A Critique of Criticism

Lately I have been getting into makeup again (I will be writing specifically about that in a later post). Because I’m over thirty now, I want my makeup to look, ah, not crappy. To achieve this goal, I sought inspiration from Reddit’s subreddit (like a forum), Makeup Addiction. As I started browsing, I saw one acronym pop up over and over: CCW. After doing some digging—asking is for losers—I discovered that this stood for “constructive criticism wanted”. Apparently people had begun identifying their posts in this way because criticism was not welcome by all.

I can understand why some makeup addicts are not open to criticism. Suggestions offered can quickly turn from constructive to exhausting. Perfectly nice-looking (better than what I see day-to-day, anyway) faces of makeup will get nitpicked from hairline to jawline (even down to the collarbone, really). Even the most confident person would wonder what on Earth he or she was doing after that treatment.
There is certainly value in receiving criticism. Criticism can help us to rethink and refine what we’re doing, especially when it is difficult for us to step back and assess our own work. I can’t imagine anyone improving with no criticism at all. But what makes criticism constructive instead of destructive? When should we hold back, and when should we speak up?

If you’re looking for concrete answers to these questions, you can stop reading now because I don’t have them (feel free to give me some constructive criticism regarding that). I am not even sure if there are any concrete answers, but I think most of us could use some criticism for our criticisms. It is so difficult to find that balance between providing someone with potentially life-changing information and being a tactless butthead. It’s just as difficult to know whether holding back makes you a polite person or a weenie.

One way of deciding whether the criticism you’re giving out is constructive or not is to look at the context of the situation. Some situations demand criticism. I remember the frustration I felt in my poetry class when few of my classmates were willing to critique each other’s work. Our professor would point out wonky rhyme schemes, wording that didn’t make sense, or poor grammar, and students chose to leap to the defense of the poet in question. They would protest, “It’s poetry! Spelling/grammar/rhyming/quality doesn’t matter!” It feels lovely to have someone stand up for your work, but a classroom is one place where criticism is crucial. There’s no point in going to class a few times a week to hear that whatever you are doing is great, and you don’t have to change. You can stay home in your pajamas for that—I’ll tell you those things as long as I don’t have place a phone call (the horror!).

Criticism is not only necessary for our growth, but also for our protection. Unfortunately there are many things that we can do wrong in this world, and we can only hope that someone is brave or caring enough to put a stop to our foolishness. If you see someone about to respond to an email from a Nigerian prince, mix ammonia with bleach, shake a baby, or add fennel to anything, please, pull out that criticism card. You should never be more afraid to criticize someone than you are afraid for someone’s safety. Most of the time there is more than one way to skin a cat, but if it’s not your cat, you’re going to be in big trouble, and someone should tell you to stop.

Some people may say that criticism should always be welcome as long as the giver’s intentions are good, but I don’t feel that’s true. If you know your critique will hurt someone more than it will help, you should consider keeping it to yourself. My favorite example of this is when you’re out with someone and that person asks if he or she looks good. Perhaps your friend doesn’t look very good. Maybe his shirt is hideous. Maybe her eyebrows came out looking more Ron Paul than Ru Paul. In either case, what good can voicing your opinion do? It’s pretty hard to change your look while digging into your Tour of Italy (trust me: I’ve tried). Of course if someone asks for your opinion when there’s still time to change, and you’re a good friend, you are obligated to give an honest opinion. And if you’re a really good friend you’ll help turn those Rons to Rus.

Another thing to consider when someone asks for criticism is the sincerity of the request. I think we’ve all had a friend who will ask what you think of his or her outfit, story, movie, or new toilet seat cover without wanting you to say anything negative. Basically this person is looking for validation more than an honest opinion. Again, think about what there is to gain from giving criticism in these situations. If you don’t tell people like this what they want to hear, they will usually find someone else who will. The only criticism that may be of use is telling this type of person not to ask for your opinion if it’s not truly wanted. Then again, I don’t have many friends, so you may not want to take my advice on that.

Getting criticized is about as fun as drinking a can of Ensure, but it is a necessary evil. Criticism keeps spaceships from exploding and outfits from looking ratchet. Just understand that not all criticism is created equal. A harsh critique can cause someone to regress rather than progress. Before you criticize someone, think of the context of the situation, what’s at stake, and what is your preferred outcome. Do you want the person you are criticizing to make a positive change? Do you want to stop that person from looking foolish? Or do you just want to make yourself feel superior by saying the way you apply eyeliner is better? If your intention is just to stick it to someone, understand that you can’t sugarcoat what you say by calling it “constructive”.