“My friend doesn’t think you’re funny.”
Bland criticism like that is routine for most comedians. However, in November of 2006, responding to just those words killed the career of one of the stars of one of television’s most successful comedies. In the seven years since Michael Richards appeared on Late Night with David Letterman to talk about that gig, he’s appeared on television a grand total of eight times, most of them projects related to Seinfeld.
The problem wasn’t the criticism itself. After all, the words came from a heckler in a room packed full of people paying to see Richards perform. Engaged audiences don’t like hecklers any more than comedians do. If Richards had told the heckler and his friends to sit down, shut up, and let everyone else enjoy their evening, he’d have received a round of applause.
Unfortunately, that isn’t what Richards did. Instead, he went on a nearly three-minute rant. He started by invoking pre-Civil Rights Era violence against blacks and using racial slurs. When the heckler, who was black, objected, Richards said, “Well, you interrupted me, pal. That’s what happens when you interrupt the white man.” When the heckler tried to insult his career, Richards replied, “Yeah, I’m washed up.”
As it turns out, he was. The heckler’s criticism couldn’t hurt him, but his own words, caught on video and released by a gossip site, damned him in the eyes of the public. The comedy club where he was performing canceled his booking. Richards tried to claim he was attempting an over-the-top bit of schtick to show up the heckler, and the impromptu act didn’t come off the way he meant it to. Whether that’s true or not, it didn’t matter. Even Richards’ friends didn’t defend him. He retired from stand-up the next year and told Jerry Seinfeld in 2012 that he hadn’t done a stand-up performance since that night.
In July 2012, another incident occurred in the same comedy club. Comedian Daniel Tosh was on stage saying that rape jokes can be funny when a woman in the audience protested, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”
According to the heckler’s account, Tosh continued speaking to the rest of the audience. “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” A friend of the heckler posted the account on her blog, and the story took off.
The club manager disputed the wording of Tosh’s response, saying Tosh had only suggested the woman had been gang raped, not that it would be funny if she were. Tosh himself claimed he was misquoted.
That didn’t matter much to the response. While Tosh’s career didn’t end as Richards’ did, the storm of criticism did him no good. Even among comedians who defended the possibility of funny jokes about deeply difficult topics like rape, not a lot of people stood up for the idea that Tosh was obviously funny enough to pull those jokes off. In the end, the relative acceptability of rape in U.S. society (as compared to lynching), combined with the fact that he didn’t appear visibly angry probably saved Tosh.
If you’re not a comedian, if you’re not standing in front of a microphone, where a second silence feels like a minute, the most important thing you can do in dealing with criticism is to stop for a moment before you react. There are typically a few ways you can make the situation better, but there are a million ways to make things worse. In those first moments, when your adrenaline is high and you don’t know all the facts, you’ll probably settle on one of those in a panic.
Racism and talking about someone being raped are extreme examples. Still they represent one of the most common ways of making the situation worse–blaming the complainer. When we don’t like the message, we shoot the messenger. The best defense is a good offense. The practice is so popular, it fills our everyday language.
There are good reasons for this kind of behavior, too. Making amends can be costly. Making changes to keep the incident in question from repeating can be both costly and difficult. Accepting responsibility for a misstep can bring punishment. Life would be much simpler if there were no problem, or at least if the problem weren’t our problem. Yes, better if the whole thing were someone else’s problem. And who better to bear the problem than the person who started the whole thing by insisting there was a problem in the first place?
If you think about this for any time at all, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Nor is it ethical. It also doesn’t work very well, which the most practical reason to give yourself time to think about it. There may be times when the person complaining is at fault, and we’ll get into some of these later, but often they aren’t. When they aren’t, you don’t want to be the person who making everything worse for them simply because they had the guts to complain. That makes you not just the bad guy, but the intentional bad guy.
If your panicking brain realizes that blaming the critic is a bad idea, it may try to shift to blaming the guy next to you. This may be a coworker, someone who reports to you, someone else involved in a project, or any of number of other people in arm’s reach. This is still a bad idea for ethical reasons, of course. Even if the person you blame is the person the critic is complaining about, you probably don’t have all the facts at this point. Assigning blame to anyone before you do is a bad idea. If you’re unlucky, it can also create an enemy out of the person you blame just when you need people on your side. Avoid acting on any impulse to toss anyone to the wolves at this point.
Also avoid instant capitulation. The vast majority of the time, if you run into a complaint online, you’re at some distance from the event in question. You’ve probably only heard some part of the complaint. Give yourself time to find out exactly what happened and exactly what your critic wants before you act. Even if you know you’re entirely in the wrong and someone else is entirely in the right, you’ll be able to be more thoughtful and gracious if you give yourself time to get over your initial emotional response.
Another common way to deal with the threat that criticism poses is to immediately make excuses about why it wasn’t the real you that caused the problem. Sure, whatever happened happened, but it wasn’t your fault because your child’s babysitter was late, your car had a flat, and you broke a tooth. Also, somebody forgot to reorder regular coffee for the breakroom, so you’re stuck with decaf.
Just don’t do it. Even when the internet is screaming at you that you’re a horrible person, almost no one actually believes that unless you’re the head of Monsanto or Walmart or a politician in D.C. Everyone knows that people have bad days. Everyone knows that people sometimes get stuck in bad positions. Even if they seem to have forgotten it where you’re concerned, they’ll remember if you handle things right.
However, handling things right does not mean taking the spotlight off of someone with a complaint and putting it on your call for sympathy. Give your critic their turn first. Besides, the last thing you want to tell your customers or constituents is that every time you have a bad day, they’ll have a bad day right along with you.
Don’t try to minimize what happened. This is another self-protective measure that can backfire on you spectacularly. It fails from a purely diplomatic perspective. The last thing you want to tell someone in this situation is that what they’re complaining about did happen, but they’re wrong to be upset about it. If you’re minimizing a situation, that’s exactly what you’re doing.
Minimizing the complaint, particularly as a reflexive move, might also put you in a position where you’re defending the indefensible. What you say as the immediate response to criticism will be held onto and mulled over at least until there is resolution. If people remain upset during that time, those initial words will be pored over for hidden meaning as though they were gospel. Don’t give yourself one more thing to apologize and atone for.
So what can you do when you’re initially faced with online criticism? Luckily, people expect some amount of time shifting on the internet. You don’t have to act instantaneously, no matter how much the “primitive” parts of your brain are screaming at you to move before the bigger monkeys get you. Take some time to settle down. Get used to the idea you’re being criticized.
Take a walk to get rid of some of that adrenaline. Do whatever else you can to manage the strong emotions you’re feeling without blunting your ability to make good decisions. Now is probably not the time to pour yourself a drink, for example. Find a friend or a colleague to vent to. This is the person to tell about the horrible day you’re having, the terrible person who is saying mean things about you on the internet, and that useless colleague whose fault it really is that you’re in this position.
Be careful, though. Both the act of venting and the support of your friends can reinforce the sense that you’re in the right. The point of taking some time at the beginning for yourself is to put you in a better position to hear and respond to criticism, not a worse one.
Nor can you afford to take a lot of time. You don’t have to respond immediately, but you do have to respond. Most advice on this matter gives you twenty-four hours to come to some kind of resolution. That’s true in some cases but not all, as we’ll discuss later. Still, you have some work to do before you get to that resolution, so you don’t want to delay too long. Take the time you need to relax slightly, just until you’re ready to put on your sympathetic face and get to the heart of things.
This piece is part of a much larger writing project on handling criticism in the age of social media. Feedback is particularly welcome on these pieces, as I hope to collect and revise all of these to create a resource on the topic. They are not in any particular order at the moment.