Constructive Criticism – Are Today’s Millennials too Thin-Skinned to Handle It?

Category: Weekly Columns

Constructive Criticism is like a hamburger – Compliment, Criticism, Compliment

By Professor David E. Weber and Bruce Sallan

Professor Weber and I have jointly been writing The Evolution of Technology series, which we love and will continue to do. However, when we saw each other at the end of 2012, we shared what we believed was a sort of sea change in attitude among the younger generation. I was seeing this as a parent and Professor Weber was seeing it from his vantage point as someone who teaches these young men and women in college. Consequently, we decided to take on this slightly different topic. Professor, take it away:

Criticism Sketched with PencilCan someone please explain the image above? I like it so decided to include it but I’m not sure what it is “saying?”

A few days before Christmas, Bruce and I met for lunch and a walk during my visit to California. We have known each other since nursery school (Bruce was VERY, VERY young in nursery school. I am substantially older than he is). Although we maintain close contact, we hadn’t actually laid eyes on each other in three or four years, living as we do on opposite sides of the continent.

During our lunchtime conversation, we discovered we had drawn similar conclusions about a certain characteristic of millennials (i.e., men and women born after approximately 1985 or so), a group also known as Generation Y or Echo Boomers: They have very thin skin.

Bruce’s younger son, for example, recently declared how it embarrasses him when Bruce networks with strangers in public space. Bruce’s son explained that he would hate the rejection that could possibly result from initiating a chat out of the blue with a potential reader, customer, or sponsor. Bruce replied to his son—who currently aspires to a career in the performing arts—that yes, sometimes people don’t respond the way you wish they would, but you must put yourself out there and take risks if you want to meet your goals, especially if you want to be in the arts.

Cartoon Comic Unwanted Constructive Criticism

I don’t have kids of my own flesh and blood, but I do have kids: About 500 undergraduate students every school year, whom I teach at a medium-size public university in North Carolina. Here is one example of what I mean by thin skin.

Last year, when grading two-page essays, I discovered that one student added the letter “s” at the end of the word “communication.” Not a big deal, I suppose, unless you teach communication, not communications, which are two different (although certainly related) academic fields. Our students study communication, not communications, in a communication department, not a communications department. In my courses, especially this student’s introductory course for prospective communication majors, I emphasize how important it is to apply the right label to yourself … it’s a branding issue. (And if you don’t think one letter makes a difference, spell “shift” without the “f” and see how far you get).

So when I encountered that extra “s,” I followed my standard procedure: uncapped my dark-ink Sharpie, drew a circle around the “s” and scribbled “No ‘s’” next to it.

Personal Accountability & Constructive Criticism Cartoon Comic

I turned back the papers to the students. A day or so later, just before class began, one of them approached me and said, “I didn’t appreciate what you wrote on my paper.” I had no idea what she meant, until she handed me her essay…with my Sharpie note on it.

“I just wanted to call your attention to the error, encourage you never to make it again, since we emphasize it in class, and since it matters,” I explained.

“I saw that and I was in tears,” she replied, “I called my mother and she got angry as well. You shouldn’t make me feel bad about myself just for a typo.”

I promised her I would never do that again on her papers. And she may be right; maybe the Sharpie tactic is heavy-handed. It’s just that I wonder how she is eventually going to handle the sort of correction or rejection that is the way of the world for anyone who works as a professional.

Jerry, a colleague in my department, put it well: Our students sincerely believe that trying hard plus meaning well deserve much credit and appreciation—that their results are far less important than the effort and good intention expended to produce them.

Charlie Brown on Criticism – Peanuts Comic

Here is one example of my experience along those lines: Several years ago, I taught an advanced-level public speaking course. One young man’s comment on Day One of class made most of the other students nod in agreement and, in some case, thrust their thumbs skyward in support. He declared, “I’m kind of nervous about public speaking. I want to do well in this course and become a better speaker. I will be putting a lot of effort into my speeches. So don’t tell me what I did wrong. Just tell me what I did right.”

He is partly correct, of course: I do tell students what they did that worked, encourage them to keep that and perhaps even amplify it. But I don’t know how to coach without at least occasionally pointing out which choices were, in terms of relevant criteria, less than effective.

I usually avoid the when-I-was-an-undergraduate analogies, but on this matter of thin skin, I can’t help but recall how my professors treated us. Their choices would probably cause my students to leave school forever or initiate lawsuits. And I liked almost all of my professors. Some were jackasses, but most were pretty nice men and women. Yet they uttered sarcastic asides when you said something in class that was imprudent; they scrawled “Yuck!” in the margins of essays next to a passage that was inarticulate, dumb, or poorly written; and we just sort of took it in our stride and, generally, learned from it.

Two or three times a year since 2001, I work for a couple of days at a U.S. Marine base, which has contracted with my university for communication consulting services that I and a few colleagues provide. The men and women I work with average about 10 to 15 years or more in uniform. Some of them enlisted as long ago as 1988 or 1990. When I ask them what they notice is different between young Marines back in the day and young Marines today, what do you think they say? “These new kids are so thin-skinned,” they tell me, “they may turn out to be good Marines, but most of them can’t stand being told when they make a mistake. I have to bend over backward to make sure they don’t cry when I give correction.”

Sarcastic cartoon about criticism from The New Yorker

I love the things you have shared, Professor. You are clearly on the front lines of how young people are handling life as they take that last step – via college – presumably before adulthood and supporting themselves. My view is more immediate in my own household as I see how my two boys approach their lives.

Both my boys have had the ongoing tendency, whenever they’ve had a teacher they didn’t like, to blame the teacher for any resulting problems that arose. A less-than-stellar grade was the teacher’s fault for “being mean.” With perhaps only one exception I can recall, I didn’t allow them to switch classes. Instead, I explained to them that this was just the beginning of dealing with people they didn’t like. In college there would undoubtedly be difficult teachers and, of course, in their work-lives it’s unavoidable not to encounter some jerk bosses, groveling co-workers, blame-throwers, and other familiar types.

Fun image about criticism

I felt it was my job to teach them to tough it out, learn ways around the difficult teacher, figure a strategy that mitigated the problem, and put the whole thing in the context of it is NOT about the teacher, but rather about your ultimate goal. In school, their goal was to get the best grade possible – especially in high school – to enhance their opportunities to go to the college of their choice.

As an aside, I can’t help but reflect on how this topic might make a great one for the Men vs. Women series I’ve been writing. Men and women react to criticism in very different ways. Most of us guys know better than to ever answer truthfully that a particular dress makes our women look fat. Most of us know that the answer to “Which of these dresses makes me look thinner?” is simply, “You look beautiful in both: I couldn’t possibly choose.” And, if we really wanted to have a good week, we’d add, “I think we should buy both since you’re so sexy in them, I couldn’t possibly choose one.”

What are your thoughts on the younger generation’s ability to handle constructive criticism, to take responsibility, and to handle harsh or intemperate words without taking it so personally? Is this a product of OUR generation of parents? Is this an outgrowth of the changing values now that the sixties/Boomer generation is running so much of our society? Or, is this another case of one generation waxing poetic about the good ol’ days?

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  • David Weber

    Brilliant thoughts expressed by both authors…!

    • Bruce Sallan

      Especially the Professor…for an academic, he is darn clear-headed!

  • Ellen Bremen

    I five million percent agree with Professor Weber. I agree with this because I live it every day in my own professional life! I teach Communication, myself, and my students can’t handle any type of constructive criticism. However, I remind them of what the late Randy Pausch (Carnegie Mellon Professor and author of The Last Lecture) said: When people stop pointing out what you’ve done wrong, they’ve stopped caring about you. What I marvel at is that on these singing shows, although the audience “boos,” it seems like the contestants can handle the harsh comments from celebrities more than they can handle realistic comments that can impact their work positively in a realistic setting! I always couch my comments in a face-saving way–very different than my own profs. Still, students become offended.

    If a student were to come to me and say “You made me feel…”, I would totally throw that back to them and remind them of what we talk about in Interpersonal Comm: I can’t “make them feel” anything. Also, I am constantly advising my students that while I’d love to grade them on effort, the college requires that I grade them on set standards and a degree that they’ve mastered those standards. And that stands to make them employable, so they have far more benefit.

    We’re doing students a bigger favor by holding firm, evaluative, and kind… but telling the truth. And students need to put on their big girl and big boy pants–and learn that growing from constructive criticism is part of being an adult.

    Thank you for this piece. I think I’m going to find a way to teach from it this week! Ellen 

    • Bruce Sallan

      We seem to have hit a nerve with this post – for good reason. Some day I have to put you and Professor Weber in touch, @twitter-278789906:disqus 

    • David Weber

      I tell my students that you stop getting graded on effort in elementary school; and that the only reason it’s graded there is that since it’s not necessarily “natural” to put forth effort, doing so must be learned, and the earlier, the better.  

      As far as making someone feel something goes, yes, I agree. I didn’t present our entire conversation, I only excerpted the key exchange.  In fact, part of our conversation included my comment that, “You ELECTED to ‘feel bad about yourself’ so let’s not dwell on that.  In the future, will ‘communications’ show up on your paper when ‘communication’ is required, and what steps can you take to ensure that the right word does in fact show up in your printout?”

      • Bruce Sallan

        WE do not control other’s feelings – they do. I agree Professor and can vouch for that being a part of our full conversation!

  • Sandy Jenney

    I see so much of this. I think in the effort to “build children’s self esteem” we see it taken too far (as with most things). It gets to the point where lack of correction can end up hurting kids later in life because they haven’t been prepared or taught how to handle correction. We see it in our kids schools – a paper they have turned in has multiple spelling errors and grammatical errors, that are not corrected, pointed out or noted in anyway. Our kids are thrilled they got an “A” on the paper, and we are left thinking… that is not “A” worthy. When we ask the teacher, we get responses, like…”We aren’t focusing on the spelling and grammar right now, we want them to feel good about what they’ve written.”  Really? You can still use a positive attitude, and turn an error into a teachable moment that doesn’t have to break down self esteem. 

    • Bruce Sallan

      TY @OrganizerSandy:twitter – and yes, it seems to all be an outgrowth of the FOOLISH self-esteem movement where kids get awards simply for showing up! Oh, and the silliness of teachers NOT requiring proper spelling and grammar is almost hard to believe!?

    • David Weber

      This indifference toward the mechanics of composition in order to ostensibly build in a student good feelings about himself or herself is a horrible trend.  If a teacher said to me, “We aren’t focusing on that because we want them to feel good,” etc., I like to think I would answer, “Would feeling good about one’s increasing ability to spell and punctuate correctly and write grammatically sound sentences be something you’re interested in cultivating among students?”

      • Bruce Sallan

        The fact that this trend has begun in primary school is the sad reality when you face these “kids” – young adults of course – who are unprepared for true learning and improvement!

      • Michelle

        Oooh, nice answer David Weber!

  • Michelle_Mazur

    The communication vs. communications mistake drives me crazy. A prominent expert wrote an article on about how communications is the key to leadership. He is a public speaking coach. When I corrected the error in a comment, he basically told me that “Alas, the people use communications. I’m with the people.” Well people don’t use the word alas and this guy is clearly a derogatory term that rhymes and has lovely alliteration with alas. Ok. I digress. 

    Anyway, I taught communication courses at a several universities. I found the same issue. Students couldn’t handle constructive criticism. I think it has gotten worse over the years. My friends in the academy have parents calling on a regular basis. The complaint is always how their son or daughter tried and how mean they are giving their student a bad grade. Sure the student didn’t do a great job but they should get a good grade for effort. 

    • Bruce Sallan

       WE are clearly on the same page here @Michelle_Mazur:disqus – the “mean” thing almost makes me laugh! Like in the real world, everyone is nice!?

    • David Weber

      I can live with the use of communications when a better word choice would be communication … but not when my students add the “-s” for no reason, and not when they refer to what they’re majoring in.  

      I wrote that it was a branding issue.  My department is Department of Communication Studies.  We have toiled for years, mostly with success, to explain to the university community what it is that we teach, what our subject matter involves and how a degree in communication is beneficial.  We have for the most part won the battle to prove that what we teach is meritorious and challenging.  I tell my students that when they add the “-s” for no reason other than habit or laziness, they are shooting themselves in the foot because it is confusing to hear “-s” from some students and not others.  Absolutely none of my colleagues on the communication studies faculty consider the words synonymous, nor do any of our textbooks.I further suggest to my students it’s up to them if they want to correct someone who is using communications instead of communication. I say that if a parent or friend adds the “-s,” explain what the right word is so that the person will know how to explain what my student is studying in college.  

      • Bruce Sallan

        So interesting to hear from the other PHDs who are weighing in, Professor Weber. I don’t think this is simply semantics – there’s a right and wrong here. I believe in right and wrong – not just what feels right!

        • Weberdcom

          I agree. The right-and-wrong issue for me is what my students say (and write), as opp. to what an older professional may say.  

          If a client, for example — let’s say a forty-year-old executive — says to me, “I want my subordinates to improve their communications skills,” I would not correct her immediately, that is, early in our professional relationship.  There is a delicate balance, I believe, to be walked between prudence and polemics.  I would myself use the word communication in my conversations with her–would perhaps even use my voice to emphasize there should be no “-s.”  

          Sometimes it has happened that the client has observed, “I notice you’re saying communication, but I’ve always said communications. Is there a difference?”  This is the best straight line I could hope for!

          I am not as accommodating with my students; nor am I with anyone in my university community who misnames my subject matter and department.

          • Bruce Sallan

            You know, communicating with you Professor @7f990e539df4ddefe26884eb65a5f04c:disqus  is a pain! lol…hope you will join us at #DadChat Thursday when THIS is the topic!

  • Jon M

    Another way to look at this is development versus generation. What I mean is that brains at the college age are still developing. The emotional part is developed but the reasoning part is not yet. Rather than being a generational thing, it may just be a developmental thing.

    It does seem that having a freshman class on receiving and giving constructive feedback would be an excellent idea. There may be even a few older adults who would benefit from this!

    In our work environment, the millennials I work with are open-minded and receive feedback well. They want feedback more often than once a year, which is a good thing. Annual reviews are worthless if feedback is only given once a year.

    Great topic and conversation. Thanks all!  Jon

    • Bruce Sallan

      Thx Jon @ThinDifference:twitter – I hope you can join us at #DadChat Thursday as this will be our topic!

    • David Weber

      This is a very interesting comment and observation, Jon.  Yes, I agree, the developmental process you refer to is still under way among college students of the typical or traditional college age.  It is probably too fine a point, but I will make it nonetheless: I would say that college is the last opportunity for students to acquire competence in a variety of skills that are going to get them hired and that are going to in general make them contributors as members of families, communities and organizations, rather than slugs or leeches. Consequently, the nature of feedback and the expectations of accepting and attempting to learn from it ought to mirror more the world outside the college classroom than inside whatever coccoon students were in before college.

      • Jon M

        Great point, David, and I agree. College is a great place to learn how to take constructive feedback and make it work to improve. A great skill to carry forward in life and work. Another reason to have a college workshop or seminar for student on how to give and take constructive feedback…. a real-world skill to use for a lifetime! Great conversation. Thank you! Jon

  • audaciouslady

    Prof, you teach a bunch of wussies. If they were in my class, they’d cry wee wee wee all the way home. I teach 7th grade Language Arts. I tell it like it is. I tell them to suck it up. If you make a mistake I will tell you about it because I want you to grow as a person. If you repeat the mistake, I will repeat pointing it out to you. If you can’t handle it, get a job at McDonald’s and let me know how it goes. That’s what I say! 

    • Bruce Sallan

      LOVE YOU @twitter-16091340:disqus – we’re gonna talk about this at #DadChat Thursday – hope you can bring your gentle POV to the party!

    • David Weber

      I don’t want you or any readers here to get the impression I do not call my students on their crap.  I am tough on my students. I have a reputation among our majors as being intimidating. My persona is not forbidding but yet  accommodates no foolishness without retribution.   On some occasions, I go medieval on a student, to get his or her attention. But usually I favor a lighter touch. I can rock either approach, however.

      That said, I believe in that fundamental rule of communication that says you must first figure out how, as a communicator, you’re going to most likely accomplish the results you want to accomplish.  That means knowing how to approach any two or more people differently from one another.

      • Bruce Sallan

        Boy do I agree @7f990e539df4ddefe26884eb65a5f04c:disqus and that is why I heartily encourage NOT saying anything in the heat of the moment. If you’re really riled up, sleep on it…things ALWAYS look different the next day. If they don’t, then your passion is sincere vs. emotionally driven!

  • Jen Olney

    We have to stop rewarding effort and start rewarding kids based on real world application. I saw this elementary school with my own son – you get a ticket if you stand in line quietly, you are rewarded for behavior that should be expected. We need get these kids to understand – not everything you do is special and you are going to face real adversity in the world – start growing thick skin. Kids need to know that not everything in life is handed to them based on “trying hard”

    • Bruce Sallan

      @twitter-121085582:disqus – we can thank the whole b.s. self-esteem movement for where we are today! THIS will be our topic at #DadChat Thursday – hope you can join us, Jen!

    • David Weber

      There is, on the other hand, something to be said for the old management technique called “catch ’em doing something right.”  You keep your eye peeled for something that is in spec and then you applaud it. 

      An example that comes to mind from, once again, the college classroom, is that sometimes during class discussion a student will apply to the topic at hand some information he or she encountered in another course.  I think this is a great thing when a student does it, because it reinforces the idea that education is ultimately holistic and that what you learn in your history course can have a conceptual impact on what you learn in your sociology course. 

      So, to “catch ’em doing something right,” I will say to the class, “Did you notice that Matt brought together what we were just talking about with what he was exploring in such-and-such a course? That’s what I like to see.  That is something you want to keep and do even more of, Matt. Thanks!”

      The difference between that and a ticket for being civilized in line is reward versus acknowledgment.  I would not have REWARDED Matt because he was doing what a diligent college student should do.  But I think it is acceptable to ACKNOWLEDGE the kind of behavior you want others to replicate, if and when the desired behavior comes into view.

  • Heathers Ambit

    You know, I really enjoyed this article until I got to the sexist blather at the end.

    • Bruce Sallan

      @be6ade494a389e949060e3373951bfdf:disqus – would appreciate you elaborating on the “sexist blather” please?

      • sarahcbagley

        Are you serious that you can’t see the sexist blather?  First, pretty much everything else in the article was gender non-specific.  Even the anecdote above about the young woman who didn’t take sharpie marks well wasn’t framed as an issue of gender, but an issue of age/peer group.  The only moment that women are discussed AS WOMEN here, and it’s about how women all ALWAYS only want to be lied to about how pretty they look in dresses?  Please.  The implication you make is that all that “thinking” and “learning to be critiqued” and “improving from criticism” stuff is probably for men – even learning to avoid and ignore the people who critique you instead of determining whether their critiques are valid (which is a whole different problem with your position) is probably for males like your boys.  Women should be pandered to, according to you – they shouldn’t be challenged or critiqued lest their crazy female hysterical tendencies appear.  

        • Bruce Sallan

          Wow, I sure touched your sensitivity. Let me guess @2107153fc4052756e71450b43dcff99f:disqus – you’re under 30, graduated college, and are not married? Sexist assumptions, of course…but, am I right?

          • sarahcbagley

            Yep, those are all very sexist assumptions.  In fact, the tone of your whole reply is pretty sexist.  Like the bit about how you “touched my sensitivity” instead of just offending my sense of logic and decency.  As well as the fact that you didn’t reply at all to what I said, even though you had explicitly asked for someone to describe to you precisely how your comments were sexist. Instead you fished for a reason to dismiss me – with the implication that if you could catch me being a young, educated, unmarried woman it would somehow undermine my comment and vindicate you. 

            Let me ask you this.  If you had made an inadvertently racist comment and someone had pointed this out and explained it to you clearly (if perhaps with a slightly aggressive tone), would you have made a similar sort of reply?  “Wow, sounds like you really are an angry black man.  Let me guess – you’re young, educated on a scholarship, and unmarried but have fathered a child.  Racist assumptions, of course…but, am I right?”

            How might your reply have differed in that situation?  Perhaps a clear rebuttal of the comment, a description of how the commenter had misconstrued your position, or an apology?  Why would you not respond the same way just because it’s a point of sex rather than race?  

          • Bruce Sallan

            @2107153fc4052756e71450b43dcff99f:disqus – I may have missed where you pointed out exactly where the sexism was. I suppose you’re referring to my generality about women wanting to be told they look good in a dress by their man? If that is the worst sexist offense I’ve ever made, you’ve made me feel great. 

            I grew up in a time when REAL sexual harassment existed vs. today when whatever offends a women is deemed sexual harassment (e.g. a tool calendar in the cubbie of a co-worker).

            I would “own” any insensitive comment I made and bend over backwards to correct it…I just don’t “see” it here Sarah. 

            Yes, I made an assumption about your background which, I see, you’ve chosen not to validate or invalidate – making believe I was correct. My point in making that assumption is that your background may have made you overly “sensitive” to any comment that even appears sexist or in poor taste.

            At worst, you could accuse me of being in “poor taste,” but I still don’t get it? But, frankly, I don’t see it. My wife wants me to tell her she looks good. Most women want that. And, she does look good. If I saw an obvious “blemish” like spinach in her teeth, you bet I’d point that out. But, otherwise I want to make my wife feel special and I prefer to praise her than not.

            I host #DadChat very Thursday with a LOT of women participants. They all like and respect me. You are invited to join us Thursday when we will be discussing this very topic:

            I suggest you NOT read my Women vs. Men columns – they are much more “sexist” by your definition than this one…

          • sarahcbagley

            As to locating the sexism…  I was saying that your original comment about women and dresses, especially some specifics about the way you phrased and contextualized it, had some pretty sexist overtones.  If you’ll look to your discussion above with Professor Weber on Amanda’s comment, it appears that he agrees with me here.  I actually think your reply to him is really strange.  He says that one sentence of that section you wrote is worth discussing and the rest is problematically stereotypical, and you say you think he agrees with you that what you wrote in its entirety is not sexist.  That’s not at all what he said.  It appears that he was overly circumspect when he just said there was a “wealth of problems” about your stereotype instead of restating that it is sexist.  

            And I actually basically agree with what he said (not how you interpreted it).  It’s entirely possible and an interesting idea to discuss that men and women might react to criticism differently, possibly for both physiological and social conditioning reasons.  It’s just the way you elaborate that comment that is sexist.  I only really got offended when you gave your incredibly patronizing and dismissive response to me.  You got one and a half of your guesses about me right, but one reason I didn’t want to respond to that part of your comment is that I also know a lot of people who don’t fit any of your criteria who would agree with me about what I said.  Again, I suspect Prof. Weber is one of them.  I’m still curious, by the way, about my questions there: would you have responded differently if this were an issue of race?  Why or why not?  

            Either way, it looks like we’re not going to find much common ground here.  There are certain things that you seem to believe are incontrovertible truths, obvious commonsense facts, that I simply do not agree with.  I think they are damaging assumptions, and I think it’s sad that you refuse to even entertain the possibility that they are debatable assumptions and not just “the way it is.”  

          • Bruce Sallan

            Now I’m beginning to really like AND appreciate you @2107153fc4052756e71450b43dcff99f:disqus . Before, it felt like an attack. I do use provocative words sometimes. And, I may be stuck in my assumptions too – I’ll own that. As for the race thing, I think that is even more touchy. What surprises me is that my phrasing and mentioning of women and their feelings about how they look in a dress is so troubling to you? 

            Professor Weber is ALWAYS exceptionally able to see both sides of an issue. I tend to be a bit more locked in my beliefs. That is where MY age and background come to bear – just as your one and half came to bear in some way, perhaps.

            No matter, it’s okay to agree to disagree – and NOW we’re doing it with full respect – in some circles we could never get here! THAT is cool that we did and, seriously, I really encourage you to bring your intelligent views to #DadChat tomorrow night on this subject!

  • Kenna Griffin

    Honestly, I’m a bit bothered that you apologized to the student. I teach communicationS. I think of myself as the last line of defense between my students and the public who relies on them for information. If they don’t learn it from me, who will teach them? I know I’m sometimes viewed as being harsh, but I hope more students see me as a resource. In the end, I’m going to be much nicer to them than a producer, editor, station manager, etc. when they’ve made a mistake.

    • Bruce Sallan

      Well put @profkrg:twitter – YOU are the last stop before reality for them!

    • David Weber

      I don’t think I did apologize, Kenna.  I told the student I would not use the Sharpie tactic on her paper in the future.  I didn’t think of that as an apology, but I guess it could be read as such.  If I could rewind the tapes and tape over them, perhaps I would have said, “The next time you add the ‘-s’ inappropriately, I will go all Sharpie on you all over again.”

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  • Amanda

    I was with you until you unnecessarily veered into the sexist talk of women as shoppers and men as crafty fire dodgers. As a composition professor, this would be the biggest issue I’d raise with this essay. I would bet I’m not the only audience member you alienated at the very end in favor of making an easy (though not funny) joke.

    • Bruce Sallan

      Nope @e396977707e64d1d9403db70212fc2b5:disqus , you weren’t the only one. But, why would that end issue detract from the validity of what preceded it? So, a “B-” ? But, I’m really curious exactly what part you considered “sexist?” That word is bandied about way too easily in our PC world!

    • David Weber

      Whew! I am glad my part of the essay was not problematic.

      • Bruce Sallan

        Hey @7f990e539df4ddefe26884eb65a5f04c:disqus – how about your thoughts about this? Do you think it’s sexist? I think it’s as far from sexist as can be – I’ve been “sexist” in other posts but this one is so minor I have to believe what I said about Amanda – she comes from a generation that has been raised to LOOK for sexism (or racism, or homophobia, or…)…rather than accept some of these non politically correct truths to be just that – truths!

        • David Weber

          If we are talking about the second-to-last paragraph (starting, “As an aside…”), I would say the passage that to me is very interesting and merits reflection and discussion is the sentence reading, “Men and women react to criticism in very different ways.”  Much of what follows is what I would call invoking a stereotype, and there are of course a wealth of problems associated with or following on from doing so.  

          But back to the issue of how women and men may respond differently to criticism.  I suspect that is true.  It is now well known that men and women tend to have different communication styles, process information differently and participate in groups differently.  Responding to criticism calls upon doing all of those things, so it would make sense that men and women would deal with giving or receiving criticism differently from one another.

          • Bruce Sallan

            So, is it sexist what I wrote @7f990e539df4ddefe26884eb65a5f04c:disqus – I think not and I think you think not!

          • nahtenahte

            Oh, then I guess it’s not! and when people of color say something is racist, let’s figure out how to phrase our responses so that THEY are the ones who look ridiculous! 

            Honestly, folks – this is Feminism 101. You want to talk about how people respond to criticism? I’m learning more about that from this thread of comments than from your essay above. 
            PS – yeah. It was sexist. Own it and resolve it.

    • Guest

      Irony much?

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  • mickey

    as somebody born in 1985, i couldn’t agree more. i had the *interesting* youth of being one of the last schools in the US taught by hateful catholic nuns, so i am used to criticism. also, at the hand of my parents, i was never allowed to bring home anything less than a B. so i never did until i moved away to college.

    as an adult paying for part of my ART college education, i must say that my biggest complaints when it came to critique time is how disgustingly attached these children go to their work. their inability to realize that criticism is what’s going to make them a better artist/person is what’s going to keep them in over 100k+ debt forever. i mean these kids were drawing elves and wizards and, to this day, you still can’t tell them to change anything in the only low-paying illustration they’re asked to do every few years.

    glad somebody said it! thank you 

    • Bruce Sallan

      Thx @1b583acc207cab33114fff68daea6987:disqus – this topic has clearly touched a nerve which is why I’ll be talking about it on my radio show Thursday and it will be Thursday’s #DadChat topic as well!

    • David Weber

      It’s bitterly amusing how far over backwards one must bend to tell a student that his or her work was in some way deficient.  On the other hand, I have found a number of ways to do it that “work” for the students and at the same time are consistent with my own belief that there is something to be learned by discovering what you did that was less than effective.

      One way is that I have little by little taught my students the concept of “strengths and deltas.”  A “strength” speaks for itself–it is something in your work that you would want to keep or amplify.  A “delta” is what is more commonly thought of as “constructive criticism.”  The Greek letter delta, in chemistry, means a change that occurs in a chemical process. So I use the term to refer to that part of a student’s work that would benefit from changing in a certain specific way.

      Another way is to focus on the concepts effective and ineffective, rather than “good” or “bad.”  A choice — the spelling of a word, the construction of an argument, the control of a sentence — was either effective (for the following reasons…) or ineffective (for the following reasons…).

      There are other ways I’ve discovered that, from the student point of view, take the edge off what they would otherwise think is “mean” criticism that “makes them feel bad about themselves.” 

      The thing is, however, giving feedback shouldn’t require all of this tap-dancing on my part. My friend and colleague, John Church, taught for us part-time when I first joined the faculty.  He discovered that I was an effective (!) editor–he would write something and give me a draft to comment on.  What I always thought was great was how he would ask for my feedback.  “Dave,” he’d say, handing me the document, “bleed on this for me.”  I wish my students were so strong of heart and spirit! 

  • Annie Fox, M.Ed.

    Thank you, Bruce and thank you, Professor Weber. I have been an online adviser to tweens and teens for the past 16 years. Most of the “thin-skinned” reactions they reveal to me are in the form of responses to a peer relationship, rather than an inability to deal with “constructive criticism” in the academic realm. That said, I think you’re on to something universal: it’s a challenge for many young people to actually “hear” the feedback they’re getting, and use it in constructive ways! However, as it applies to feedback in personal relationships, I’m not convinced that what you’re describing is a generational tendency. Some of us, regardless of when we were born, are more more “thin skinned” than others. This may be attributed to in-born temperament. When we perceive rejection, we feel upset. When we experience injustice, we rankle. As Rachel Maddow put it recently, “I am wired to cry.” We don’t choose to feel these emotions. They just come up, unbidden.  I understand how that tendency can be an impediment to learning and progressing toward becoming a more self-confident, competent and effective communicator. I also understand that the “tender-hearted” folks in the world, are often the ones who spearhead great social causes. Of course, if they can’t take feedback on their spelling mistakes, their outreach create may not be as respected as it should be.

    • Bruce Sallan

      I love the “I’m wired to cry” line @twitter-26638858:disqus and largely agree with your excellent comment! TYVM!

    • David Weber

      I agree with much of Annie’s comment  here.  It is reminding me that there is a fine line between thoughtfully and judiciously “packaging” feedback in a way that works for a particular person (i.e., makes it easy for him or her to hear it), versus deciding that the person is thin-skinned.  A subtle but important distinction.

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  • Diego Pereda

    Great post thank you both for sharing your point if view. I have worked both in Engineering and Marketing/Communications (with an S) I have found that providing negative feedback in the engineering world is a lot easier than the comms world. Not sure if its because the engineering discipline lends itself to more data driven decision making…

    • David Weber

      You are making an interesting point.  I would imagine you are correct, that certain industries or professions accommodate direct feedback and some don’t.

      I have worked with engineers over the years and I agree, they are pretty good with accepting direct reactions from others.  I think that engineers are about functional, effective results–how to get them, how to expand on them–and recognize that a clearly articulated “punch list” saves time and energy in the long run, if you just learn how to hear the items on the list.

      In the military, higher-ranking company-grade officers and lower-ranking field-grade officers are very good at giving and receiving straight-from-the-shoulder feedback, as are higher-ranking NCOs.  Warrant officers less so. Lower-ranking company-grade officers less so–they often get defensive.

      Professors don’t tend to be good at giving or receiving feedback “with the bark on.” I’m an exception.  I don’t ENJOY receiving such feedback, but I have learned how to learn from it.  I have more than my share of  flaws as a human being, but I think I’m pretty good at taking in and processing sharply critical feedback.

      • Bruce Sallan

        This discussion continues to get more and more interesting! 

    • Bruce Sallan

      I am sure it’s the nature of the respective disciplines @google-904e87a4c11d51144e21e96fe5461334:disqus – Professor, what say you?

      • David Weber

        I replied to Diego earlier.  “What say I” is that in general the less tangible the goal or typical end product of the field, the less likely the practitioners are to be good at receiving direct feedback of of the “negative” type…”negative feedback” defined here as feedback that says, “Don’t do ‘x’ anymore” or “Start doing more of ‘x,’ you haven’t done enough of it  yet” or “I didn’t like the ‘x’ that was contained in your work.”

        What I mean is — and these are generalizations, yes — take, for example, the goal of education, or rather, educating people.  That’s somewhat intangible, in that how to measure it is a continual struggle … do we decide people are effectively educated based on test results? or on results achieved AFTER the education has been received (e.g., in college after high school, in the workplace or grad school after college, in “the rest of one’s life” after formal education has ended for the person?  Consequently, practitioners of the educating professions — teachers, professors — tend to be less comfortable receiving neg. fdbk.  (which I mentioned in an earlier post, a reply to Diego that at the moment is appearing below this one).

        In contrast, consider a similar goal: the goal of TRAINING people.  The quality of training is generally measured by effective performance in the capacity one trains to function in, or the job one trains to do.  That may be still be somewhat intangible, but it is more tangible than the goal of educating someone.  After all, as someone (who?) once said, training is about prepping people to do something that is known, educating is about prepping people to do something that is not yet known.

        Not surprisingly, then, given the relative tangibility of the training endeavor, trainers tend to be good at receiving neg. fdbk.  They want to know what to do ASAP to fix a system that may not be producing the measurable results they are charged with producing.

        I think I can speak to this fairly knowledgeably because in my professional life that has thus far spanned 35 years, I have been responsible for facilitating instruction and learning in elem. and junior high school, adult ed. classes in the public schools, corporate training and education (for about 20 yr.) and college and grad. school.  I still do corporate training at the executive and managerial levels.  I myself am generally good at receiving and learning from neg. feedback, regardless of how mean-spirited the feedback is (the latter isn’t “fun” but it IS something I have learned to learn from) or empathic. When I am wearing my “training” hat, I indeed AM relatively less defensive than when I am wearing my “professor” hat.

  • Coleen

    Such a great read! It inspired me to write my own blog post for the other side of the story. I don’t think the second to last paragraph was needed to enhance your point and it would have steered all these comments of “sexism” away. However, I don’t know why people are focused on sexism.  Where they reading the article?  Men and women were both used as examples. Overall, great read and awesome points. High five!

    • David Weber

      Thanks very much, Coleen, for your comment.

    • Bruce Sallan

      Thx @7645e7451fe4234485ec62b4ef225890:disqus – YOU have finally said something that makes sense…it may have been unnecessary but it sure wasn’t sexist!

  • Churchill Madyavanhu

    I know it’s difficult to accept criticism, even the constructive type, but as with most stuff in life, practice makes perfect. The sooner we let our kids know this, the better. I think college time is already too late for this, but that’s how it usual goes. Nowadays, we handle our children like eggs and let them sail through their primary and secondary education with little effort. It’s not surprising that they don’t develop a thicker skinner, because we don’t give them the chance to do that. Maybe the best approach is to let the parents know that it’s important for them to make their children expect a little negative feedback from time to time. 

    • Bruce Sallan

      @churchillls:disqus – what do you think about the accusations that I was sexist at the end of this post? Very curious your thoughts!

  • Jerry Doby

    I can do nothing but concur that Millennials in general are definitely too thin-skinned.  I am an NCO in the Army with six combat deployments in 13 years and until 2007, I was with the same team for more than 5 years.  As you rise in rank and skill, the system tries to take you out of active work and give you a desk or a trainer slot.  I got a trainer slot (I am a .50 gunner as well as other squad weapons).  While suffering through my first training cycle, I got a squad of young ‘gentlemen’ who grew up in a society where parents don’t yell, kids cuss their parents and get away with it and just talk back in general…with no real consequences. The first time I raised my voice the entire squad blanched and shrunk inside themselves.  Even ‘gentle’ corrective training was responded to like torture…

    Move forward to my last deployment to Afghanistan (yes I ran away from school), I and my platoon leader were the only combat vets assigned to this team.  Although we are part of a special team, that is supposed to me more disciplined than the average bear, I found myself looking in the eyes of people who either shrank when faced with correction or spoke out against being corrected.  It wasn’t until our first fire fight at close quarters that woke them up…this was very real life, no auto regeneration and the other side didn’t care whether they liked being shot at or not….oh and no time outs.

    SOMEHOW we need to wake these young people up that the professional world is unforgiving, you either perform up to standard or you go away.  Are we looking at the next 2 generations of leaders and workers that will accept effort versus performance?  Oh, I am sorry I didn’t put that bolt in correctly and your car fell apart…but please don’t scold me.  How are we going to save ourselves from these people!!! LOL

    Ok sorry I took up so much space, I just wanted to say I agree with your article…I am wordy at times though…(I hate the restrictions of Twitter!)

    • Bruce Sallan

      @jdobypr:disqus – with a comment like yours, be as wordy as you want! That is what this section is for – discourse – honest discourse. In the context of YOUR world, it literally is Life or Death to learn and do well so the critiques you offer – naive as I am – would seem to merit great attention and appreciation!

      I’m amazed that those young men and women who CHOOSE to join the armed services also react so childishly and self-destructively – literally!

      I sure hope you’ll join us at #DadChat tonight – promised to be a good and heated discussion!

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  • Daniel Alexander

    I think the burger picture sums everything up nicely: say a compliment before, then give constructive criticism, then another compliment.
    Wish we’d learn something like that in school.

    • Bruce Sallan

      That would be ideal @daniel_dinnie:disqus 

  • Daniel Alexander

    Where did my comment go…?

    • Bruce Sallan

      Hit “Load more comments” at the bottom @daniel_dinnie:disqus 

      • Daniel Alexander

        Smart man….

        • Bruce Sallan

          Trust me  @daniel_dinnie:disqus – I’ve thought they were all lost, too! 

          • Daniel Alexander

            Maybe we’re all getting old 😀

  • Chloe

    It’s a huge problem. How I see it in the healthcare setting is that we can’t ever say anything that might make the patient feel badly (or responsible) about their poor health choices. It’s very frustrating. 

    • Bruce Sallan

      @ChloeJeffreys:disqus – all this is an extension of both the self-esteem and PC worlds we now live in and it ain’t good!

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  • Robert Alderman

    I am of the opinion that constructive criticism is an oxymoron. How can you tear something down (critisize) and then build it back up (construct) without making an enemy of yourself and pissing off the recipient. Usually the tear down process is done with the passions that are absent when the giver makes it to the build up attempt, which almost always rings hollow in the mind of the recipient. If aliens visited our planet what would they make of this practice? they might conclude that our species is insane. There is a far more emotionally honest approach. Gain the persons acceptance of your feedback. Prior to advancing this offer make it clear that when you are concerned enough about an issue you would like to offer feedback. By laying down this groundrule in advance you can then ask them if they are open to your feedback. If they say they are then offer them the unvarnished truth in the form of feedback only, none of this (blank) made me feel…. crap. Feedback is an accurate description of the event that encourages the recipient to see the wisdom in changing the behavior. The moment you start telling them how what they did “made” you feel, act, etc you’ve gone out of integrity and into victimhood, which might be how they first learned how to be so thinned skinned. When your done feeding back the event build them up higher than they were when you got there with your old recking ball!

    • Bruce Sallan

      I see your point @41451c139f377bbf3daab0819bc48a8e:disqus – and I completely agree that often “WE” are too concerned about their and our feelings. As for aliens visiting us, there are many more things WE humans do that are insane…the list is sadly endless!

      • Robert Alderman

        And that endless list is fodder for us bloggers!

        • Bruce Sallan

          Thankfully, I have my own “endless list” of things I want to write, talk, or speak about @41451c139f377bbf3daab0819bc48a8e:disqus 

  • Robert Alderman

    Comment on the picture of the pencil line: when you read between the line you realize the person is cut in half by the white part of the black line, so everything thats black and white usually harms people beneath the scene.

    • Bruce Sallan

      That makes sense…duh! Thx so much @41451c139f377bbf3daab0819bc48a8e:disqus 

      • Robert Alderman

        Hey, I was stuck in my own duh moment until I saw the white line and the guys reaction to it cutting him in half.

  • Charity Kountz

    Oh Bruce, leave it to you to find such a timely subject. I chuckled to read this because I literally just this morning dealt with this myself. As a mother, with two young children, I’m happy to share my perspective. I would daresay this isn’t a trend limited to millennials (I myself am a Gen X, although just barely, having been born on 12/21/1979. I wasn’t supposed to be born until February).

    This morning, I received a review of my children’s book, Jason, Lizzy and the Snowman Village. Overall the review was kind and positive but with a few well placed comments about areas for improvement. Ten years ago I would have been instantly angry, “They just didn’t read it close enough” or “they don’t know what they’re talking about”. Now, after years of working on my craft and getting used to criticism, constructive or otherwise, I’ve learned to see through a more objective lens, to see the criticism as a means for improving, rather than seeing it as a failure. I’ve learned that it’s okay if we don’t know everything, and mistakes can be fixed. I’ve also learned that there are times to listen to criticism and act on it, and times to ignore it. In this case, I chose to act on it and immediately sent a request to both my editor and illustrator for help in identifying and solving the issues.

    How did I develop this ability to be less thin skinned? Time and practice. I’ve had a number of people over the years help me to understand criticism and develop strategies for dealing with it. I’ve gone to my father on several occasions and he was able to, with love and patience (and a lot of humor), help me to learn the strategies I identified above. Being thick skinned, comes as a result of practice and confidence through success.

    As a result, not only am I better able to handle criticism, but now, I can help my own children when they come to me. My youngest, Libby, started first grade this week and already has received some criticism from her teacher. Her response was “She’s just being mean”. My response? “Oh no sweetheart, she’s not being mean. She’s trying to help you to be better.” And we had a conversation about what that all meant. She is remarkably thin-skinned. The lightest reprimand will bring tears. We obviously have a long way to go with her.

    I believe that the age of “An A for Effort” needs to go away. This idea that everyone deserves to be rewarded is a mistake. How else will our children learn the value of hard work if not through failure and trying again to succeed? How will they learn to persevere through adversity if children achieve rewards from every effort? Why should they try any harder than the minimum to get by? This feeds into feeling entitled and does not help to bring about self-sustaining adults.

    So I daresay understanding and responding to criticism is a skill that’s developed and can be nurtured by others and is not universal to any generation but more so, is a challenge we all deal with, and with varying degrees of ability.

    Also, I don’t believe your comments are sexist (as identified by others in the comments) as much as they are stereotyping. I’ve never asked my husband (nor would I) if something makes me look fat or not. I would however ask him if he thought I looked sexy just to hear him say yes. 🙂

    The cartoon is an image for “read between the lines”. A bit of a strange graphic but interesting and thought provoking nonetheless.

    • Bruce Sallan

      @charitykountz:disqus – your wonderful and lengthy, well-put and complimentary comment really deserves more than these three words, but “Good for YOU!”

  • Shelly

    I’ve noticed that me generation seems thin skinned, but it’s really more about being perfectionists. It’s mostly this inability to swallow criticism rather than being thin skinned. The thin skinned issue is especially prominent in the next crop of kids. Just look at all the “anti bullying campaigns/0 tolerance for bullying.” Um 90% of the time it’s really just teasing these kids are going through rather than bullying. You’re going to wish you were dealing with Millennials when these new kids come in.

    I think the “don’t criticize me!” thing comes from the fact that my peers have been raised like well trained monkeys. They get a good grade on a paper and mommy and daddy act like they’re the sun and earth. They’re obsessed with getting perfect grades without criticism, more so than they are with actually learning the material. I’m the opposite. I actually want to be there and learn, whether I’m right or wrong. The most interesting part of class to me, is the discussion part where we all get to challenge and question everyone’s ideas. I’ve noticed millennials HATE this and usually stare blankly into space until forced to speak.

    • Bruce Sallan

      @945ea16fe5fbd3f0703cc98e52d882cf:disqus – they sure are! And, it’s a pleasure to read your comment!

  • Shelly

    Oh and as for the “sexist comment,” look you posted something you knew was going to cause confrontation. Don’t whine when the people you’re offending strike back. What do you expect them to do?

    • Bruce Sallan

      Yes @945ea16fe5fbd3f0703cc98e52d882cf:disqus – I do like to provoke! Lol… this column has been “shared” 1,293 times! Must’ve struck a chord!

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