Monday, November 14, 2011

Constructive Criticism vs. Diatribes & Rants

I recently read a post on Lainie Sips about company complaints in blog comments. Lainie takes what I think to be a good and reasonable approach to moderating comments. She begins by talking about legitimate grounds on which to criticize tea companies, and then remarks:

...I don’t feel comfortable allowing diatribes against individual tea companies on my blog.

This got me thinking, and I realize that I generally like to use a similar approach to moderating comments or discussions.

There's a difference between honest, constructive criticism (which I always publish) and insults or rants (which I generally delete in comments). Occasionally there is a fine line, but I think there are some objective guidelines you can use to distinguish between the two.

What distinguishes constructive criticism from a diatribe or rant?

The following guidelines can be useful to think about whether you're moderating comments yourself, or considering posting a comment when you are genuinely upset about something and not sure whether or not you've taken it a little bit too far:

  • Constructive criticism makes concrete suggestions of how to improve the service offered, or what qualities (or prices) would be desirable in a company's offering of teas.

  • Constructive criticism criticizes specific actions of people or businesses, or specific attributes of a product, while showing respect for the people involved in running the business.

  • Constructive criticism states the criticisms once and accurately, without unnecessary repetition or exaggeration.

  • Constructive criticism speaks from personal experience in matters of opinion, using I statements.

  • A diatribe or rant often hurls criticisms without any sort of suggestion for actually correcting or improving the situation.

  • A diatribe or rant often exaggerates and uses unnecessary repetition without communicating any useful information.

  • A diatribe or rant presents personal opinion as universal fact, and often makes accusations without taking responsibility, such as saying that the company's teas are bad rather than saying that you think they are bad. Rants and diatribes often speak in generalizations rather than speaking in specifics.

  • A diatribe or rant often makes personal attacks on individuals or global negative statements about a business or company, rather than criticizing specific actions of an individual or company.

And, one important note: constructive criticism gives a name and contact info, whereas diatribes and rants are often published anonymously.

Examples of text you might find in a diatribe or rant:

  • This company's tea is terrible.

  • The people who work here are idiots who don't know tea.

  • This company is the worst: they'll screw up your order, and you might as well give up on ever getting your money back! You won't even be able to get through to them!

The first of these comments presents opinion (you think the teas are terrible) as a universal fact (the teas are terrible). The second uses a universal negative label, idiots. The third talks in is obviously describing a personal experience that went wrong, but instead of taking responsibility and sharing that experience, it attacks the company from a distance, implying that everyone will have the same negative experience, but without sharing the experience the person had.

Examples of harsh, but constructive criticisms:

  • I think this company's teas are highly overpriced; I've bought teas that tasted similar to me from other companies (X,Y, and Z) for a quarter the price.

  • I've sampled a number of teas from this company, and I have yet to find a single one that I like. I thought their green teas were especially bad; many of them were undrinkable and I ended up throwing them out.

  • I had a terrible experience with customer service from this company. When my tea arrived, I received the wrong order, and one of the bags had burst open during shipping. I was unable to reach customer service by phone, my emails were ignored, and I have yet to receive a refund or apology. I would definitely not recommend buying from this company.

These are harsh criticisms, strong negative statements about a tea company, but they are constructive. They present opinion as opinion, speak from personal experience, and are specific enough to be useful. And as negative as they are, they retain a certain degree of respect for the company and the people involved in it.

By clearly explaining why the customer had a negative experience, these criticisms enable companies to act to improve their offerings and/or service. With the first comment, the company could compare their offerings and prices to the other named companies. In the second case, the company could re-evaluate the sourcing of their teas, starting by focusing on green teas. In the third case, the company could look at what is going on from an ordering, shipping, and customer service perspective, and also contact the customer to see if it is still possible to rectify the situation.

For further advice about how to write constructive criticism, you can read my older post Reviewing Teas to Give Useful Feedback To Tea Companies.


  1. With regard to presenting personal opinion as universal fact I would take it a step further to suggest that saying that the person "thinks the tea is bad" does not go far enough with an implied disclaimer of opinion. I would rather see someone say that he "did not enjoy the tea" or that it "did not suit his taste."

    This does not apply in situations where there is a clear quality issue, though. If the tea in question is a six-year-old Gyokuro which has spent the last five of those years in a glass jar in a sunny window, or a Darjeeling that spent a month in an open container next to four cloves of garlic I wouldn't have a problem with the person saying the tea was bad. Regardless of how the tea started out it has been damaged through age or abuse.

    But if it's a case of a person drinking a very fresh Choco-Coconut-Raspberry Oolong and hating it I don't think it's legitimate to say the tea is bad, or even that the person THINKS it's bad. It's perfectly good at what it is, which is something that appeals to a different type of tea drinker.

  2. Ahh, yes, I think these are very good points. There is definitely a difference between a more universal quality issue, and matters of personal taste...and I think constructive criticism clearly identifies which of the two the reviewer thinks is happening.