Why Take it Personally?

As the holidays approach, most of us will have increased interaction with clerks in stores and servers in restaurants. Most of us know how to conduct themselves in these situations, but I often hear about people who complain about the slightest thing to those unfortunates whose job it is to wait on them. Of course, truly bad service can certainly create a dilemma over how to express your disapproval. Before reacting, it’s important to examine how we handle giving — and receiving — criticism.

How do you react to poor or questionable service? If you handle criticism well, you’ll probably not leap to the immediate (and often mistaken) conclusion that the inferior service is directed toward you personally. Instead, you might look around and see how many other tables the server has at the moment, and whether a manager or some equivalent is aware of the situation.

I have a friend who used to own a restaurant near my former office in Chevy Chase, Maryland. From time to time, as a result of poor scheduling or whatever, the servers would be, in restaurant jargon, ‘in the weeds.’ As hard as they tried, the quality of service spiraled progressively downward. The customers’ reactions provided me with a real-life case study of how people handled their feelings. If they saw that the server deserved the benefit of the doubt, maybe they would allow a little more time. Otherwise, they made a firm but polite request for better service. Either way, they didn’t take it personally. Those who made it ‘all about them’ created a noisy scene, ruining the experience for everyone.

To effectively give out criticism, first consider the facts. It’s important to go with your head, because your initial, emotional reaction might be that the bad service is all about you. But a calm examination of the facts might not bear that out.

Some of us have a hard time receiving criticism because we automatically take it personally. Contrary to our feelings, all criticism is not necessarily a personal attack. And if you think about it, it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is whether it’s true, and whether you care about it. If you agree with the criticism, you might stand to benefit. But if you honestly don’t agree with it, then what does it matter?

If criticism comes from your boss or client, then of course you have no choice but to listen. Listening doesn’t mean agreeing, but it does mean at least considering the criticism. If a casual acquaintance or a stranger criticizes you, then what does it matter? People with a healthy outlook know how to put criticism into perspective.

The next time you’re criticized by a significant other such as a husband, wife, boss or friend, give this a try: First, don’t say anything. Simply listen. After all, the criticism could be valid. Even if it’s not, you’ll need time to formulate an effective reply. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain by just listening. Silence is power, and listening grants you the power to be secure within yourself.

Second, put things into perspective by considering the source. If you and the critic have different attitudes or viewpoints, then the criticism probably doesn’t matter. Third, smile whenever possible. Smiling keeps the exchange from escalating. If the critic really is attacking you, it will make him or her uncomfortable to see you smile. This is a good thing.

Fourth, don’t interrupt. Interruptions breed interruptions, and you’re not going to be heard either. When there’s a pause, ask, “Can I speak now?” Once it’s your turn, hold on to it and don’t allow interruptions. If you’re getting nowhere, it’s perfectly OK to walk away from the conversation. You’re not obliged to have discussions you don’t want to have.

Criticism can be handled rationally. Whether you’re in a situation where it’s not personal (as is most often the case in a restaurant), or when it comes from someone you know or love, it’s all in how you look at it.