Reader Request: Offering Constructive Criticism, Part 2

Let’s recap from yesterday:

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Laurel popped this question into the suggestion box:

I was debating commenting on [a recent] outfit post because I didn’t think the outfit was working for me but I didn’t want to seem critical. And I wasn’t sure how to suggest the topic to you! So here goes.

My reluctance to post something critical made me think about how we as women are often reluctant to be critical of others. Oh sure, we’re critical of ourselves, and of others behind their backs in a catty way. But we’re often afraid to speak our minds lest we be seen of being critical of others. How often, in a business meeting, are we afraid to say what we feel when we don’t agree with others, or don’t want to be the only one in the room to say we don’t like something? So, how about a post on how women should hone our skills to be critical in a supportive, constructive way? I am often reluctant to post criticism of outfits on personal style blogs and I suspect others are, too. I don’t have a blog and I’m not putting pictures of myself on the Internet for all to see and comment, and have enormous respect for those who do, so I don’t want to be critical.

Laurel’s question is extremely important, and one that raises hackles for many, many people. Especially women, as she points out. Most of us have been on the receiving end of actual constructive criticism, but also criticism that’s meant to be constructive but ends up being destructive, and just plain hurtful criticism and nastiness. Telling someone that they could do better is never easy, and while it’s no fun to be on the receiving end it can be incredibly stressful to be on the dishing-it-out end, too. And as women, when we pipe up with suggestions and feedback, people tend to drag out the stereotypes: Whiner, nag, Negative Nelly (a female name for a supposedly genderless trait), serial complainer.

In my work with LOTT, I’ve had to hone my skills in confrontation and constructive criticism with other women, so I’m happy to share my opinions and insights. I would, of course, love yours, too! Since Laurel has asked about offering criticism on many levels, we covered the general yesterday and will move into the style- and blogging-focused topics today.

So if general constructive criticism seems dicey, style-related critiques may feel like a virtual minefield. And there’s good reason for that: Our society is RIFE with people and media outlets that make fun of others for their sartorial choices, so we are conditioned to be defensive. We expect the worst. We wonder if someone is saying, “I’d love to see you try skinnies instead of bootcuts” but secretly thinking, “Girl, you are a hot mess in those jeans.”

How can I offer constructive criticism about the style of someone I know?

Several years ago, I got a request from Nancy about offering constructive criticism in the fitting room, but I think that situation is actually less touchy. If you’re out shopping with a sister or friend and are actually asked for your opinion, what are you gonna do, take a pass? Saying, “Nope, that dress is not for you,” might not be fun, but at least it’s small, specific, situational.

Giving someone general feedback about her dressing choices is much harder, and should be approached with caution. Think about the criteria for when to offer constructive criticism:

  • When someone you know and/or care about is involved
  • When your own well-being is impacted
  • When you feel like your input will help

You will likely be able to hit one and three on this list, but two? Very seldom. Now in the case of style, you might be able to swap in “when their well-being is impacted” because some folks may be dressing in ways that impede their career, chafe culturally, or otherwise create social and personal tension. But that’s all a matter of perception, and what you consider to be a key issue may not be as important to the dresser. Ultimately, all adults must be trusted to make their own choices about what to wear.

And so my advice would be this: Consider non-confrontational approaches. Instead of having a big, formal talk with the person in question about her fashion choices:

Ask questions about her choices: Most of the time, when we see people wearing things that seem off, ill-fitting, or otherwise “wrong,” we lack critical information about the choices that led to those garments ending up on that body. If your niece constantly wears oversized sweaters, ask her why. It could be because she likes them and they’re comfy, but it could also be because she’s working through some body image issues and is more comfortable in formless clothing. If your colleague wears super tight skirts all the time, ask her why. It could be because she loves her rear end, but it could also be because a former boss told her she should show off her figure. And, of course, my examples are deeply flawed because every person can have infinite reasons for every choice. So ask. Gather more information about why certain dressing choices are being made. Then …

Offer alternatives: Do this AFTER talking about choices. Preferably days or weeks later, so the person on the receiving end doesn’t feel overwhelmed by your sudden interest. Knowing background and reasoning will give you some footing when you offer alternatives. You can say to your niece, “I can totally understand wanting to feel secure and covered when you get dressed. I saw this ponte blazer and thought of you! It’s a little more structured, but still super comfortable and could be a fun alternative. What do you think?” It’ll be trickier in the coworker example, but something like, “I’m seeing full skirts all over the place these days, and think you could totally rock one! It would be amazing on your figure. Can I lend you one of mine?” Instead of just saying, “You’d look better in something else,” offer concrete examples of alternatives.

Be prepared to be ignored: Again, adults get to choose what they wear. Style is intensely personal. Just because you feel you’ve got ideas for improvements doesn’t mean your suggestions will take root, or even be heard.

And, just to reiterate, style is personal. So personal, people. And just because you think someone would look better in different jeans/shoes/colors doesn’t mean that they aren’t completely happy in what they’re wearing right now. Think about how you’d feel getting that same feedback from someone. Use a friendly, helpful tone. Be kind and caring. And above all, be certain that offering your input is important on some level. Because telling someone that you’d rather they looked a different way is never easy to do, but it’s a lot harder to hear.

How can I offer constructive criticism about the style of a blogger?

I suppose I’m in a fairly good position to answer this one, what with the being a style blogger myself. But I’m also just me, so I’ll say right up front that much of this comes down to my own experiences and personal preferences. I know that MANY other style bloggers read Already Pretty, and hope that they’ll feel free to offer their own input in the comments.

I have received criticism of all kinds through and because of this blog: Actual constructive criticism, criticism that’s meant to be constructive but ends up being destructive, and just plain hurtful criticism and nastiness. And, as is the case with input that is unrelated to style, the difference is always tone. Tone becomes even more important when criticism is offered in writing, and unfortunately tone can be incredibly difficult to convey in writing. But all efforts to be friendly, offer positive alongside negative, and illustrate that criticism is being offered from a place of care and goodwill are appreciated. And, for what it’s worth, most AP readers excel at maintaining a positive and respectful tone while offering conflicting opinions, questioning choices, or putting forth critiques.

This particular blog, though, includes topical posts like this one, stuff-focused posts like the sale picks, and outfits. When we debate ideas here, opportunities arise frequently to change the minds of others or have our own opinions swayed. Those debates are often fraught with criticism of my ideas and commenters will engage with each other, too. But in my opinion, outfit critiques are fundamentally different for a number of reasons.

How we react to outfits is down to taste: No outfit is fundamentally, categorically bad or good. Period. Even if you hate an outfit with every fiber of your being, that doesn’t mean that the blogger wearing it has made an indefensibly bad choice. From yesterday’s definition, constructive criticisms must be both “valid and well-reasoned,” and basing criticism on taste alone is shaky ground since taste is both personal and subjective. Even getting into the nitty-gritty of style rules about proportion, color, and figure-flattery is ultimately dicey as those “rules” are constantly changing.

Only one of the three criteria for constructive criticism is met: You likely don’t know the blogger personally. Their dressing choices have no impact on your life. You may feel like your input could help, and it very well may. I have taken to heart much of the constructive feedback I’ve gotten from readers over the years, and my style has shifted somewhat because of input I’ve received. But there’s no guarantee that your input will be taken to heart.

The deed is done: If I were to swing by someone’s blog to comment that I’d have worn different shoes? Since the blogger in question already wore the shoes she photographed, this type of comment feels moot to me. For what it’s worth, the constructive criticism comments that I find most useful are the ones that offer suggestions for “next time,” Next time maybe a lighter pair of pants, or next time more contrast between the jacket and skirt. Instead of just saying “I don’t like this” or “I’d have done something different,” this points the person on the receiving end toward alternatives for the future. Just saying that you don’t like something registers your taste, and may land badly depending on how you phrase it. Instead, what would you suggest be done differently in the future and why?

The flip side of all this, of course, is the argument that if you’ve gone to the trouble of creating a website, taking a photo of your outfit, and then posting it publicly, you must be implying that you consider this particular outfit to be exemplary. Blog-worthy. Something to admire and emulate. Allow me to state unequivocally that I never think this myself about my own outfits. I am totally serious. This is not logic I would’ve even considered if others hadn’t presented it to me. I post my outfits because I enjoy dressing and want to encourage others to enjoy dressing, because I am not built like a model but still love style and fashion, and because you’ve told me that you enjoy seeing them. Although I certainly hope that my outfits, in general, will encourage other women to express themselves through dress and celebrate their bodies through clothing choices, I never think, “This. This outfit is THE BEST. People need to see this.”

And the flip side of THAT is that most blogs have comments, and people can and should use them. I appreciate Laurel’s recognition of the fact that posting a full-body photograph on a website every day takes come chutzpah – and it does. That said, most bloggers are well aware that they cannot expect everyone to like everything they do, say, or wear. If they want nothing but accolades, blogging probably isn’t the best idea! I certainly don’t expect every last one of you to agree with all of my ideas, love all of my posts, or go ga-ga for all of my outfits. But, as I’ve said from day one on this blog, I fully expect you to express your criticisms respectfully and kindly. That’s just how I roll.

SO. That’s all fine and good, but how do you offer constructive criticism to a style blogger about an outfit? That’s the REAL question here, and I haven’t even touched it! So let’s get handsy. And, as it turns out, my advice will be fairly similar to what I offered for talking with someone you know about her style.

Ask questions about her choices: You may completely hate a combination or garment or the addition of a particular accessory, but do you know why it’s there? I once had a reader say something along the lines of, “I’m curious about your shoe choice here. Those platforms seem awfully heavy for that dress. Can you tell me why you picked them?” And I did! The dress was a maxi and quite long, so the platforms were helpful in keeping my hem off the ground. And since the dress was a wrap style and rather toga/Grecian in appearance, I felt those particular sandals complemented the look. Even if the commenter STILL disagreed with my choice, she now knew why I made it.

Offer alternatives: Mentioned this above, but it bears repeating. And many of you already do this. If you see something that seems off, make a suggestion for next time. “I’d be curious to see this with a jacket instead.” “What about adding opaque tights to this mix?”

Pair with praise: As was mentioned in yesterday’s post about general constructive criticism, consider showing your support and goodwill by giving some praise alongside your criticism. Look at the difference: “I wonder if this would’ve worked better with a different necklace” versus “The colors in this outfit are absolutely dynamite! I wonder if this would’ve worked better with a different necklace.”

Ask yourself how you’d react to your own critique: Read your comment aloud. If someone walked up to you and said that to your face, how would you feel? If a stranger whose face you cannot see said it to you through a computer, how would you feel? This is one of the best ways to monitor your tone.

Be prepared to be ignored: Your criticism may be offered in a constructive way and in a friendly tone, you may have great ideas and offer loads of alternatives, but you are still telling someone that you’d like to see them dress differently. I’ve been told that certain outfits aren’t flattering, that I’ve picked the wrong shoes/jacket/lipstick, that I should mix it up more. I’ve been told to wear more makeup, more pants, and longer hemlines. I’ve been told that I should dress more radically because my outfits don’t align with my rhetoric. I’ve been told that the things I love most in my wardrobe are awful. Most – though not all – of these things were told to me relatively constructively. And it is my prerogative to incorporate or discard them as I see fit. It is, after all, my personal style. If I am dressing to please you, it is your personal style.

I am curious to see where style blogs go in the future. With the advent of Pinterest and Instagram, the focus on visuals and the ease of “liking” over “commenting,” I can see how blogs like mine might go extinct in a few short years. But in the meantime, I appreciate your comments, your honesty, your interest. I appreciate that Laurel stepped forward to ask about this topic, which is so sensitive yet so important. And even if you don’t ever comment, I appreciate that you come back to this website day after day. Thank you.

Now. What are your thoughts on offering critiques about style? Does the in-person approach differ for you from the online approach? How do you leave feedback on outfits, or do you? Fellow bloggers, what other tips would you share for offering constructive comments? Blog readers, what do you do – or see your fellow readers doing – that you think really works?

Originally posted 2013-12-17 06:13:10.

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43 Responses to “Reader Request: Offering Constructive Criticism, Part 2”

  1. Annie

    I like a lot of your advice about constructive criticism generally. However, I disagree that blog readers owe bloggers criticism that is constructive in the same way owe that to our friends or other people we encounter in real life. The difference is that you make money on your blog. You have decided to peddle images of yourself in exchange for comments (and, indirectly, for ad revenue). While rude or vicious comments are never okay, I think it’s more than appropriate for a reader to say “I don’t like those shoes.” There are plenty of other lines of work the blogger could be in that don’t open them up to outfit criticism, but the blogger has chosen to sell images of herself in various outfits.

    • Sally

      So I’m curious, Annie. What about bloggers who aren’t making money from their blog posts? If no money changes hands, do you feel differently about which kinds of critique are appropriate? If so, why? And does it matter how much money? For instance, is there a difference between someone who makes money from posts but still works a day job, and someone whose blog IS her job?

      • Lisa

        Just a small point here. The use of the word, “peddle,” is an example of tone. Would you use that word talking to an acquaintance, in real life? As another style blogger, I do understand I open myself up to outfit commentary. Nay, fullblown your-life-is-a-fraud commentary. But tone matters, and allows the recipient to absorb the commentary rather than defend against it.

        • Annie

          I’m not sure I take your point. I probably use the word “peddle” less in talking to an acquaintance because talking and writing are different. I wouldn’t be as aware that I had use the word “sell” multiple times in just a few sentences (or, at least I wouldn’t be able to go back and delete what I’d said to find an appropriate synonym). I think my comment was respectful in tone and was responsive to the questions Sally asked at the end of her post.

          • Heidi B

            YOU shouldn’t have to defend your word choice. Obviously people write more formally than they speak. You should know that as a WRITER, Lisa.

            This is laughable 🙂

        • Kathy

          And I have felt very badly, Lisa, about a comments that I made about the dress you chose for your wedding reception. At the time that you posted it I had the impression that it was only one of several under consideration, and my response was a negative one. My critique was one that I might have made to a friend in a dressing room, prior to a decision being made. My apologies.

      • Annie

        Yes, I do think there is a difference — but more of a sliding scale difference than a bright line one. For example, on one end of the spectrum, if a friend posted a photo of her new ___ on Facebook, my comments would only be positive (she has posted a photo to a limited group of friends/family recipients on a platform on which she will never make any money). On the other end of the spectrum are bloggers that make significant amounts of money (I don’t see a real distinction between full-time bloggers and part-time, as two people making the same amount of money blogging could each reasonably make different decitions about whether to keep their day jobs). Those bloggers are making money on me, the reader, via my pageviews, comments, and general participation in their blog “community.” Some reactions by readers are going to be negative — that’s part of the game — but a blogger (a) hopefully welcomes the discussion and (b) still makes money off that reader’s participation on the blog (I reiterate that truly malicious or rude comments are not okay). Moreover, anyone who offers a product or a service is subject to criticism: I get it (and welcome it) all the time in my job, and certainly any writer, musician, fashion designer, etc is subject the reactions of those who consume the product. Finally, in the middle are smaller bloggers — those with small audiences who make little or no money — I hesitate to make too negative a comment on a blog like this because I see it more as a hobby (and I would hate for someone to criticize my hobbies too much), but on the other hand this person has put their outfits on the internet in the hope of sparking some sort of feedback, so I think some discussion of the outfit is okay.

        I should note that I really never leave any feedback (positive or negative) on outfits because, much as I like veiwing the images, I just don’t care enough to leave feedback, so this is really theoretical. I much prefer conversations like the one you and I are having.

        • Sally

          Thanks for clarifying this, Annie. And we definitely see eye to eye on most things. As I said in the post, I don’t expect everyone who comes here to agree with everything I write or love everything I wear, and although I can’t say I actively enjoy getting negative feedback, I do my best to foster a community of open but respectful communication on all posts, including outfits. If you put your ideas and image out, you must expect a reaction. And a portion of that reaction will be not-praise.

          As someone who makes her living off this blog, but also off of my book, style consults, freelance writing, speaking gigs, teaching, and many other revenue streams, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that you or I owe each other anything, though, or that our relationship is the same as that of a service provider and customer. Yes, I write here and you come here to read and interact, and yes your activity on this site earns me money. But to link that relationship to your right to criticize my outfits, even in non-constructive ways as you mentioned in your initial comment? I don’t see the connection.

          Perhaps because, personally, I prefer to offer and receive constructive criticism (as opposed to criticism that lacks attention to tone, etc.) regardless of whether money is changing hands. Even if I’m paying someone for a service, I do my best to be constructive with any potential critiques. And in the case of an artist or musician, I don’t feel that my money towards admission price gives me the right to demand different or better performance. I don’t think this is what you mean at the core, but it sounds like you’re saying that because I make money off of your visits here, you are entitled to critique my outfits in constructive or non-constructive ways. You can, of course, say anything you want to anyone you want at any time – blogger, stranger, whoever. But what is gained or influenced or changed by simply saying, “I don’t like those shoes,” even if it’s true? My hope would be that you (or any reader) would offer me (or any blogger) the same courtesy and consideration you’d offer anyone you felt might benefit from feedback. (Even just in theory, since you’re not an outfit commenter!)

  2. Cynthia

    I may have tried to offer constructive criticism once or twice early on in my involvement with style blogs, but after some consideration I realized that it was basically never appropriate to leave a negative or “helpy” comment on a style blog. Because even if someone posts something helpy on my blog with a friendly tone like “that looks great, you should wear more pencil skirts”, what if what’s going on in my head right now is “I really don’t like pencil skirts, I think they make me look topheavy, and I’m going to get rid of the ones I have and not buy them anymore”? Then I feel like my judgment, which to be fair the commenter doesn’t even know about because it’s inside my head, is being questioned. If I like someone’s outfit, I may post a compliment; if there is other content like thinky writing to respond to, I’ll respond to that, but I won’t critique. In real life, I basically never comment on anyone’s fashion choices unless asked, or unless my comment is an unqualified positive (and even then I consider context — in professional settings I think personal comments, even compliments, tend to be distracting).

    • Maria

      Agree. Completely. I prefer to say something positve or nothing, unless the person is actively requesting feedback. This applies to blogs and to life. My only exception is in work environments if you are in a supervisory position. In that case, the feedback should be handled in the same was as any other work feedback: promptly, clearly and considerately (privately, politely, gently and as objectively as possible). BTW, I believe that even if you give someone exclusively positive feedback, you are in fact giving very clear feedback about what you see as good choices. I find this is especially true in the case of clothes. Love this discussion. Thanks Sally!

  3. Dana

    These are great posts on a fascinating topic! I would add that, in a world full of “constructive criticism” (implied and overt), offering genuine compliments and support when we can give it is crucial. People tend to look for ways to improve, but it can be just as helpful to offer up what’s really working already and leave it at that.

    • Fran

      Agree! It’s like positive reinforcement, which tends to cause one to repeat the behavior. Also, you can compliment someone truthfully with a more general, “pretty dress” comment, even if “that dress looks great on you” is not true in that instance.

      • Laurel H

        Offering frequent positive reinforcement is great, and we should do it more often. But…. there’s a risk that the people on the receiving end may not understand when we’re condoning something good that we’re also condemning something bad. People may not know what needs improvement. It’s not clear communication. Conversely, the people on the receiving end of positive reinforcement may catch on that you never offer constructive criticism, and they may think you’re being disingenuous. Personally, I quickly start to distrust people who only give compliments; I do wonder what they’re thinking when they disagree with something I’ve done or said.

        Self-help and self-improvement books are some of the best-selling categories in publishing; people secretly want to improve but they’re reluctant to be on the receiving end of constructive criticism. We’re here on this blog because we want to improve our thoughts about our bodies or get ideas on improving our style.

  4. Laurel H

    Another intelligent, reasoned, sensitive post. Thank you for part 2 of your reply to my request, Sally.

    If I see an outfit on a style blog that I don’t think is working for the wearer, I won’t say anything (except for my original comment that spurred this post, because I knew that you would take my comments in the spirit in which they were intended–as a constructive discussion on how to style unforgiving browns, which are trickier than blacks). I think this comes back to what our grandmothers told us girls: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it.” But as you imply, it’s OK if we have something not nice to say, as long as we say it nicely and helpfully!

    I think there is an implicit invitation to criticism on style blogs, but I wonder if it’s different for professional bloggers like you. Are we on safer ground talking about your outfits than those of hobby bloggers? Coming back to yesterday’s part 1 discussion about constructive criticism where you and us commenters basically said it’s OK to offer constructive criticism in a workplace context: If this blog is part of your workplace, is it OK for your “colleagues” (readers) to constructively criticize aspects of your outfits if it’s your job to advise us on style matters? (This last question is hypothetical for me in your case, since I find 99.9% of your outfits are spot-on.)

    Thank you for these tips on commenting on style blogs. I’ll definitely keep them in mind when posting on your blog and the handful of others I follow.

    • Sally

      So glad to hear this, Laurel.

      And I really do think it’s appropriate to offer feedback on outfit posts regardless of whether the blogger is a professional or not, so long as the critique is offered diplomatically and with positive intent. My hope, as I mentioned above, is that people who come here don’t expect perfect, exemplary outfits from me all the time. Even though I offer style advice and work with clients on their style challenges, I don’t always hit home runs. And some outfits that I love, you guys hate! Again, so much is down to taste and personal preference.

  5. Paula

    The wInter white post had a healthy discussion in the comments. Engaged readers aren’t going to just nod their heads in unison. And you know–sometimes the blogger can be wrong. If you want healthy participation from regular readers who click on affiliate links, then you have to give them the freedom to express themselves. If that sounds scary–take a look at THAT reaction.

    • Sally

      Hi Paula! Not sure what in this post made you think that I was telling anyone to refrain from leaving feedback. The purpose of this post is to talk about what constitutes constructive, helpful critique in the context of personal style. Maybe you missed this portion of the post … it is long!

      “… most blogs have comments, and people can and should use them. I appreciate Laurel’s recognition of the fact that posting a full-body photograph on a website every day takes come chutzpah – and it does. That said, most bloggers are well aware that they cannot expect everyone to like everything they do, say, or wear. If they want nothing but accolades, blogging probably isn’t the best idea! I certainly don’t expect every last one of you to agree with all of my ideas, love all of my posts, or go ga-ga for all of my outfits. But, as I’ve said from day one on this blog, I fully expect you to express your criticisms respectfully and kindly. That’s just how I roll.”

  6. Marilyn Near Chicago

    Unsolicited criticism, even if meant as constructive, is a pet peeve of mine, so I am making an effort not to stray too far from the original intent of the post.

    For the Unsolicited Critic: Remember that people will catch on to your tactics if you overuse them. For example, both personally and at work, I have seldom heard anyone ask a question about “choices” that wasn’t a prelude to a critique. Likewise the phrase ” I don’t understand” usually means “I don’t like.” Ways to tell if you are offering constructive criticism too often:
    You offer a compliment, and she cringes and says “And?”.
    You ask about her choices, and she plasters a smile on her face and starts talking about the weather.

    I think it’s possible that constructive criticism might be better accepted if people felt better empowered to ignore it. In that spirit, here are some tactics on how to avoid someone’s constructive criticism.
    When offered a compliment that you feel is loaded, accept the compliment and ignore the suggestions. Remember that conversations are a two way street and you do not need to let yourself be led into a territory where you are uncomfortable.
    Remember that you are not in a court of law, and are under no obligation to to answer a question. You can say, “I am not interested in discussing my choices with you.” Or you can learn graceful diversionary tactics, usually related to complimenting your critic’s wardrobe, or asking about their family. If you consistently refuse to discuss your looks with someone, they may eventually get the hint.

    If it is a work colleague offering unsoliticited criticism do remember to find out if this is performance-related.
    Ask: “Do you believe that your questions relate in some way to my work performance?” For example, you might want to know if men are making lewd remarks about your short skirts, or if your perfume is triggering an allergic reaction. Take into consideration the relative status of your critic: if he or she is your superior, listen up. If he or she is not, do ask questions about why this subject has come up. If you feel that more than one person on your own level is taking what you feel may be an undue interest in your clothing, you might want to schedule a conversation with your boss. I have seen instances where older women are unduly critical of younger or prettier colleagues, and made their work lives very ugly by constantly offering “helpful” advice. I have also seen situations where someone tactful has been elected to give a difficult message.

    When you offer unsolicited criticism, remember that it says a great deal about you, and that much of it may be negative.

    • Becky

      Wow, Marilyn, it sounds like you work in a tough industry. I just wrote a comment expressing how much I like the “ask first” approach, but I can certainly see that “why did you …because criticism” would get very old very fast.

      It seems to me that the problem isn’t so much that the person is asking, but that they’re not listening to the answer and taking it to heart. They’re just trying to lower the other person’s defenses so they can blast ’em. I think no technique is going to cover up the spirit behind a person’s actions. You can’t fake respect by following a formula.

    • Lisa

      This is very true. “Constructive criticism” in the workplace has often been a cover-up for “cutting down the threatening in a passive-aggressive way.” Not to say that’s always the case. But it happens, and is the root of the “catty” epithet that I hope disappears from our lexicon. Learning to confront well is hard but necessary.

      It’s an interesting question. Are monetized style blogs our workplaces? Are the readers invested colleagues? If so, shouldn’t we all abide by professional courtesy?

      • Marla

        Closer to clients? We receive value (service) from new ideas, images, what have you, and give back (pay) with our web traffic, viewing ads, clicking through with links.

        I think courtesy should be present in either case.

    • Laurel H

      Marilyn, I’m sorry this issue strikes such a chord with you. It sounds as if you might have been on the receiving end of some not-so-nice criticism.

      One theme I’m sensing from many commenters here is that they are reluctant to give constructive criticism and less keen on receiving it. The feminist in me wonders if this is a gender-based trait, but I’m also seeing a societal trend in both sexes. People these days, especially in North America, I think, are afraid of giving criticism. I don’t have kids, but my friends who are parents report that there is a whole new generation growing up that has not been criticized–by parents, teachers, coaches, or anyone. So these kids are growing up thinking they can do no wrong. I understand that some schools are reluctant to give report cards or declare winners or losers in competitions (the “Dodo bird’s verdict”), and end up giving prizes to everyone for everything. Even the Academy Awards changed its speeches from announcing “The winner is…” to “The Oscar goes to..” so that those who were nominated but didn’t get the Oscar don’t feel that they were losers. What happens when criticism gets stamped out? People think they are invincible, and when they enter the workplace or try to navigate personal relationships, they quickly find out that they are not perfect. I think there is an extremely valuable role for constructive criticism–even unsolicited–in society.

      Having said that, is style blogland the place for unsolicited criticism? I’m starting to think that for professional bloggers, it is OK to offer respectful, helpful comments on outfit posts if it would benefit the community from learning about what may work and may not.

      • Sally

        Such an interesting point, Laurel. I work with young women in the Leaders of Today and Tomorrow program and have definitely seen the after-effects of a young life lived without any sort of criticism, constructive or otherwise. It really does skew these kids’ worldviews.

  7. Becky

    May I just say how much I love these two posts? As the daughter of well-meaning but critical parents, I am so happy to have this conversation.

    Since I hate hate hate being criticized (corrected, suggested-to, hinted-at, haha) in a personal context (although, fortunately, I’m fine with constructive criticism at work), for many years I have tried to only ever say positive things to others. That has worked pretty well for me, but sometimes there are moments when I would like to say something to someone. And I haven’t, because I’m too worried about undermining the trust in our relationship. I appreciate your post as a new way to think about when and how to broach constructive criticism.

    I boil my lessons learned down to this: one, is the issue impacting me — i.e., is it my business? And two, *ask first* why a person made the choices they did. It’s so simple, so respectful, so obvious. I love it when people approach me this way. Thanks!

  8. just_kazari

    I think offering constructive criticism really depends on your relationship to that person. To a stranger, or someone not immediately in your close circle of friends and family? absolutely not. This goes for criticizing style bloggers too. The first thing is to indeed realize that not everyone’s style is the same or the ‘correct’ one, and that person might think YOUR style needs improvement too!

    I follow a bunch of style blogs and some of those bloggers have styles that I would never, ever emulate. But I enjoy the different perspectives!

    The only times I’ve really offered style critiques was to my best friend, who is completely clueless about makeup and clothing. But I won’t really critique her, I’ll just casually mention things to her while we’re shopping, like, ‘oh look. this shirt has a longer hem (whatever that’s called), that’ll look great on you because you have a long waist!’ (she would constantly wear normal length shirts which would then expose a ton of belly due to her long waist, and she never really …noticed?) or as we’re shopping at Sephora I’d give little makeup tips in passing as we’re browsing, say, eyeshadows. I think it’s rude to say outright, yeah you look terrible, try this other thing.

  9. BamaCarol

    I just do not see any reason to criticize, constructively or not, someone’s style with an unsolicited remark. I will give positive feedback and have quite often. But if there is something that I do not care for, I’ll just ignore it. I would think if a blogger never ever got comments they would soon realize that no one likes what they are providing. I guess like someone said earlier,”‘if you can’t say something nice, do not say anything” is my motto.

  10. M-C

    The only times I leave some sort of criticism on a fashion blog is when a question is asked. Often my comments go more like “I know you said this looked too — but it doesn’t look like it to me in the photo” :-). Or to encourage a new direction if they feel unsure about it. (They may still feel unsure, and feel that’s not them, and not do it again, but they should still hear that it looks fine imho, if it does). And I always include a compliment about the parts of the outfit that I like, like someone’s taste in prints or colors or something. But I’ve definitely had a few missteps, where the blogger gets really worked up in return. Which makes me think they’re just inviting compliments, not real criticism. In which case I never comment to them again :-). I don’t have very standard tastes in clothes, so I totally understand that the way people dress has personal reasons that are way beyond that’s in or what’s supposed to be flattering. I’d never wear skirts in snow for instance :-), but then I now live with no snow, so why shouldn’t you wear whatever you want?? And people’s geography, work situation, whatever, makes a huge difference in how they dress. I read some fashion blogs because I find the thinking behind them helpful, it introduces me to ideas I wouldn’t have had on my own, and it reflects the choices of people who are not totally fashion professionals so relates to my life better. But that’s not to say that I think our tastes should converge somehow, in either direction..

  11. Anne

    Sally, thank you for two very thought provoking posts. I think the advice you offered up here is applicable in so many situations. You could be giving advice about raising teens did you know that?

    I heard somewhere that giving criticism is like dealing with your checking account. You need to make a deposit (kind comments) before you can make a withdraw. (constructive criticism)

    • Sally

      Oh Anne, you’re so kind. I feel completely out of my depth whenever anyone asks about anything pertaining to teens. Social media entered my life when I was a fully cooked adult – I can’t even imagine growing up with it humming in the background. I’m honored, though, to hear you feel this advice might be beneficial beyond blogland!

  12. Lyndle

    Thanks for these well thought-out posts. Another thing to remember when commenting on style on blogs, is that some things are very place-and-time dependent. What is appropriate in one part of the world may seem scruffy, too fashion-forward or otherwise questionable in another. (This includes micro-cultures – I’ve seen people give ‘rules’ about ‘professional dressing’ that would be totally appropriate in a law firm but not necessarily in another type of business, for example. Or might apply in a London City firm but not in small town New Zealand).

    And, being from the southern hemisphere, I know that it’s true that when you’re sitting in the cold and everyone around you is wearing black merino, looking at an image of someone in a flirty dress and sandals can seem like they are a bit underdressed, even maybe in a childish or questionable taste way, even though your head knows perfectly well that it would be totally appropriate in summer. (Not to mention that being six months out of sync means that things can be ‘new season’ here but ‘so last summer’ elsewhere).

    Not quite what you’re talking about, but related I think. I’ve seen these kind of differences lead to criticism both constructive and unconstructive.

  13. McD

    I’m a bit disappointed in these two posts. They are well-written, thoughtful, and genuinely Sally, I feel strongly that everyone is over thinking criticism in general. Profane and over-the-top scummy comments aside, women need to exercise their critical thinking and communication skills when it comes to giving and receiving any type of feedback. A very inappropriate comment or email can be deleted, but how do we react when someone says these things to our faces? Tell them you don’t feel their comment measures up your standard of criticism and feedback? My boss, co-worker, mom, friends, etc won’t go for that. Women should actively be responding to this whether it’s a witty comment, providing information while ignoring the inappropriate, or gracefully stepping away from that interaction. I know many 20-something women who don’t have the skills needed to do this and I think it’s because, like these two posts, we explain and reason away our ability to accept comments unless they are on our terms. This isn’t the way the world works and we cannot push the rest of humanity out of our insular world just because someone might not know our history and why a co-worker is wearing a too tight skirt. Those are the excuses we make to discredit feedback – positive or negative – around us.

    What bothers me most about these posts, though, is that I’m fairly certain men don’t have the same concerns. If your audience was made up of men, would you have written this? Or is this women only advice? It goes back to the working world here. Women who can’t accept critical feedback and can’t give critical feedback do not have a place in many workplaces. Without these skills, women cannot move up in their jobs or help develop other women. Period. No group of men would wring their hands over these dilemmas and, frankly, hurts us all when this type of thinking is passed on to others.

    • Sally

      Such interesting feedback, McD. As someone who has been on the receiving end of comments that range from extreme praise to outright loathing for more than six years, I wrote this from a place of wanting to urge diplomacy. Especially when it comes to giving feedback on personal style, which rarely impacts anyone besides the wearer. I agree that portions of our society have come to fear criticism … but also see a culture that thrives on vicious criticism and judgment on the opposite end of the spectrum. I would never tell anyone – woman or man – to refrain from offering constructive criticism when it is warranted. But I would encourage anyone who is offering criticism of any type to be thoughtful and diplomatic about it, and to make sure that it will be helpful and heard.

      Also I’m interested to hear you say that you feel like there is a possibility of rejecting criticism that isn’t dealt on the recipient’s chosen terms. I’m not sure how that’s possible. If someone says something to you or writes you an e-mail or comments on your website and says something critical in a non-constructive way, it will still affect you. I know I can’t just say, “Oh that wasn’t constructive, so I’ll just dismiss it.”

      Finally, I appreciate that we don’t see eye to eye here, but disagree that these posts are actively hurting women, feminism, or our ability as a gender to be assertive, productive, and heard. I told no one to cower in a corner and bite her tongue,* but instead opened a discussion about how to construct feedback that will have a real impact when dished out. It’s true that we shouldn’t be afraid to offer critiques and should learn to accept them gracefully. But knowing how to couch our critiques so that they have a chance of spurring actual change instead of just creating tension and bad blood is worth exploring. I, for one, want to offer my opinions and criticisms to people who will hear and use them. Otherwise I’m not doing anything productive or valuable. And I think that understanding how and when to voice my critiques creates better chances that those critiques will make a real difference.

      *This graf from the part 1 post summarizes:
      “But that doesn’t mean that you should avoid offering constructive criticism. OH HELL NO. Not because you’re a woman, not because you risk appearing critical, not for any reason at all. If you have determined that someone you care/know is doing something that impacts you AND that your input will help the situation, you can and should speak up. Period. Will some people react badly? Yes, probably. But if your suggestions create positive change, over time those same people may become your best allies. Will some of the people who react badly be men? Almost certainly. And tough rocks because women make up more than half of the workforce and our input is important, be it positive or negative. Is it risky to offer criticism, even if it’s done in a friendly tone and under the right circumstances? Sadly, yes. But what’s the alternative? Know that there’s a better way, but continue to suffer? Allow your resentment to build until you explode into confrontation? Leave the situation and never resolve anything? It’s your choice, of course, but speaking up and offering input – uncomfortable as it may feel – could bring positive change to your life much faster.”

  14. nief

    Why criticise at all? If you do not have anything nice to say, do not say anything at all – unless you have been specifically asked to do so.

  15. Marcus Elsworth

    I am in the camp that believes there are very few reasons why one would give criticism. Someone with a fashion blog might invite comments and should probably be okay with the “I hate your shoes” “That’s the wrong color for your coloring” and “I’d like to see that out fit with the blouse tucked in”, etc. But in real life, unless it is a compliment, who the hell am I to say, “Your blazer’s too tight…” The person probably already knows, you know, because it is tight.

    We should all see that there is a difference though between, “Those shoes don’t go with that skirt” and “Why can’t you dress yourself like a normal person?” One is offereing a criticism and one is being a jerk.

    Someone above mentioned commenting to a coworker about skirts too short or something like that. Unless you supervise that person, it’s not your place to comment. $.02.

  16. Janel

    I enjoyed both articles. Thanks Sally.

    As for criticizing bloggers, style or not, my first thought plays off what Sally already said. Before you criticize, whether the author is making any money from their blog or not, you really need to ask “How involved am I in that blogger’s community?” And how much of that interaction is positive?

    If you’re a random person that clicked a link on Pinterest and found a photo you didn’t like on the site that opened, keep on clickin’ and have a nice day. You have nothing invested. To leave a rude comment and never go back is kind of like flipping off someone during morning commute because you didn’t like how they changed lanes.

    If you are someone who has been a commenting reader for months or years and interacts with the writer positively on Twitter and/or Facebook, I think that’s a different matter. If you’ve established that you respect their work and enjoy their take on things, I don’t see any problem with voicing the occasional dissenting opinion or criticism. You have established a relationship in which to do it.

    Although I’ve been reading Sally’s blog for well over a year now, I think I’ve only commented a handful of times. While her style is not my style, I like seeing what she wears along with how she makes it work. I love reading her take on fashion and embracing your body. I don’t think I commented, but her piece on Consumer Expectation vs. Market Reality was brilliantly succinct. Now, all that said, I don’t think I have established enough of a relationship to come in and say, “Hey I don’t like your boots.” But, that wraps back to her three original reasons for offering criticism in the first place: what’s the pay off? Why would I do that?

    Great comments all around!

  17. Sue Walker

    Wow! What a lot of interesting comments – I think I’ll come back and read them more thoroughly this evening. However a couple of thoughts immediately spring to mind, so here they are.

    I’m an amateur blogger and don’t make any money from my blog, but do it because I enjoy reading other people’s blogs and I couldn’t see any specifically aimed at Over 60s. My readers are a kind bunch and their comments are always tactfully worded such as “I really liked you in the brown dress” rather than “I thought you looked dreadful in that pink dress!”

    Recently I invited readers to choose the most flattering outfit on me out of five possibilities and someone commented that one top was too pale for me. I happened to agree, but even if I hadn’t, I did ask for comments so she was entitled to say what she thought. Mind you, if she had said “You look old and haggard in that pale top” I might have been a teeny bit upset!

    I did get a very rude comment on another blog that I write about the area in Spain where we live. I occasionally blog on behalf of our Spanish dog Lisa and wrote a tongue in cheek post about Brits abroad. One man left a really scathing comment, which I was tempted to delete but didn’t because I believe in free speech, however other readers leapt to my defence with one person saying “You are talking to a DOG! Chill out mate!”

    I actually enjoy it when someone starts a friendly debate. I also find it encouraging when someone says they have started to wear more scarves, for example, having seen me wearing them on the blog. It’s also good when under 60s leave their comments too.

  18. No Fear of Fashion

    Well… this is a long post! And about a subject I have had to deal with.
    Being Dutch sometimes means being rude and blunt. We are people that easily speak their mind. And we are known (or infamous?) for that. Just telling you this, so you know where I am coming from.
    One day I started following blogs and participating in a Forum. After commenting positively every day on the outfits of 1 person in particular for three months, she showed an outfit which I really disliked. I hesitated not to comment. But felt that this would be a bit strange, as I always commented, every day. I therefore said something like: “this is not my taste, but hey, so many people so many tastes”. Was that rude? Did I make a faux-pas because English is not my mother tongue? It was not intended to be rude, not at all. I just thought we had gotten to know each other a bit after three months and did not want to be dishonest.

    She came down on me like a ton of bricks and said I was passive agressive.

    I apologized and said it had never been my intention. But I was so upset after that incident. I emailed 5 other bloggers with whom I thought I had a connection. 4 of them said they think my honest comments are like a breath of fresh air and makes them realize that if I do like something I really like it and it is not just smooth talk. 1 of them said she offered the world her vision on clothes for anyone to get inspired by. And if you did not like it, she need not hear it. I can understand that view as well.
    The “affair” has made me cautious and if I don’t know the blogger that well I don’t say anything like that anymore. But I choose my bloggers carefully. The ones I follow now can take my honesty. Always wrapped in kindness and indeed trying to be constructive or saying it has nothing to do with the outfit but with my taste, or with the chips on my shoulder.
    Pffff.. that was my confession.

  19. Courtney

    Sounds like you’re basically telling your reader what you would prefer them to say when they don’t like an outfit of yours. This seems a little unnecessary, considering that ultimately, no one who leaves a comment is going to check your website first to see how *you* would properly like that comment couched in compliments. It’s a nice sentiment, but I hope you don’t think that this post will stop people from telling you when they just don’t like an outfit.