By Heather Belgorodtseva, Director of Studies for Teacher Training at BKC-IH Moscow, spending much of her professional life giving colleagues constructive feedback. She also writes a blog about online communication, discourse analysis, and teaching.
Criticising is an interesting word. It sounds so negative on the one hand — being negative about someone else, or someone else’s work. But on the other hand, we also use it in phrases such as ‘literary criticism’, which suggests a much more balanced, professional, and sometimes even positive approach.
In fact, criticism in academia can come in many forms:
- giving advice
- giving constructive feedback
- requesting a change
What they all have in common is that we usually want the criticised party to still work happily with us afterwards, despite the fact we have criticised them. This is where politeness comes in.
As first proposed by Brown and Levinson (1987), there are two types of politeness: positive politeness and negative politeness.
Positive politeness is all about making the other person feel valued, boosting their sense of self worth, and acknowledging that their wants and desires are important. Negative politeness is about making sure the other person doesn’t lose face, isn’t offended, and doesn’t feel that their individuality or freedom is limited.
This is where the occasionally much maligned feedback sandwich comes in, the idea of sandwiching the bad news of criticism between slices of good news. This good news tends to get confused with giving praise, and empty praise at that, but there are other ways to use positive politeness strategies to help soften the blow of any criticism to come.
Some of these include:
- Thanking (Thank you very much for the prompt delivery of your paper.)
- Emphasising common ground (As a fellow researcher in the field of X, I am sure you will agree that…)
- Showing sympathy and understanding (I understand how disappointed you may be not to receive an immediate acceptance.)
- Avoiding direct disagreement (Your point here is interesting, but…)
If we do give praise before we give criticism (and why not, if deserved?), it’s helpful to make sure it is specific and preferably not too grudging. Using strong language to highlight the positives where possible is a sound strategy. So not ‘Your methodology section was competently done’ but ‘Your methodology section was very competently done’, for example.
Of course, at some point we do need to get to the meat (or any other protein of choice) and actually say something critical.
Critical, but not harsh — so we need the correct phrasing.
Some negative politeness strategies here include:
- Being indirect (I was wondering if more proof reading would be a good idea.)
- Hedging / softening (You seem to have left out a crucial element)
- Asking questions (Are you sure this is the right approach here?)
- Minimising the size of the problem (There’s a bit more work needed on…)
- Making general statements and depersonalising (It is usually best to avoid the passive)
- Taking responsibility (In my opinion…)
- Apologising and indicating reluctance (I’m afraid I need your answer asap.)
- Making it sound like a choice (Could you clarify your terminology?)
That said, we do want to be a bit careful about this.
Firstly because too much softening might mean that the other person doesn’t realise there’s anything wrong at all.
It’s also a bit odd to seem to be overly reluctant about giving direct feedback in professional situations where constructive feedback is expected. As it so often is in academic circles. Peer review springs to mind.
We also need to bear in mind that extreme, out-of-place politeness is actually a way of communicating intense irritation. If you ever get an email like the one below, consider what you have done to deserve it and, if indeed you have messed up, apologise. Profusely. In fact, apologise even if it isn’t wholly your fault if you value your relationship with the sender.
“I’m exceedingly sorry to have to impose on your time but I wonder if it would be at all possible for you to be so very kind as to send a quick reply to my email of two weeks ago?”
That is too much softening for such a small request (answer my email). The sender is furious.
But there is definitely a case for changing an email like this:
“You haven’t sent us your part of the paper and we are going to miss the deadline.”
“Thank you once again for agreeing to be part of our paper. Your contributions so far have been very valuable, and our paper is all the stronger for them.
I’m afraid I am going to have to hurry you up somewhat when it comes to sending in the final draft of your part of the paper, however. We are edging quite close to missing the deadline. Would it be at all possible to send it by return email, or suggest when it could be ready?”
Criticising politely, in short, isn’t just about the wording — although that’s important. It’s also about the placement of the criticism and, crucially, what else we say on top of the criticism. It’s also important to consider the size of the issue, and the context in which we are offering our feedback, when deciding which strategies to use, and how far to take them.
Three interesting books for further reading:
Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge University Press.
Leech, G. N. (2014). The pragmatics of politeness. Oxford University Press.
Paltridge, B. (2017). The discourse of peer review: Reviewing submissions to academic journals. Springer.
Do you use any of the strategies already? Have you had any difficult experiences with giving or receiving criticism? Do you find yourself doing feedback differently in different languages, as well as different contexts? Leave a reply to add your thoughts!