Critiquing Because It Matters

What can a badly cooked hamburger teach us about how people choose what and how intensely to criticize? Yesterday, I got to find out.

It was evening, and I’d just been picked up from work on the base and gone to the nearest In-N-Out for a quick dinner before choir. The fries were underdone, one of the patties was noticeably pink on the inside, and both my mother and I were upset enough to do something about it and grousing further right the way to El Cajon. Which got me thinking. If it were any of the other chains, certainly we would have complained to the staff, but the righteous indignation would probably have lasted up until the first major distraction and then just been left behind. What made this one different?

The difference was that it mattered. We’d considered those places dependable, reliable, a standby in most situations—and we’d almost never been disappointed. This failure was a blow to that; we found ourselves having to seriously reconsider our Thursday night contingencies. But that alone wasn’t enough to explain the lingering irritation and the need to not just say something, but to make it better.

That got me thinking about criticism, and about who it comes from. I’ve found that most of the really solid complaints I’ve gotten haven’t been from people who were already out to find fault to begin with; instead, they’re from people who (at least claim to) really like what I’m doing and just want it to be better. Similarly, I don’t kvetch really intensely about short-term games or randomly chosen stories, or things I’m in no way invested in. But get me invested, and when there’s something I think could be done better I get a little intense in my support of the change. And some of the most vociferous anti-fans I’ve seen aren’t the people who heard half a summary and decided that something went against their philosophies; they’re the ones who were fans in the beginning and stayed that way right until they discovered that that last thing the object of their interest had gone rocketing over had a cartilaginous skeleton, five gill slits, and skin resembling sandpaper.

Starting to see where this can be a problem? For most creators, even constructive criticism can feel a bit like an attack on the person rather than the work; it’s not a good reaction, but it’s a common one. And when it comes at the kind of intensity that someone with a personal investment is likely to bring, it’s even likelier to come across that way. Those of us on the creator side might not see the “I identify with this, I see what it could be, and I want it to become that” aspect; instead, we often see someone with the combined zeal of five randomly chosen members of the crowd at a political rally bearing down on us with a claim that we are Doing Something Wrong. And people, when threatened, tend to get defensive and be even ruder than usual. Which then leads to the person who was just trying to help getting offended and then angry, and next thing you know it’s either a big nasty fight or a refusal to solicit help again and nobody’s happy. To avoid this, the creators (and occasionally the people caught on the edges of the rants when the creators won’t listen) should remember that criticism, even harsh criticism, isn’t always motivated by the need to take something down; sometimes it’s just the fact that it matters and there doesn’t seem to be any other way to do something. On the other hand, the people looking for change need to know when to back down; it is rather overwhelming to have to deal with the full intensity of a Disquieted Supporter with a Sorely Needed Change to Address.

After all, if it’s worth going out of one’s way or darkening up one’s evening for, it’s got to be about more than just the hamburger.

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