Mar 31, 2014

Honest vs Obnoxious: Removing the Gray Area

Here's something I can't figure out.

Why do people think of it as a compliment to describe someone as "in your face?"  Or to say that someone's honest and doesn't care who they piss off.  In my opinion, if you're pissing people off, you're not just being honest, you're being abrasive, and it's highly likely that your opinion wasn't called for in the first place.

I understand that we live in a society where the little white lie runs rampant and everyone is so polite that soliciting an honest opinion can be challenging.  "Don't worry, you look great!"  "What he did was totally uncalled for and you did nothing wrong."  "Your art/story/whatever is amazing and I can't think of anything that's wrong with it or needs changes!"

However, I can't seem to wrap my head around the idea that because of the prevalence of this polite side of the spectrum, people would enjoy the opposite side...  Just because you want some honest feedback doesn't mean you want to hear someone saying, "That sucks.  It's really terrible."  There is a difference between "honest" and just being a dick.  For example, you could say, "I like x, but y could use a little work and maybe z would flow better if you tried [something]."  Then, not only is it nicer, but the recipient might actually be able to use it to improve!

It kind of blows my mind that people have no clue how to give good feedback.  At one point I would have just assumed that people would think before they speak AND they would only say something that they wouldn't mind hearing from someone else.  I guess I gave the human race too much credit.

And it's not just about being nice!  Even if you're not interested in being a decent human being (again, perhaps I err by assuming this is something most people want), you're more likely to have cooperative coworkers and a better final product if you provide feedback in a way that they're able to utilize and that won't make them resent you and be purposely difficult.

I learned about constructive criticism my first semester of graphic design classes.  And it was rough.  We had no idea how to give OR receive feedback.  At the time, I thought our teachers were really mean.  Looking back, they introduced us to the world of critiques in the gentlest way.  I seriously doubt they ever once pointed out a negative without a suggestion for improvement.

My first "real" graphic design job showed me just how kind they had been.  Our teachers would say things like, "The composition is a little heavy on one side" or "The elements could be arranged to give better emphasis to the tagline."  My new coworkers would say, "This is bad," "This is just awful," and "There's nothing I like about this."  Even the ones who liked me!  It wasn't personal and the project wasn't even always bad, it just wasn't what they were looking for.  But they were completely unable to distinguish the differences between the golden, glowing vision in their head and what I had interpreted from our communication about our project.  They just knew it wasn't what they imagined and therefore it was "the worst thing ever."

Thank the gods (or the supernatural, or the powers that be - whatever you believe in) for in-class critiques, because without the thicker skin I developed, that first job would have been brutal.  As it was, I was able to ignore the sting of those little slaps to the face, and ask, "What don't you like about it?  What are you going for?  What should we try instead?"

While a tiny smug part of me feels like I was born with more tact that most of my old coworkers will ever develop, I have actively worked on improving it.  I've gone through "How to Make Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie - which was an excellent read, "How to Click with People: The Secret to Better Relationships in Business and in Life" - which was a bit outdated (I've already figured out that you shouldn't use all caps in IM or SMS, but thanks anyway :), and more recently "Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus" - which is occasionally annoying and self congratulatory but has some really important concepts that I'm working on utilizing with The Significant.  I've really enjoyed it, because I like anything self-improvement related, but I really do think everyone could benefit from improving their interpersonal skills.  In fact, if there was only one thing that you were going to improve about your personality in your entire life, I would say that's the one.

So I'm just gonna say it.  I don't value "in-your-face" and I actively dislike "I've just gotta be me even if it offends other people."  It's not "for their own good" and it's not going to "snap them out of it."  It's obnoxious and selfish.  Is honesty important?  Sure.

But it's really not that hard to be diplomatic and honest and I think the world would benefit from a little bit more of both.