Our lives are perpetually in a state of flux and they should be because we grow through making mistakes and learning from them. Unfortunately, we are often too afraid of failure or being corrected and this can hold us back from reaching our true potential on individual and societal levels. We must both give and receive criticism in order to better ourselves.
I will be the first to admit that I correct others regarding spelling and grammar. There is sort of an inside (and perhaps outside) joke between my friends and family that I am a “grammar Nazi” (if this is your first time reading the term, get out from the rock you’re living under! Unless you’re a child…in which case, welcome to the wonderful world of sarcasm. Great to have you.) and there is an ever present threat of being corrected by me. This often leads to feelings of triumph when the tables are turned and they are able to call me out because I am indeed human and make mistakes.
I correct them because I would want them to correct me if I were to err in a similar fashion; at least, that’s what I tell myself. My father recently pointed out that I have a habit of saying “these ones,” which is not grammatically correct, and I encourage him to correct me when it happens because I often won’t notice on my own. The only way we can grow and avoid future mistakes is by being made aware of them when they arise and seeking to correct the behavior when it happens again.
Unfortunately, criticism has an inherently negative connotation (just look up the word online and the first definition often deals with some sort of fault finding) and people often think that I look down on them when I correct their grammar or spelling; that is not my intent. I am only trying to improve their use of language and while I realize not everyone wants that, I continue to do so out of both concern and personal habit.
Despite our best attempts, it is never easy to be criticized, especially in front of a group of our peers. This post is an offshoot of my earlier editorial, On the Subject of Literary Elitism, where I told the story of a fellow college student whose pronunciation was corrected in front of the rest of the class. He was visibly deflated with embarrassment and I took personal solace from this (I’m not always a kind person and he fit the stereotype of pretentious English major that I probably just perpetuated myself).
I could probably write an entire post about all of the times I was embarrassed to be corrected, but I won’t because that wouldn’t be constructive and I don’t want to dwell on my mistakes. What? You expect me to practice what I preach? Preposterous. I will, however, give an example of a professor who showed me the purest motivation behind correcting others.
The last required course for my Film Studies minor was Film Theory and Criticism (see where we’re going here, folks?). I don’t recall the exact subject we were discussing, nor the actual question my professor asked, but my response was “to who.” She said, without missing a beat, “To whom,” quickly following the correction with a smile and a well-meaning “sorry.” I threw up my hands in supplication and shook my head, saying, “No need to apologize.”
That was over a year and a half ago, but it caused me to think more about what I was saying than I had previously (it also led me to look up the rules for when to use who vs. whom). Her correction wasn’t condescending or meant to embarrass me; she was just showing me the right way to phrase that response. Allowing myself to be open to her correction and realizing that she was simply teaching me through her criticism of my incorrect English was a big step for me.
This goes for any criticism I receive at work as well. Whenever a supervisor or manager comes to me with feedback or to teach me something new, I strive to be open to the instruction and try not to take it personally. This has not always been the case and takes time, much like any skill worth learning.
Regardless of how well we receive or give criticism, it is a two-way street (I apologize for the idiom); both parties need to be willing to participate. The giver cannot condescend and the receiver must be open to the advice, lest either party become upset or take the lesson as anything other than what it is.
A lot of us struggle with determining when it is appropriate to be critical of others, especially when it isn’t asked of us. I have had to rein in my impulse to correct the grammar or spelling of some of my Facebook (and real life) friends because I value their friendship more than being right, which is not what should foster criticism.
We should hold each other accountable and realize that the other person, be they criticizing us or receiving our criticism, is exactly that: another person. They have feelings and emotions just like us and this should be taken into account. It is often said that we are our own worst critics and while there are some harsh people in the world who will belittle us for making a mistake or failing at something, we all share this trait; by acknowledging it, we come a little closer as human beings.