“Some people talk about other people’s failures with so much pleasure that you would think they are talking about their own successes.”–Mokokoma Mokhonoana, South African author
In my life, criticism has always been a two-edged sword. Sometimes it hindered me to the point of paralysis. At other times it helped me to grow, and without it I would have been oblivious to some of my blind spots.
The hinder-or-help factor wasn’t always about the criticism, but about how it was said and with what intent.
Now, in the social media age, there’s no avoiding seeing, hearing and reading people criticizing and being criticized.
Many people browsing social media will read people’s opinions and standpoints and either agree or disagree – for the most part silently. But many are all too keen to jump feetfirst into a discussion to berate anyone whose views differ from their own.
Criticize Fairly, Not Loudly
How we feel about a statement, situation or someone’s behavior is informed by our own values, even if we don’t always realize it.
If you feel something is aligned with these values, you’ll likely agree. If it doesn’t resonate, you’ll probably disagree.
Because I know my own sensitivities, I only allow myself 15 minutes a day on Twitter and Facebook (and even then, it’s sometimes too much). But one morning, not too long ago, I sat with coffee in hand, looking through social media.
While scrolling through my Twitter feed, it jumped out at me how often people criticize and reject the behaviors of others, yet fail to see that they are guilty of the same things.
I also noticed that the louder you “shout” about other people and employ certain hashtags, the more attention you get, even when your criticism is in no way fair or justified.
Social Media Gangs
A few days later I become a spectator of a social media storm surrounding a non-political public figure, over something they said. It grated on me that only a fragment of what they said was quoted and leaped upon, without any understanding of the context.
Some social media “gangs” react so viciously that it literally makes me catch my breath. It becomes a feeding frenzy fueled by hashtags and half-truths.
It’s “cancel culture” in full swing. People are baying for blood, wanting the “culprit” to be shouted down, ignored, and erased from memory.
It’s a phenomenon that former U.S. president Barack Obama challenged in 2019. He said, “I do get a sense sometimes now among young people, and this is accelerated by social media… that the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people, and that’s enough.
“If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb… then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, because man, you see how woke I was? I called you out.
“That’s not bringing about change, you know. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”
Criticize Injustice and Inequality
From an early age I was taught to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I can’t help but wonder if today’s “keyboard warriors” would want to be treated the same way that they treat others. Somehow I doubt it.
Sometimes we’re too quick to criticize and not quick enough to think about how it feels on the other side of our words.
Are there times we should criticize? Absolutely. We can’t and shouldn’t keep quiet over injustice, inequality and unfairness. We need to criticize corrupt governments, broken policies, and dishonest leaders. If we don’t do it, wrong will prevail.
Ask These Questions Before You Criticize
At the same time, we should be cautious about unfair criticism, and it might be helpful to keep the following questions in mind:
Is your criticism fair? Make sure that it isn’t based on a skewed or one-sided perspective. Biased, unfair criticism is extremely hurtful.
Are you consistent in your criticism? If you criticize some people for a specific behavior but think it’s OK if others do it, you’re displaying double standards. You have to question your thinking, and what informs it.
What is your intent? If you enter the realm of criticism to make yourself feel better or to make someone else look as bad, you need to think about it more. And, of course, if it’s about personal gain or an ego battle, you’re playing dirty.
Are you criticizing someone because they dare express a different opinion from your own? A reasoned debate might be more productive. If that isn’t an option, at least be decent enough to criticize without getting personal and nasty.
Are you criticizing to get “likes” or to be part of the “in crowd”? The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe said, “One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.” Criticize with integrity.
What effect will my criticism have on the other person? I recently read an article about someone who was on the receiving end of unfair criticism. It spun out of control on social media to the extent that he received death threats from total strangers, and ended up in hospital after an attempt to take his own life. Though this is an extreme exception, no one should want to cause unnecessary harm to another person.
The Right Time to Criticize?
During our #MTtalk Twitter chat on Friday, we talked about criticism and knowing when to express it. Here are the questions we asked, and a selection of participant responses:
Q1. Why do people criticize one another?
@WyleWrites A person criticizes when he feels unhappy about what has been done or said. This comes with feeling envy.
@SanabriaJav It’s easier to assess the faults in another person than your own, which take effort to correct.
Q2. What do you think/feel when someone criticizes you?
@JKatzaman Being criticized is not comfortable, particularly when the remarks come out of the blue for no apparent reason.
@NWarind It all depends on the tone of voice. Mentor will criticize with kindness while other critics are abrupt.
Q3. Why do we react so strongly to criticism? Are we just sensitive?
@lg217 In some cases, it can be sensitivity. In others, it can be because we don’t like the person who criticizes us. Finally, people will sometimes feel they are always right and never wrong. And they don’t like saying they are wrong.
@jenntsang How we react is based on our past experiences. Sometimes, wounded parts of us get activated when the criticism relates directly to a past experience. We can be sensitive, but it’s important to get to know the sensitive parts of yourself & work to heal them.
Q4. Does criticizing make you a “hater”? Why/why not?
@PG_pmp If we are giving constructive criticism then not a hater… but if we criticize for the sake of criticism then it will surely “give birth” to a hater.
@SizweMoyo Not at all. Hating makes you a “hater,” as some of your biggest haters can be clapping in the crowd while your biggest fan is criticizing, asking you to do better.
Q5. What do you say to someone who criticizes you?
@carriemaslen Ideally, don’t react or respond other than to thank the person giving you feedback, mull the feedback over, figure out what you will do to address criticism.
@PmTwee If I can grasp the intention of the person I will look for value in it and respond accordingly, otherwise smile… move on.
Q6. What do you do when someone you’re talking with criticizes another person? Do you ignore it?
@Midgie_MT Depending on the situation and what is being said, I may try to challenge their criticism or offer another perspective that could shift things towards something positive.
@MarkC_Avgi Once again, it all depends on how the criticism is levied or, perhaps, how the recipient is dealing with it. To levy your own criticism of the one criticizing is somewhat like the “kettle & the pot” scenario.
Q7. When is criticism destructive?
@Yolande_MT Criticism is destructive when its aim is to coerce, manipulate or control.
@ColfaxInsurance When it is meant to harm and not help.
Q8. When is it time to criticize?
@MicheleDD_MT When there is a need or opportunity for improvement, as in behavior that is negatively affecting others.
@lsmurthy99 Any time regarding any criticism, please do a simple test and ask yourself, “Is it true, is it helpful to people, and is it helpful for the common good?”
Q9. How do you know if you’re an overly critical person?
@PG_pmp When you always have a different point of view and want to see things your way only.
@Yolande_MT One way to know it is to be aware of your conversations: how often are they critical of other people? Do you mainly think negative thoughts about others?
Q10. What can you do that’s more helpful than criticizing?
@J_Stephens_CPA Think it’s time to go reread my @dalecarnegiedfw: Begin with praise and honest appreciation. Call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly. Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.
@carriemaslen Wisdom is knowing when (& how) to speak up and when to keep quiet.
To read all the tweets, see the Wakelet collection of this chat, here.
For our next #MTtalk, in collaboration with @EmeraldEdu and Emerald Publishing, we’ll be discussing change and opportunity in the world of online learning.
In our poll this week, we’d like to know what you find challenging when learning online. To see the poll and cast your vote, please click here.
In the meantime, here are some resources relating to criticism that we discussed on Friday. Note: some of the resources below may only be available in full to members of the Mind Tools Club.