Critical culture

Criticism, and how to (not) do it has been a hotly discussed topic. For example, there is a very useful three-point guide by Uri Simonsohn how to handle criticism in a civil way. If you do science, you will be criticized at some point and you will have to criticize others. After all, our whole peer review system hinges on picking out all that might be wrong. Not everyone knows how to give and handle feedback, actually, and it’s really very hard sometimes (and this is for example an integral part of science woman’s origin story). Some people might spend their whole scientific career never learning anything about being constructive, be it as recipient or criticizer. But it’s not my or your job to change our colleagues (unless you are actually a coach hired to improve the communication in your department), all we can change is how we react. So let’s focus here on being criticized, but many things said here can also be applied to handing out critical comments.

Let me get this out of the way first: Often criticism actually means someone cared enough to look at your work and wants to improve it, even if it hurts and you feel (or maybe even are) attacked as a person. It’s sometimes hard to believe, but assuming the best intentions seems to me the most productive strategy for everyone involved. Here I somewhat differ from point 2 in the three-point guide, because I think we cannot help but assign intentions to others. So if anything, try to make those assumed intentions the best.

Assuming all critique aims to improve your work means you should try to filter out the feedback that can help in this process. If there are some very emotional messages, it’s often hard to not react; we’re all human. Personal attacks are never appropriate, not even as a response in kind. That includes statements such as “you are stupid” and “you don’t understand anything”. Ask yourself what it would change, apart from some short-lived satisfaction, to throw these (back) at your criticizer? It’s very normal to be upset, and it can help a great deal to put the criticism aside for a week to calm down or discuss it with colleagues to gain a new perspective. Generally, it might be worthwhile to take a step back and be sure the message was as mean as you read it. Again, try to assume the best intentions, as there might also be a simple misunderstanding.

The possibility of a misunderstanding leads me directly to a point that keeps coming up when discussing criticism: cultures differ. Most voices on the topic come from Anglophone countries, and it is very common in my experience to sandwich any critical remarks between praise. A student tells me it’s similar in Spain. You would first hand out a compliment or two, before starting on the points to be improved. Those would then be listed in a nice way, possibly again first highlighting positive aspects before recommending some changes.

As a (northern) German, my approach is quite different: I would directly go to the critical points, because that’s what we’re talking about and why should I waste everyone’s time. Some cliches are just true and I value efficiency. Just as the Dutch, where I did my PhD, are proud of their directness. Let me tell you, even I found that a tough experience at times, because they go even further in their approach to criticism and you either learn to deal with it or don’t get anything out of it.

On the other side of the spectrum, criticism in the gentle form typically expressed in Anglophone countries would, even if sandwiched between the highest praise, likely sound rude to a Japanese researcher. Politeness reaches a whole new level here.

In short, when someone seems to be very mean, take a breath, try to consider whether there are misunderstandings possible, for example based on cultural differences, and look for the constructive message that is hopefully hidden somewhere in there. Maybe there is none (but that seems unlikely), and then it’s best to just move on to more productive exchanges.

Often enough, we also find ourselves in the role of the one who has to give comments and feedback, but how? A direct, succinct, and efficient approach is massively rude to a British colleague. What these cultural differences lead to is me saying “This is not correct.” and someone hearing “You and everything you’ve done suck!” On the other hand, a British criticizer saying “You might want to reconsider this.” could be heard as “It’s actually quite ok what you did.” Throw in, as it happens in science, more researchers from various backgrounds, and everyone will have a different idea of the “correct” approach to criticism.

We want to be sure our criticism is heard and taken the right way, namely that it improves the work and you can still talk to the person next time you meet or review their paper. So taking all those cultural differences into account, I now of course pay compliments and phrase my critical notes clearly but carefully. If possible, for example in a personal interaction, I also pay attention to the reaction. That’s the best I can do, right? Other recommendations and strategies are of course very welcome, because there is no single correct solution to this problem.


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