David Weinberger
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Personal criticism

03 January 2001

A reader working on his Masters Degree, and who is given to saying things such as "Of course, 'C'est le ton qui fait la musique'..." * ("It takes a ton of fate to write music") writes that he is having trouble understanding what I say on page 145 of The Cluetrain Manifesto:

... e-mail is a profoundly bad medium for conveying personal criticism because it is textual and thus not very con-textual.

This reader recounts how the first report he ever wrote was "burned down" by a senior staff member.

Pissed, hurt, etc., were the emotions I went through. Clearly, I took it personally. But a few hours later I asked myself, what was I going to do with it. I decided to look for the merits of his criticism (which is extremely difficult when you're angry). Anyhow, I swallowed the usable parts and survived. What I'm trying to say is: given a neutral, constructive tone in which the criticism is uttered, the attitude, the willingness to learn of the recipient is of paramount importance.

Learning is the sixth stage of grieving when it comes to getting slammed by your boss in email. The first five stages are: anger, fury, composing flame mail back, deleting the flame mail, and telling your co-workers what an a-hole your boss is. Most of us stop at stage 5. And that's because too much criticism is stupid, unhelpful and about reinforcing power relationships.

For that type of criticism, email is not only a bad medium, it's practically a cause. The ease and distance of email only encourages a pathological boss who thinks that writing a message like "Your report sucked. Next time spend more than ten minutes on it. And learn to use a spell checker" is a good way to instill discipline.

The problem with email is, of course, that it's about as stripped a medium as a telegram. Not only does it lack the nuance of body language, but because it's asynchronous, the employee doesn't have the opportunity to probe the manager's depth of disappointment by saying something back and watching how the manager responds. In a face to face meeting, the employee would probably register her feelings. "Whoa," the manager might reply, "You're taking this too seriously. It's just your first report. And it's a good start..."

Now, there are, of course, various types of criticism and the appropriateness of email varies with each. For example, if your boss sends back your original report with her ideas carefully noted, that's criticism in the original Greek sense of winnowing the wheat from the chaff, and email's probably a great medium for that. At the other extreme, if you've been waiting for the copier to be fixed and the office manager hasn't responded to your previous twelve emails, expressing your feelings in phrases that involve that person's proclivities for inter-species sexual relations may be understandable and may even be inappropriate, but it's unlikely to be taken as truly personal criticism. But email that expresses negative emotions to people with whom you are in a power relationship is almost always inappropriate and inhumane. Even negativity purely about business- related performance is personal because we don't check our souls at the door in the morning. Business is always personal.

Personal criticism delivered through email even to an enlightened indvidual (i.e., a bigger person than I) at best forces the recipient to divide into two people: the mature adult who learns from any nugget of helpfulness in your screed, and the raging, hurt spirit who can't believe she's been treated so unjustly. The price of learning in this case is alienation. And that's too steep a price to ask someone to pay.

*Before you get into Le Snit and write to me to correct my "translation" ofthe French phrase in the first paragraph, please take my word for it that itwas a joke making fun of my poor command of French. The real translationshould be something like "It's the tone that makes the music." According toone source, the aphorism means "C'est la manière dont on dit les choses quimarque l'intention véritable" ("Manners don't give a dit about the choiceson the marquee about the very terrible intentions"). I assume that clarifiesthe matter sufficiently. Thank you.

David Weinberger is editor of Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization.