"On Criticism"

By Baroness Brianna Je Nell Aislynn of Blue Shadows

I am not an expert on criticism, but having been on both the receiving and offering end more times than I care to think about, I feel that I'm at least well acquainted with the subject. The following is a series of comments on various forms of criticism I've observed or participated in over the years. Some work, some don't. (That was the Official Disclaimer, proceed at your own risk).

Criticism is an odd thing, it can change people for the better or drive them away completely. It can cement friendships or create bitter enemies. A good example is the incident that spurred this commentary. A friend* was told that makeup was not period. I'm sure the person who offered this criticism was attempting to help her attain a more period appearance. (After all, no one in the SCA would EVER say something out of pure malice, would they?) The lady in question was somewhat upset, but after thinking about it, accepted the comment as a challenge.

She researched makeup practices and materials and gave several excellent classes on them. On the other hand, her friend (who had joined the SCA at the same time) received an unfavorable comment about her short hair. This lady decided she did not want to participate in the SCA "because of the unkind way they treat you". Both ladies received criticism on aspects of their appearance. It may be that the criticism was offered in different ways. Or, it may be that the personalities of the ladies receiving the criticism were very different.

This leads me to several observations:

1) Keep it to yourself. If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all (sounds like your mother, huh?) Is it really necessary to tell the newcomer that hot pink eye shadow isn't period?

2) Timing. Wait until a question comes up. "I notice that nobody wears much makeup, why is that?" would be a much better opening to discuss the hot pink eye shadow, false eye lashes and green lipstick than walking across the field and telling the person they look like a fright mask.

3) Know your audience. Someone who has asked for suggestions or comments before is much more likely to not be upset by unsolicited criticism. Is the person likely to take it as a challenge to do more research or as a reason to not come back?

4) Be tactful. If you feel you must tell someone what you think they are doing wrong, tell them also what they are doing right. Don't just offer complaints, offer solutions. Instead of telling the second lady that her hair was too short, perhaps the critic could have shown her different types of headgear and mentioned that they were a convenient way to disguise a modern hair cut.

5) Be honest. If someone asks your opinion of their work, tell them what you like or don't like. Keep in mind number 4 above. However don't be so "tactful" that you are misunderstood. You might just end up being gifted with that "unique, unusual green, pottery container" (misshapen, chartreuse ashtray).

6) Know your own limitations. It could be that the person's dress, makeup, armour, ___________(fill in the blank) is from a culture or period unfamiliar to you. A question such as "I am unfamiliar with that garment, what country and period is it?" could increase your knowledge and gain you a new friend. Or it could offer a opportunity to give information in a non-judgmental manner.

7) Be careful what you ask for. Don't ask for a critique, if all you really want is a compliment. Be gracious if the one you ask for a critique supplies you with constructive criticism. After all, they are taking almost as much of a risk by giving you an honest opinion as you are by asking for it.

*names have been excluded to protect the innocent, and to keep the author from being sued for slander (or is that libel, I can never remember)


Copyright 1999 by Je Nell Hays

Permission to reprint this article for use in the Society for Creative Aanachronism is granted so long as the complete article is printed with proper attribution to the author using both her modern name and SCA equivalent. Please notify the author if this article is included in any SCA publication or used as reference material in a class.

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