When I was a child the term “criticism” came under attack as judgmental and harsh. That was a misconception, of course. We knew criticism could sometimes be positive and even helpful.
Still, caring folks like professors and psychologists convinced teachers and parents to soften the blow by expanding the term into “constructive criticism.” This seemed a good idea and it probably helped, but it didn’t eliminate the negative perception because, let’s face it, much of what was being communicated was still negative.
Many times during my teen years I heard someone say, “If you can’t say something positive, say nothing at all.” Now there’s totally useless advice. How can it be helpful to just let people think their work is perfect, when it actually needs improvement.
Today the word in vogue seems to be “critique.” I don’t know if it’s because it sounds French or because those spouting it think it makes them seem smarter than the average bear, but here’s the news flash: it still means criticism. And you know what? We humans all need to just man up, take our share of criticism, and let it help us.
Whether you’re a chef or a cowboy, a bookkeeper or a ballerina, honest criticism, offered kindly and with the intent to help, can make you better at what you do, and a better person, in the process.
There is, however, one arena in which none of this holds true – the battlefield of do-it-yourself home improvement projects. Now let there be no confusion. We are not talking about those pseudo-DIY adventures on HGTV. Those fantasies include teams of professional carpenters, plumbers, electricians and tile setters, plus two homeowners who help out here and there and are getting it all for free.
No, we are talking about real homeowners doing all the work themselves, desperately trying to emulate what they’ve seen on TV, while at the same time staying within an impossibly tight budget, and all without killing each other before the thin-set is dry.
Early in our marriage, John and I found ourselves right there on numerous home upgrade projects. It didn’t matter if we were hanging wallpaper or installing a light fixture, each endeavor became a battle royal. John would ask my opinion because he genuinely wanted to please me. But when I offered what I thought was an honest assessment, i.e. “It’s a little crooked,” or “it’s too far to the right,” he’d say, “Well then do it yourself,” or “it’s just going to have to stay that way ‘cause I’m not starting over.”
Sometimes it worked the opposite way as well. I’d choose a paint color he didn’t like or I’d let down my end of the sofa we were trying to move. He’d ask why and I’d reply with sarcasm, “Because I knew you’d hate this color and I don’t care,” or “Oh, guess I should have just let it pull my back out of joint. Anything so I don’t hold up your progress.”
These days, we’ve mellowed. In the last two weeks, we’ve nearly completed a bathroom remodel that’s nothing short of professional, and we’re still speaking to each other.
Granted, there were some short tempers, and there will be again on the next project. But we’ve learned to give and take honest criticism, credit each other with good intentions, and accept that we both want the same result, a project we can be proud of.
I hold my tongue when I know he’s done his best and he refrains from criticizing when I burn the lunch. Fair is fair.