Mark Sherman: Finding something to like

Mark-Sherman SQUAREA friend of mine says that he is completely honest virtually all of the time — and, of course, I wonder if he is telling me the truth when he says this — except for one situation.

He says, “You go to someone’s home for dinner, and you know they worked very hard at making it, cooked all day, and now they serve it with a flourish. And you don’t like it.

I’ll still tell them it was an absolutely delicious and wonderful meal.”


I am not like that. To me that is a kind of culinary enabling. Here is someone who should have given up cooking long ago, or at least taken cooking classes, and you are telling her that she’s a great cook. I’m not saying you should get up from the table and announce, “This is the worst meal I’ve ever had! I wouldn’t feed my dog this food!” But to rant and rave about how great it was when you could barely get it down is, to me, not doing this person, who should be prohibited from touching a stove, a favor.

There is an art to what you say to people when you are evaluating their work and the work leaves much to be desired. My view is that you don’t want to be dishonest, but at the same time you don’t want to crush a person’s spirit. If I have a home-cooked meal that was relatively unpalatable, I won’t say, “Omigod, this is awful!” But what I will say is something like “You have a beautiful home. How long have you been here?”

If I am forced to actually comment on the meal, I will first try to see if I can come up with anything to compliment. So it might be “I love your plates!” If I feel I must say something about the food itself, I’ll use those great words, “interesting” and “unusual,” as in “Those dandelion greens were interesting. They had an unusual taste.”

But as for an overall evaluation, I would say something like this: “Thank you. It was quite a meal!” or “Definitely one of the most interesting meals I’ve had in a long time.” Or possibly “Good. Very filling. Two forkfuls filled me right up!”

Actually, it was my experience as a professor of psychology that helped me learn how to evaluate people’s work in a way which felt honest, but in which I didn’t entirely destroy their will to live. And this could be someone whose ability in psychology and especially in writing about it barely exceeded that of a pumpkin. As for the writing, it was in grading term papers that I truly learned the art of compassionate evaluation.

In a term paper which truly offered little to praise — except for that the fact that it was so bad it could not have been plagiarized — I always found something on which I could comment favorably. For example, I might write a note on the first page saying, “This is a great title!” Then, at the end, in the couple of hundred words I often wrote above the grade, I might start out with “You chose a very interesting idea.”

But then I had to be honest, so what followed could be “But you didn’t do nearly as much with this idea as you could have. Raising the question of whether a bilingual child might do better at math than a monolingual one is intriguing, but to not even cite one study on this, but rather simply talk about your little bilingual cousin who’s a math whiz, left much to be desired. And your writing could definitely stand some improvement. A ‘sentence’ like ‘How can we know if when we haven’t learned a second language we don’t have to learn it as hard as it was to learn the first one maybe if at all?’ is virtually incomprehensible.”

Of course, I’d have to end my stream of negatives with something positive (the famous “sandwich” approach to critical feedback in management), so my final sentence might read, “You used a very good font.”

There is one comment

  1. MaryAnn

    Was the food actually “bad” or did you just not like it? Because – “it wasn’t for me” is acceptable. If everyone else enjoyed it, saying “this was gross” is not “honest”, it’s just rude and hurtful. Do you see a difference? Mean doesn’t equal “honest” any more than ass kissing or insincere flattery.

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