Sunday, August 5, 2012

Inappropriately correcting people

I'm an ex English teacher. I'm also very weak at spelling. So I'm used to people being surprised when I make a mistake. It is because they assume I must have a greater knowledge on a subject because of my previous vocation. When teaching I was exceptionally careful at checking and rechecking work before I gave it to students in a professional capacity. However, if someone shouts across a room and asks me to spell something away from my dictionary I'm stumped.

On Friday I received a telephone message to let me know that a member of The Writers @ Lovedean was ill, he'd had a series of mini strokes. I sent an email out to the group so any members who were particular friends of his would know and explained that I had an appointment in Southampton that afternoon. I asked for members to email personal messages so I could cut them out and put them in a card and promised to phone his wife that evening and let everyone know how he was. That evening I phoned his wife and sent an update of his condition to the group. And then carried on with work until the early hours.

Saturday morning brought the usual stresses of running a family and the dreaded business banking. But on Saturday afternoon myself and another member visited him and his wife for a couple of hours. Both of us busy with our own lives we still took time out to see and help another human being in a time of distress. I came home and sent out another group email to let people know how he was. It was a hurried email and I made a spelling mistake. I then got ready to do my husbands books.

I received an email from a member of the group correcting one spelling mistake in the email. I was absolutely furious and upset. I'm not much of a crier but I was in tears. Why did it upset me so much?

I'm constantly asking people to check my work for mistakes. I have often complained about my woeful editing skills. On the whole I would say I accept criticism far easier than praise. Yet here I was in tears over a three word email. In the past I would have said nothing and eaten a bar of chocolate and pretended that it didn't bother me. But it was strange that the week before I had spoken to a lady called Kate about speaking from the heart. I sent back an email immediately saying that I hate these sort of inappropriate corrections, it makes me angry and depressed.

I didn't sleep that night. I was still so upset that in the midst of someone
  • doing their best
  • trying to be nice
  • being frantically busy but trying to keep everyone happy
That the only thing they could see to comment on, was a spelling mistake.

A writing group in its very nature is a place to receive criticism. I have explained to members time and again that once they decide to share their work they no longer own it. You have asked for feedback and it may not be nice or what you want to hear. So if you can't take it don't put it out to the room. At the same time I ask members to try and give criticism nicely. No one wants to be corrected in a curt, condescending, blunt, rude, abrasive, or exasperated manner.

When something like this happens the advice you usually hear is don't take it personally and it was then I realised why I was so distraught.

It felt personal. But I think there are lots of reasons for inappropriately correcting people:

  • They may think they're being helpful, interesting, or impressive by pointing out someone's mistake.
  • They're not considering that the correction may not be appropriate at that time.
  • They may have a mentality where it just feels 'wrong' to let a mistake slide.
  • They may feel they just have to say something, and get a sense that they're restoring balance to the universe by sharing the Truth with others.
  • Some people may get a little ego boost from being knowledgeable, knowing more than someone else, and getting to show it.
  • Some people may correct others out of a sense of intellectual competitiveness. By pointing out someone's mistake they feel 'one up' over them.

Usually when receiving criticism I follow a tried and tested pattern.

I give the criticism some time to sink in and resist the urge to defend myself or lash back. Is there truth to what they are saying? Do I actually agree with the criticism?

I then try to turn the criticism into a positive. I rewrite that passage. I take out the repetition. Even if criticism is harsh or mean, you can turn it to your advantage. Most criticism points out a mistake and has in it a suggestion where you can change something to make it better.

Even if someone is harsh and rude, I tend to thank them. They might have been having a bad day, or maybe they’re just a negative person in general. But even so, an attitude of gratitude will probably catch them off-guard.

On the whole I try to learn from the critic. They may have been nasty and unpleasant but that doesn't mean they haven't managed to spot a mistake you're been making.

My usual aim is to be the better person. But the way that many of us handle what we see as personal attack is by attacking back. “I’m not going to let someone talk to me that way.” Especially if this criticism is made in public. You have to defend yourself, and attack the attacker … right?

Wrong. By attacking the attacker, you are stooping to his level. Even if the person was mean or rude, you don’t have to be the same way. You don’t have to commit the same sins.

Be the better person.

I try removing myself from the criticism, and looking only at the actions criticised. They are not criticising me as a whole but my tendency to be loud or blunt. By seeing the positive in the criticism, and trying to improve. By thanking the critic. And by responding with a positive attitude I have accepted the criticism with grace and appreciation. And in doing so, remained the better person, and felt great about myself.

This didn't happen on this occasion. I responded directly as I was feeling, I told him I didn't find it funny, helpful or pleasant. He emailed me back saying he wouldn't be returning to the group.

Next came the surprise. I expected to feel sorry, sad or guilty. But instead, rightly or wrongly, my gut says that I have managed to stand up and draw a line in the way I let people treat me. I was transported back to therapy I had years ago and the words of Dr Phil (
'We Teach People How to Treat Us
You either teach people to treat you with dignity and respect, or you don't. This means you are partly responsible for the mistreatment that you get at the hands of someone else. You shape others' behaviour when you teach them what they can get away with and what they cannot.

If the people in your life treat you in an undesirable way, figure out what you are doing to reinforce, elicit or allow that treatment. Identify the payoffs you may be giving someone in response to any negative behavior. For example, when people are aggressive, bossy or controlling — and then get their way — you have rewarded them for unacceptable behavior.'

I feel better about myself. I managed to say 'no' that is not acceptable AND I haven't felt bad about that person leaving. In fact in a sick way it made me feel a little better about myself - the words they
'can give it but can't take it' keep rolling around my head. I definitely think it is a time in my life to be a little less zen and the 'better person' and a little bit more verbally 'no' that isn't acceptable!


  1. Well done Charlotte, I agree completely it was inappropriate but your reaction was spot on I would have done the same myself remember Conway St!!

  2. People don't realise that your reaction is not a 'knee jerk' to a single occurrence. You don't advertise the numerous emails containing similar sharp, and uncalled for comments, and this latest message was the one that 'broke the camels back'. I'm so glad that you have now stood up to those that make these sort of comments. Well done.