though is:

A)mention something I DO like. I do this with Jack a lot. Instead of saying "I don't like this picture you've drawn," I'll say "Well, I like this picture...but I like the one you did yesterday much better."

B) Emphasize that my opinion is simply that.... MY opinion. So I might say "I don't like this essay you've written, but that's just my personal feelings. Someone else might like it."

Sometimes these softening things don't work though. I once volunteered to critique this young woman's writing. I loved it. I thought she was very talented. Then she rewrote it. I simply (and politely) said I preferred the original. She was furious and not very nice about it. I guess to her defense...she hadn't specifically asked for my opinion. But I figured since she posted it....

I have been brutally honest with people in the past (Yeah. Beware my wrath). I'm not sure if I regret it or not. It wasn't a FYI kind of thing. It was more like a you-have-really-pissed-me-off-and-

I tend to bottle up my feelings. Then the straw does that thing to the camel's back, and I let it all out.

mscherrylane said...

i love this movie- the actress is awesome...i love the book too...have you read a fortunate life yet? that is another aussie fav...

mscherrylane said...

p.s sorry no time to read your very intersting post as usual but to answer the title probably most poeople don't seem to appreciate it...cos it's kinda personally, i am blunt and I like complete honesty, always. but i am definitely an unusual minority.

Dina said...


I did read A Fortunate Life. I liked it a lot!

I don't know if I see you as being blunt...more of the type who sticks-their-foot-in-their-mouth.

Well, at least you've never said anything to me that has made me say "Wow. She is so blunt. She really says what's on her mind."

Maybe I see it more as you having a strange choice of words sometimes
; )

Andrew said...

An attack cat sitting on your lap. Very alarming.

Martin said...

Hi Dina

I might have had to say something like "Mr Fishy, really?! You really named it/him that?!" Just kidding. I would have been amused at that name, though, but thought each to her/his own.

This reminds me of what you seem to think of Richard Dawkins. That he's too blunt. Interestingly, he's really quite polite about what he says. He does a lot of the offsetting that you mentioned doing. For instance, he recognises the King James version of the Bible as great English literature and also concedes that he can't disprove the existence of God. So in a sense, he's actually an agnostic (and quite polite). Christopher Hitchens is slightly less friendly about his 'atheist' (and anti-religion) views, though.

Dina said...

Andrew: But I survived.

Martin: I don't know if I'd think Dawkins is too blunt. I don't agree with many of his opinions, but I don't think he presents them in a rude way.

I think there's a difference between being blunt about our opinions regarding general beliefs, philosophies, and opinions, and being blunt to an individual.

I think I'm blunt on my blog sometimes...about my own opinions.

But I think that's different than targeting an individual.

I'm trying to think of an example....

Okay. Here's one.

I might say on this blog "It bothers me people are fair weather friends...when they desert us when we need them most".

I'd feel totally okay saying that.

I would feel less okay about going on someone's blog, reading about their friendship, and saying "It sounds like you deserted your friend when she needed you. What's your problem?"

MAYBE I'd say that to a close friend...or my sister (or husband) But not to someone I didn't know well enough. I'd probably feel I don't know enough about the situation to publicly criticize them.

Am I making any sense?

Anyway, back to Dawkins. I think you can strongly disagree with someone's opinions, but still believe they have a right to share them.

It seems to me that many people strongly support the idea of free speech...but only if they agree with it.

Martin said...

Yes, you are making perfect sense. I think one should generally be as blunt as required and it absolutely depends upon your relationship (or lack of it) with a person. How much bluntness is required depends upon so many variables I don't feel qualified to give any general views except that I can't give a general view.

Actually I think Dawkins can be quite rude at times but can't we all, I guess?

I've gone trawling your earlier posts and I found them fascinating (please don't think of me as a blog stalker) and I wanted to say a couple of things (as briefly as I can).

I noticed you are bit of a fan of Peter Singer. I agree he is worthy of some admiration and just wanted to congratulate you on your taste.

Also I wanted to explain the idea of the Leader of the Opposition which you once asked about (in Australia s/he is formally the Leader of Her Majesty's LOYAL Opposition (when there is a reigning Queen of Australia)) but that you may have since found out about since I know you've done the tour.

You would know that the MHR (member of the House of Reps) supported by the majority in the House of Reps (also called the Lower House) is called the Prime Minister. S/he (although always a he to date) usually leads the parliamentary party (or grouping) with the most members.

The leading member of the next largest grouping of MHRs not in coalition with the party (or grouping) of the PM (the former would, of course, be called the Minority Leader in the context of the US House of Reps) is called the Opposition Leader (or Leader of the Opposition).

That's about all there is to know. The loyal part is aspirational, also part of the corresponding British title and presumably about assuaging the historical fears of British monarchs that MPs might be treasonous.

Dina said...


Yeah! I think we can ALL be rude at times. Definitely.

Thanks for reading some of my old posts. I'm honored, and I appreciate that.

Yeah. Peter Singer. See...I do admire some atheists ; ) I think I prefer him because he seems to concentrate more on ethics instead of beliefs. But I could be wrong. I've read only a little bit of his stuff. And I've read very little of Dawkins...

Actually, my first encounter with Dawkins was a pleasant one. It was in a book edited by Singer called "The Great Ape Project." And that was more about animal rights/science/ethics rather than religion. I forgot which essay he wrote, but I think I liked it.

It might have been the one that says humans shouldn't be classified separate from other apes. We're too genetically similar to have our own category.

Wait. I found it online!

I think I can share ethical beliefs with these prominent atheists. I guess where we differ is I believe one doesn't need to be atheist to share these ethics.

And to me...religion is bad ONLY when it involves making laws that infringe on the rights of others.

For example...anti-stem cell research. That makes me angry.

I don't care if someone believes Mickey Mouse is God and Goofy is the devil. I figure their "delusion" is just as valid as mine. As long as they don't insist I believe what they believe....or try to make laws that reflect their beliefs....I say they can believe what they want.

Thanks for all your government explanations. I was confused at first, but once I read it made sense!

Sometimes I read too fast and miss stuff ; )

Amy Michelle said...

I grew up in a family where I was criticised from childhood (typically British family) and I did ballet as a kid which is hours of being told you're not doing anything right.

People hold too much doubt within themselves. Remove your doubt and you'll get the critique you need and all those harsh comments will never matter to you.

I can't believe how much of a hate fest the internet can be. Sharing of different views is important and to learn from a perspective you haven't lived through only enriches your own experiences.

Dina said...

Amy Michelle,

Yeah. I can imagine that ballet brings about a lot of childhood criticism.

I feel my childhood had more criticism than praise. Most of it was done in the spirit of jest. But that can still be painful at times, especially if there's not enough praise to counteract it.

I agree about removing self-doubt. I don't know if I'll ever achieve that, but it's a good goal to have.

The Internet is full of people who can't tolerate difference of opinion, and people who say stuff just to be nasty. It amazes me.

But there's nice people too.

Martin said...

Here's another thing you have asked but probably know the answer to by now: that chant you asked about is pronounced "ozzie ozzie ozzie. oy oy oy" (not "we we we" even though we may write "oi oi oi").

Dina said...


No. Actually I hadn't gotten the answer to that question yet! So thank you : )

Now I'm picturing Australians sounding like little Jewish old ladies.

Stephen Moore said...

*suprise* You've got a new header design! That's what I get for reading your blog through a reader rather than on site. Lovely view in the photo. A very nice change in design.

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.

I think that's a good observation, Dina. And I agree. It's as though the validation from a mean person is more valuable than the validation from a kind person.

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.

For sure.

When seeking someone's opinion I think it best to ask directly. I tend to miss the subtle and indirect comment-that-really-question, and only realise afterward, when the time has passed, what the person meant.

I suppose the choice of whether to be blunt or not depends on circumstance. Like you say, it's a matter of balancing what might be hurtful with what one hopes is helpful.

Now I'm picturing Australians sounding like little Jewish old ladies.

Oi, vey! ;)

That's about all the Yiddish I know (mayns Yidish iz shlekht).

Dina said...


Hi! I just put the picture up there recently : ) A few days ago...I think.

Glad you like it.

Yeah. I think it's better to ask for an opinion directly. Although I'm not sure if I do that. I probably hint more than I should. I'm not sure.....

Dina said...

Oh, and I'm impressed with your Yiddish ; )