Giving and Receiving Criticism

Cultural Differences in Approaching Criticism

When giving criticism, it is important to keep in mind cultural differences such as eye contact, verbal style, and speaker expectations.

Learning Objectives

List the five areas where cultural differences play a role in giving and receiving criticism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In low context culture such as the United States people will say what is on their minds directly; they will not “beat around the bush. ” In high context cultures such as in Japan and China, people use indirect speech, hints, and subtle suggestions to convey messages.
  • The instrumental style is sender-orientated; the burden is on the speaker to make him or herself understood. The affective style is more receiver-orientated and places more responsibility on the listener.
  • Collective orientation places the needs and interests of the group above individual desires or motivations. In contrast, cultures with individualistic orientations view the self as most important.
  • ” Face ” is often thought of as a sense of self-worth that we want others to have of us.
  • Rules about maintaining eye contact vary from culture to culture and influence how we approach feedback, questioning, and criticism.

Key Terms

  • Face: a sense of self-worth or self-esteem, especially in the eyes of others
  • collectivism: philosophic, political, religious, economic, or social outlook that stresses the priority of group goals over individual goals and the importance of cohesion within social groups
  • culture: The beliefs, values, behavior and material objects that constitute a people’s way of life; the arts, customs, and habits that characterize a particular society or nation.

Cultural Groups Approach Criticism with Different Styles

A culture is a system of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that form distinctive ways of life. Different cultural groups have different ways of communicating both verbally and non-verbally. While globalization and media have moderated many of the traditional differences for younger audiences, it is wise to consider five important areas where cultural differences could play a role when giving and receiving criticism:

A picture of an audience at the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Cultural Differences Impact Communication: The attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of the attendees shape the communication inside and outside the conference.

  • Verbal style in low and high context cultures
  • Instrumental versus affective message responsibility
  • Collectivism and individualism in cultures
  • “Face”
  • Eye contact

Verbal Style in Low and High Context Cultures

In low context cultures such as in the United States and Germany, there is an expectation that people will say what is on their mind directly; they will not “beat around the bush. ” In high context cultures, such as in Japan and China, people are more likely to use indirect speech, hints, and subtle suggestions to convey meaning.

Responsibility for Effectively Conveying a Message

Is the speaker responsible for conveying a message, or the audience? The instrumental style of speaking is sender-orientated; the burden is on the speaker to make him or herself understood. The affective style is receiver-orientated and places more responsibility on the listener. With this style, the listener must pay attention to verbal, nonverbal, and relationship clues in order to understand the message. Chinese, Japanese, and many Native American cultures are affective cultures, whereas the American culture is more instrumental. Think about sitting in your college classroom listening to a lecturer. If you do not understand the material, where does the responsibility lie? In the United States, students believe that it is up to the professor to communicate the material to the students. However, when posing this question to a group of Chinese students, you may encounter a different sense of responsibility. Listeners who were raised in a more affective environment respond with “no, it’s not you; it is our job to try harder. ” These kinds of students accept responsibility as listeners who work to understand the speaker.

Collectivism and Individualism

Are the speaker and listeners from collectivist or individualistic cultures? When a person or culture has a collective orientation they place the needs and interests of the group above individual desires or motivations. In contrast, cultures with individualistic orientations view the self as most important. Each person is viewed as responsible for his or her own success or failure in life. When you provide feedback or criticism if you are from an individualistic culture, you may speak directly to one individual and that individual will be responsible. However, if you are speaking with someone from a culture which is more collectivist, your feedback may be viewed as shared by all the members of the same group, who may assume responsibility for the actions of each other.

Face

Face is usually thought of as a sense of self-worth, especially in the eyes of others. Research with Chinese university students showed that they view a loss of face as a failure to measure up to one’s sense of self-esteem or what is expected by others. In more individualistic cultures, speakers and listeners are concerned with maintaining their own face and not so much focused on that of others. However, in an intercultural situation involving collectivist cultures, the speaker should not only be concerned with maintaining his or her own face, but also that of the listeners.

Eye Contact

Rules about maintaining eye contact vary from culture to culture and influence how we approach feedback, questioning, and criticism. For example, in many cultures it is a sign of respect to not look someone in the eye directly, the exact opposite of what most North Americans expect. In many traditional Arab cultures it is inappropriate for a woman to maintain eye contact with a man. Additionally, in many African American and Latin American communities, it is considered respectful for a child not to look directly at an adult who is speaking to them. It is important not to construe lack of eye contact as a sign of indifference or disrespect.

Giving Effective Criticism: Be Positive, Specific, Objective, and Constructive

Effective criticism should be positively intended, specific, objective, and constructive in order to achieve results.

Learning Objectives

List the qualities of good constructive criticism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Effective criticism is appropriately motivated and positively intended.
  • Effective criticism should be objective.
  • Effective criticism is specific, relevant, and to the point.
  • Effective criticism must be constructive, with the goal of improving a situation.

Key Terms

  • constructive: Carefully considered and meant to be helpful.

The most basic “rule-of-thumb” of effective criticism is: “Respect the individual, focus the criticism on the behavior that needs changing – on what people actually do or actually say.” Ideally, effective criticism should be: positively intended, specific, objective, and constructive.

A picture of a media critics panel at the National Conference for Media Reform.

Being a Critic: Anyone can be a critic, but people need to know how to criticize effectively.

Knowing how to effectively criticize is a skill you will use throughout your life. Being able to give good criticism gives you the opportunity to be positively influential both personally and professionally. Effective criticism is useful for the following two reasons: (1) New ideas and perspectives will be discovered, and (2) Argument logic is tested, possibly revealing shortcomings.

Techniques of Constructive Criticism

The goal of constructive criticism is to improve the behavior or the behavioral results of a person, while consciously avoiding personal attacks and blaming. This kind of criticism is carefully framed in language acceptable to the target person, often acknowledging that the critics themselves could be wrong.

Insulting and hostile language is avoided, and phrases used are like “I feel…” and “It’s my understanding that…” and so on. Constructive critics try to stand in the shoes of the person being criticized, and consider what things would look like from their perspective.

Effective criticism should be:

  • Positively intended, and appropriately motivated: you are not only sending back messages about how you are receiving the other’s message, but about how you feel about the other person and your relationship with him/her. Keeping this in mind will help you to construct effective critiques.
  • Specific: allowing the individual to know exactly what behavior is to be considered.
  • Objective, so that the recipient not only gets the message, but is willing to do something about it. If your criticism is objective, it is much harder to resist.
  • Constructive, consciously avoiding personal attacks and blaming, insulting language and hostile language are avoided. Avoiding evaluative languageā€”such as “you are wrong” or “that idea was stupid”reduces the need for the receiver to respond defensively.

As the name suggests, the consistent and central notion is that the criticism must have the aim of constructing, scaffolding, or improving a situation, a goal that is usually subverted by the use of hostile language or personal attacks.

Effective criticism can change what people think and do; thus, criticism is the birthplace of change. Effective criticism can also be liberating. It can fight ideas that keep people down with ideas that unlock new opportunities, while consciously avoiding personal attacks and blaming.

Techniques for Accepting Criticism

When receiving criticism try to be: accepting, open-minded, and willing to seek clarity.

Learning Objectives

Employ techniques for accepting constructive criticism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Accepting that you are not perfect will help you learn from your mistakes.
  • Be open-minded to the fact that others may see something that you do not; allow for the fact that others may be right, and use that possibility to look within yourself.
  • When in doubt, seek clarity by taking notes and asking questions.

Key Terms

  • clarity: The state, or measure of being clear, either in appearance, thought or style; lucidity.

Accepting any criticism at all, even effective and potentially helpful criticism, can be difficult. Ideally, effective criticism is positive, specific, objective, and constructive. There is an art to being truly effective with criticism; a critic can have good intentions but poor delivery, for example, “I don’t know why my girlfriend keeps getting mad when I tell her to stop eating so many french fries; I’m just concerned about her weight! ” For criticism to be truly effective, it must have the goal of improving a situation, without using hostile language or involving personal attacks.

Receiving criticism is a listening skill that is valuable in many situations throughout life: at school, at home, and in the workplace. Since it is not always easy to do, here are three things that will help to receive effective criticism gracefully:

  1. Accept that you are not perfect. If you begin every task thinking that nothing will ever go wrong, you are fooling yourself. You will make mistakes. The important thing is to learn from mistakes.
  2. Be open-minded to the fact that others may see something that you do not. Even if you do not agree with the criticism, others may be seeing something that you are not even aware of. If they say that you are negative or overbearing, and you do not feel that you are, well, you might be and are just not able to see it. Allow for the fact that others may be right, and use that possibility to look within yourself.
  3. Seek clarity about aspects of a critique that you are not sure of. If you do not understand the criticism, you are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. Take notes and ask questions.

Sometimes it is easier said than done, but receiving effective criticism offers opportunities to see things differently, improve performance, and learn from mistakes.