The Herald Bulletin

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Columns

November 21, 2012

Susan Miller: When all the world's a critic

Remember the childhood saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” Whoever believes that either lives alone on an island or has the skin of a crustacean.

No sooner did political mudslinging end than a New York Times food critic penned a scathing review of Food Network star Guy Fieri’s newest restaurant. My favorite TV chef was skewered. And while news may travel fast, negative news travels at the speed of light.

All publicity is good publicity, you say? That’s debatable (I’d disagree), but let’s forget about the exposure Mr. Fieri received and talk about criticism. Chefs aren’t the only recipients of harsh words. Authors, artists, and ordinary worker bees are also targets.

The late Harry Chapin wrote the folk song “Mr. Tanner” based on a New York Times review of a dry cleaner owner’s vocal audition. He wrote, “The critics were concise; it only took four lines; but no one could confuse them of being over kind.”

The song still makes me tear up as it recounts the dry cleaner returning to his store in Dayton and never singing in public again, after reading the critic’s concluding line, “Full-time consideration of another endeavor might be in order.”

Yes; words hurt, whether they appear on the pages of a major newspaper, in a blog’s comments section or frequently, on a performance review. Perhaps most discouraging, is the human tendency to discount the dozens of positive comments and focus on the negative when it comes to performance feedback.

Criticism can be constructive so it’s worth considering if there is some truth embedded in the critic’s words. If the critic has a point, we might just find a silver lining in the situation. This is often true when it comes to performance reviews in the workplace.

While it’s natural to become defensive to feedback perceived as unfair, fighting back isn’t always the best option. When Fieri responded to review excerpts on national TV, he didn’t automatically refute them. Instead, he replied, “We’re not perfect; but that’s what we’re striving to be.” Who won’t root for someone who is trying to do better?

Blogs are a hotbed for critics. Scroll through the “comments” section and you’ll see that the conversational thread is frequently peppered with combative comments. A friend offered a great piece of advice for handling cyber-critics:  “Don’t feed the trolls.”

Speaking of trolls, make sure you consider the source before responding to a criticism, whether online or in person. Some people are continually searching for the next incendiary opportunity to ignite.

Don’t confuse divergent opinions with criticism. When I complained about some critical posts on a client’s blog, the client wisely said, “Remember, this is why we wanted a blog — to get a conversation going.”

Finally, remember we’re all often inadvertent critics. So this Thanksgiving, if the turkey’s dry, and there’s not enough pie, keep your inner critic to yourself and pass along a side or two of praise.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Susan Miller is founder of Ewing Miller Communications, a public relations and marketing consulting firm. Write to her at susan@ewingmiller.com.

 

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