Etiquette & Manners

Criticism or Insult?

We as Humans tend to conflate criticism with insult. Unfortunately, this conflation is not accurate, nor is it right; criticism and insult are two different things that it would do us well to understand better- especially if we genuinely care about being ladylike.

Dealing with Non-Constructive Criticism by The Classical Feminine Woman begins with the following lines:

As a refined and elegant woman of excellence, dear reader, you need to hold yourself to a high standard of behavior. One area where that will be tested is in how you react and respond to criticism that is sent out with the intent to hurt you, that is, criticism that is not constructive. You need to understand where this comes from and what the appropriate response is, because your natural instinct is likely to respond in kind, or to internalize it and feel bad about yourself.

Pop quiz: What’s wrong with this opening statement?

Many articles the internet over- of which is this is only one example- tell you not to reply to criticism; that it’s something negative and valueless which is best left ignored. Replying to it only pulls you down to the level of hateful, ignorant people. And while they’re not wrong in the advice that they give. Unfortunately what these people are urging you to ignore isn’t criticism. More correctly, is insult.

For better or for worse (but usually for worse), they are conflating these two things with one another, as if they are arguably the same. There is a problem, however, with doing so: In terms of their purpose, there is an incredible difference between criticism and insult- a fact which many of these articles (and the people who write them) miss with great frequency.

Criticism vs Insult

Insults have no positive purpose in life other than to hurt someone. But criticism has another purpose entirely: To help; to scrutinize or provide an accurate critique of something’s positive and  negative aspects, in an effort to provide a foundation on which to improve the thing being scrutinized- whether that thing is a person, television show, or otherwise.

Criticism is generally divided into two categories: Constructive and Non-Constructive. Contrary to popular belief, however, the difference between the two isn’t that one is positive and anything else is an insult. No. The real difference is in whether or not it offers a solution when flaws are found; all criticism is supposed to offer a well reasoned opinion as to the quality and value of something (including its flaws). What makes it constructive is that it then provides tips or advice on how to improve it when flaws are found. Non-Constructive Criticism, on the other hand, does not include such advice alongside critique. Instead, the person receiving the criticism is left to both ask and answer the questions of “How can I make this better” on their own.

Insult: Your writing sucks and you should never write anything ever again.
Non-Constructive Criticism:
Your writing feels unpolished and disjointed. It could use a little work, to be honest.
Constructive Criticism: Your writing could use some work in [X] area. Have you heard of [Y]? It might help with [X] problem.

While constructive criticism is helpful, though, it can still sometimes be harsh to hear; criticism is not meant to inherently be pleasant whether it is constructive or non-constructive. It is meant to be truthful– and sometimes the truth sucks. That does not make it an insult, however, and insults are something entirely different; instead of being meant to help, insults are meant to hurt; their sole purpose is to make you doubt yourself and your abilities, make you feel inferior, disrespect you, abuse you, and and a number of other incredibly hateful things.

Does it warrant response?

The conflation of Non-Constructive Criticism with Insult is a misnomer which we all need to be careful of perpetuating. This is especially true when it comes to advising others on how to respond to such things.

criticism vs insultAs such a hateful thing, no. You shouldn’t waste yourself on responding to insults. On that point I agree whole heartedly with the advice in many of these articles despite the fact that they incorrectly conflate them with one another.

Criticism, on the other hand, occasionally (if not frequently) warrants a response.

There is no shame in responding to Critique when you feel that something being critiqued needs further elaboration or clarification. It is not a waste of time or energy to do so, either. Indeed, if you legitimately wish to obtain the most personal or other growth from critique, then discourse is almost necessary. Criticism is, after all, meant to be a thoughtful and well reasoned scrutiny- and thoughtful, well reasoned scrutiny often demands conversation, making it more a waste of your time not to respond to it in many cases.

The dangers of conflation

If you wish to advise people on how to be a Lady- such as is the purpose of the blog to which I linked to earlier- then “don’t respond to anything negative” is the worst lesson that we can teach. Not only is it the worst lesson, it is a dangerous one; when we conflate critique with insult in this manner and tell them not to respond to anything hurtful, ultimately we are causing irrevocable harm- especially when, in doing so, we assert that not responding to anything hurtful makes you a better or more superior person.

The lesson in that kind of a mentality is that negative things have no merit- especially not if they hurt your feelings. And because they are negative and therefore have no merit, they should never be examined for truth or value; we are ultimately teaching people to automatically dismiss anything that is hurtful even on a surface level. And this is a problem because being hurtful does not mean that something should be entirely disregarded- nor does it mean that it is without truth or value, no matter how hard it is for us to hear.

This lesson is something which ultimately breeds ego, superiority complex, and a complete disregard for the opinion of others no matter how well reasoned or well founded they are. But more than that, it breeds a lack of introspection; of self growth and betterment… All of which are antithetical to what genuine ladyship is about.

We should instead be teaching people the difference between insult and criticism- and advising them on how to handle even the worst of them with grace and finesse.Signature Blue

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7 thoughts on “Criticism or Insult?”

  1. This definitely reminds me of that vital phrase ‘constructive criticism’, just as an extra clarification. Though it feels to me that usually it is women who are quite sensitive to criticism, but I may be biased with that due to personal experience.

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    1. Women don’t seem to be more sensitive to it overall or in general. Rather, I’ve noticed that men and women seem to be more sensitive to different types of it dependant on a number of factors.

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  2. You make an interesting point. I have often wondred if children are actually a bit better at responding to feedback than adults are and whether we could all learn from their open-minded approach. Just on a personal level I have observed that as I’ve grown older it has become harder to accept even constructive criticism without it stinging a bit. I’ve found taking up new hobbies, courses and classses to be great experience as it takes you back to the place of being a child in a classroom again – knowing nothing about a subject and willing to learn. It’s a very humbling experience and good for the soul 🙂

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    1. I find that I don’t have the same issue (re: being unable to take criticism the older you get). That being said, I think it’s largely because of the way I was raised; though my mom’s a horrible example, she did still teach us that criticism (constructive or not) was good, and that you need to listen to it if you want to get better. That was usually in reference to my art, but it seems to have sort of infused everything I do.

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  3. Very true. I think many people have more difficulty finding ways to phrase things in constructive ways, so many of us are used to hearing non-constructive comments. It’s also good to have a set-up to encourage helpful feedback, like you did with your survey. Folks from particular cultural backgrounds, trauma issues or neurological/mental health differences may also more easily react to things, so it’s also good to know what else you’re dealing with. Sometimes I tell folks what methods are better for communicating with me.

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    1. Telling people what the best ways to communicate with you are really helps. Another piece of advice I got years ago, too, was to make sure you and your friends/ partners knew what your language of love is.

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