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Marks My Words: Constructing Your Criticism

I was happily full and carrying a steaming hot cup of coffee as I left the dining hall and bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile. We made the usual small talk and discussed the finer points of the brunch options at Lag Dining. Then he made the first move that propelled us into new territory.

“Yo, Miriam, I really enjoy reading you every week.” Pause. We each made a face. “Haha, I mean, reading what you write.”

Aha! There is, of course, nothing I love more than getting some impromptu face- praise for my column. Seeing the thumbs ups on Facebook — or I guess the new Daily Facebook plug-in — is one thing, but the compliments I manage to garner from face-to-face interactions definitely count for more. I soaked it up by first feigning surprise. “Oh! You read my column?”

Well, obviously he read it. I admit — I was deliberately extending the moment, basking in a brief ray of fame and glory before I would have to go home and start writing a paper. I couldn’t just let the conversation go. It was time to try eking some more specific praise from this guy. “So, do you like it? Which one was your favorite?”

You’d think that was cue enough for him to start gushing about how much he loves “Marks My Words.” Nope.

“I mean, it’s funny sometimes. But it’s a little predictable.”

What! Predictable? I hid my irritation. “Um, what do you mean?”

“Well, each week there’s just some new awkward situation and how Miriam thinks you should deal with it. Kinda boring after awhile, right?”

Predictable? Boring?! After the initial moments of shock, disbelief and horror, I was calm once again. I had suddenly realized that this comment meant more to me than any of the praise I’d gotten before.

It was another reminder that sometimes it’s good to hear the cold, hard truth, a lesson best described in yet another anecdote. You’ve probably experienced some version of the friend-asking-for-advice-on-her-outfit scenario. Recap: you and your friends are getting dressed up to go out, and your friend asks if a top looks good on her. And, omgs, maybe she just bought it from Nordstrom’s and it’s, like, so cute and stuff and there’s this guy she really wants to hook up with tonight, so it looks good on her, right?

Sometimes it might look great, and you can just say so. But what if it just doesn’t look that good? Maybe it’s way too slutty, a bad color or not quite slutty enough (i.e., a turtleneck sweater). Then you have to decide what to tell her.

There is, interestingly, that weird inverse relationship between your degree of honesty regarding her choice of outfit and the degree of your friendship with her. If you don’t know her that well, you’ll probably say something like, “Oh totally, you look SO good, he’ll be all over you tonight.” And, paradoxically, if you’re a close friend, you’ll likely say, “Hmm it’s alright, but maybe try that other top you wore to the progressive last quarter?”

The difference, I think, lies in the balance between how much you care about your friend and how much you want her to like you. If you just befriended the girl with the new top, you probably want to develop your friendship by only showering her with compliments or, at the very least, by avoiding any sort of confrontation. As a result, the last thing you’d do is offer a criticism, however constructive, of her new outfit. You’ll play it safe, matching your compliment closely to the appraisal that she already gave her outfit, and keep quiet after that.

However, if the girl with the new top is your best friend already, you don’t need to keep trying to get her to like you. You have an established relationship, a long history of late nights, study sessions and social outings together. If you give her an honest opinion, she’ll have to take it because she a) can’t afford to pick a huge fight with her best friend over something as minor as a difference of opinion on her new top and b) respects and values your opinion. Chances are you also care about her, and you don’t want her to go out looking less attractive than she could.

That’s why, because constructive criticism is probably only used at a certain level of friendship, it means that much more when you hear it. It’s why people don’t like constant compliments that eventually might sound fake. Someone willing to tell you to try a different outfit or write a more interesting column is saying, “Hey, I think we’re good enough friends that you won’t hate me if I give you my honest opinion.”

And so, despite my initial horror that someone might label my column as “boring” and “predictable,” it reminded me that this guy thought of me as a friend with whom he could speak freely. Frankly, he made a good point, too. That was a good enough feeling to quickly override my resentment.

 

 

Following this logic, if you email Miriam constructive criticism, you’re automatically her friend. Send her a message at [email protected]

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