What a Drunk Swiss Guy Can Teach
You About Handling Criticism

image of drunk man with lampshade

One of the most interesting lessons I learned about blogging happened in the basement of a Swiss pub on Christmas Eve.

Back in 1999, my brother and I went to visit our sister in Switzerland. Somehow, we all ended up in this basement room at a pub in Interlaken with some locals. For some reason, the lights started going on and off, and I caught this look on my sister’s face. There had been some groping during one of the dark intervals.

I went up to the offender and said, “Hey. You’re going to need to keep your hands to yourself.”

And he, quite drunk, puffed up and stared into my eyes. He said, “What are you going to do about it, friend? You’re a long way from home.”

Okay, situation check. We’re foreigners in an unfamiliar land. This guy was local. He clearly resented an American telling him what to do on his turf, and was ready to fight to prove it.

I could have pushed on. But instead, I decided to agree with him.

“Look,” I said. “You’re right. I’m a guest here. I get that. I wouldn’t want some foreigner coming into my home and telling me what to do. But that’s my sister. I have to take care of her.”

At that point, a strange thing happened. He softened, then got all drunk-guy on me. He said that he had a sister too, and that he really respected me for watching out for her.

All because I didn’t react to his threat. All because I looked at the situation from his perspective, and made an effort to understand him.

Ten years later, I’m still using what I learned from that drunk groper. Call it Johnny’s formula for avoiding a Swiss e-beating.

Four Ways to Calm Your Critics

The internet is usually very kind to me, but every once in a while I’ll really push someone’s buttons and evoke a harsh reaction. I’m not talking here about constructive criticism. I’m talking about people who are offended, mad, or otherwise affronted and aren’t afraid to rail at you about it.

When this happens, you have a few possible choices. You can react and fire back. You can ignore them and stew privately. Or you can try to get inside their drunk Swiss perspective and talk to them like people. If you do, you might be surprised at how few have the energy to remain mad.

Try these tips on for size:

1. Honestly empathize

This one goes first, because you may think I’m talking about manipulative mind games. I am not.

When someone says something . . . colorful to me, I try to get past my initial reaction and honestly look at it from inside their shoes. This isn’t a trick. It’s exercising your empathy.

Consider Exhibit A.

Following my post Fast Fruit at The Ohio State University, where I chose my words poorly when describing a tamper-proof dorm room, I got this comment:

I appreciate the humor, but not the slam on “the severely retarded.” I have a disabled child (blind, high-functioning autism) and I know many parents with cognitively disabled kids, those who were once called “retarded.” I understand you were aiming at the sterility of the dorm design, but couldn’t a brilliant writer like you do that without putting down a whole group of people? Oh, yes, I forgot to mention: I, too, am disabled. I’m hearing impaired.

Okay, big oops. I was trying to be descriptive, not offensive. I didn’t think that this woman’s response fit what I was saying, but responding defensively would be wrong. This woman had a psychological wound, and what I wrote had aggravated it.

So I replied:

A lot of people would say, “Get over it, that’s how I write.” I’m going to try not to do that. Because while I don’t believe in euphemising life to avoid every sensitivity, I do understand that certain hot buttons will strike a chord with some people. I can’t avoid all of those land mines without grossly censoring myself, but I can empathize and say that I’m sorry for my part in arousing those feelings for you.

You are not responsible for every reaction that a reader draws from your words, but neither should you dismiss them. These are real people. Keep that in mind.

2. Stay calm and professional.

I can’t share my example on this one because it came via private email. But in a nutshell, a person angrily emailed me saying that my services were “ripping people off.” This did not sit well with me, as I go out of my way to be honest and upfront.

I wanted to rail at him, but instead, I explained that some of his assumptions were incorrect, and that I based my prices on time spent. I also told him about some included services he hadn’t considered. I kept my tone light and above-board.

His second email was very different. He apologized for the tone of the first, thanked me for responding, and signed off with “All the best.”

Remember, you are the professional. You are the one putting yourself out there. Other readers watch to see how you respond to detractors. If you flip out, you will look like the jerk.

3. At the very least, respond and explain.

In my Copyblogger post Confessions of a Comment Addict, I described how to get more comments by admitting to your faults. One commenter believed I was being manipulative and wrote the following:

Although I agree with the ability of vulnerability to draw people towards you and your life, the immediate attempt to monetize or formalize the human act of weakness is offensive.

Now, what he implied was not my intention. I was not suggesting a bait and switch in order to sell something, and the implication that I was might have really rubbed me the wrong way.

I could have ignored this comment, but I chose to address it. I wrote:

I think you misunderstand my intentions. I have nothing for sale (well, okay, a $15 book) on the site I’ve linked to with those “open” posts. This post is about getting more comments and activity, not increasing sales.

Following this, his next comment sounded a lot different:

Thx 4 responding rather than reacting Johnny. That encourages me and tells me somethng abut your intentions. Time spent to respond often equates to respect for one’s community.

I call that a connection, maybe even a conversion. In cases like this, criticism can be a gift. If he hadn’t spoken up, I never would have had a chance to clear the air.

4. Respond only once.

Sometimes you can explain or even fight back a bit and a heckler will simply fire venom right back at you. In those cases, you should be the bigger person and walk away.

I’d love to quote an example of someone who remained angry at me, but that would be feeding the troll.

Instead, I’ll leave you with an analogy: Responding to harsh criticism is like having only one bullet to hit a difficult target. You have to breathe deeply, aim carefully, and take your shot.

If you miss, go home. Don’t engage in back-and-forth name-calling on the internet.

There’s a saying about how nobody wins when you fight on the internet, but I won’t start a flame war by citing it here. After all, a handful of you just might be both Swiss and drunk.

About the author: Johnny B. Truant writes for his newly consolidated humor/business/motivation/turkeys blog at JohnnyBTruant.com. You can connect with him on Twitter, even if you’re a drunk Swiss guy.

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Comments

  1. Brilliant… Criticism is something I had a hard time dealing with when I first started doing business online and blogging because of the anonymity of it all.

    My first major battle came when one of my posts hit the front page of Digg. The flaming that went on shocked me! The comments really did run the gambut – some friendly and supportive and some were downright negative.

    It’s important to learn to deal with those situations if you’re truly looking for success online. It’s a necessary evil, and one that will only get worse as time goes on.

  2. This has to be one of the best blog posts I’ve read in a while.

    There is something to be said for wisdom that is earned from real life experience instead of just theory.

    It was a great reminder to think with your head, not with your heart. At least when in the heat of the moment.

  3. Two things.

    First, an alternate way to handle the local bully-boy. At boot camp they told us, “If you’re in a bar and Joe local picks a fight, don’t just punch him in the face. Even if you knock him out, his friends will say, ‘You fucked up,’ and beat the hell out of you. Now, *after* you punch him in the face, and he’s down, you grab his arm and twist it off at the shoulder. Then beat him with it until you’re sure he’ll need a closed casket funeral. Then sit back down at the bar and keep drinking like nothing happened. His friends will say, ‘Joe fucked up.'”

    But back in the real world …

    I find it harder to deal with the people who say you’re not going far enough. They agree with your premise, “But if you were really serious about it you would … ” There are lots of wrong things in the world. I can’t be 100% committed to all of them. And if I’m not 100% committed to *your* pet issue, it doesn’t mean I don’t understand the issue.

    That’s really the argument that tends to hook me. “If you really understood the issue, you’d agree with me.” No, I understand it just fine. And I disagree.

  4. One way that I handled an angry reader (read: Union member) was to speak directly to the facts of the issue in question.

    We went back and forth, and when it became apparent that his position was indefensible, he politely bowed out.

    Number 2 always works.

  5. Criticism is definitely welcome on my blog, but hate is not. As the owner of the blog you decide what kind of comment a person is making. Is it worth responding to? Does it require deleting? The decision is ultimately yours. Listen to your conscience and act accordingly and don’t get too upset when you do get nasty comments.

  6. No Blog to Advertise :

    But what if you can monetize the hate….?
    http://dooce.com/hate/
    What do you think about what Dooce is up to?

  7. Bravo.
    I agree with every point made and even experienced most.

  8. Great examples of how to respond with emotional intelligence. Too many try to be clever and only end up escalating the situation. Others have a need to always have the last word.

    I’d only add that #4 could also be – respond only once – if you respond at all. Not all criticism needs a response.

    BTW, I almost always sign off with “all the best” but the example in #2 was not me.

    All the best!
    Melissa Paulik

  9. I have to agree with Melissa. Sometimes the best thing to do is to respond to criticism with silence. That is – of course – if it’s not constructive critisism.

    Per

  10. I am deeply offended by your assertion that Swiss people are drunkards and spend their time groping women in the dark. I’m half English and half Portuguese, and that’s close enough. Deeply, deeply offended. Shame on you. What is teh inerwebs coming to???

  11. This is all good advice, assuming that the criticism is in fact coming from a drunken Swiss. Not all critics are drunken gropers. Some may be really smart. Some may be smarter than you. Sometimes they may be completely right and you may be completely wrong. We are all humans and all humans do make mistakes every now and then.

  12. Almost forgot – on a more serious note… the most important thing is to understand the difference between someone taking a shot at you and someone offering honest constructive criticism. It’s not always obvious, but when in doubt, assume the latter and respond accordingly. Kill ‘em with kindness, as the saying goes.

  13. It is quite true that you cant make everyone happy and I believe that should not be your intention. I like the post since it says to stay calm because without that you just add fuel to the fire. The more factual and to the point you are the more stronger you can defend yourself and yes do save yourself from I-am-always-right Syndrome.

  14. Frankly, the fact that you think you can empathize with me is offensive. You don’t know me!!

    :)

    But seriously, I think it’s great advice because in most cases someone who addresses you with a concern or disagreement–and does so in a relatively civil manner–really wants you to give them a reason to agree with you.

  15. @Momblebee, that’s one thing I like about this advice of Johnny’s — empathy and keeping your cool will serve you just as well whether you’re right or completely in the wrong.

  16. Good advise, not only for the internet, but, in “real life” too. I find it always helps me to take a little time before a response. That way it is a response and not a reaction.

  17. Great post. Some people get these types of comments more often than others, but everyone gets one once in awhile! It’s great to have a few tools in your box to learn to respond appropriately and constructively. Thanks!

    I agree with Christi Wharton, too… good reminder for real life as well!

  18. Johnny, first, this is a great way to tie a life event in to your career. Second, thank you for really making it sink in…what we have to do to survive in the business world. Sometimes you just have to suck it up, which some people are just unwilling to do. I had to eat crow the other day, and I really hate the taste of the stuff. But, I have always tried to keep in mind in this new cyberworld, everything you do is kept on record somewhere, which means it can be kept for posterity. Someone will be able to read it somewhere, long after you have forgotten about it.

    Finally, I would like to relate my “drunk Swiss guy” moment. I was working as a clerk at a store around Christmas time when I was very young. A customer came up to my register and began SLAMMING her purchases on the counter. I knew I couldn’t have done anything, so, not knowing what else to do, I just started humming “Silent Night” and smiling and ringing up her items. She got angry at me about something, I don’t remember what after all these years. I think I just wasn’t moving fast enough to please her. Finally after nearly hitting me in the head with a two-liter soda when I ducked down to get some more bags out, she suddenly stopped and dropped her chin to her chest. When she looked back up, she had tears in her eyes. She told me she was sorry she was taking her bad day out on me, that Christmas was just a really bad time for her. Then she told me there I was humming such pretty Christmas music and she was being hateful. I told her it was fine, and that I would pray for her. It taught me we never know what has happened in other people’s lives or where they are coming from. I don’t always manage to remember that, but I try.

  19. Keeping your head when confronted, sage advice indeed. Empathize with them, more sage advice.

    Great article Johnny.

    Not taking what another says to you/about you “personally” is important. Most of the time, if the other person is directing criticism at you, there’s an underlying reason that doesn’t involve you personally in the first place, like they might be having a bad day from a job they hate etc…

  20. “A lot of people would say, “Get over it, that’s how I write.” I’m going to try not to do that. Because while I don’t believe in euphemising life to avoid every sensitivity, I do understand that certain hot buttons will strike a chord with some people. I can’t avoid all of those land mines without grossly censoring myself, but I can empathize and say that I’m sorry for my part in arousing those feelings for you.”

    Johnny, can I please keep this as a disclaimer??? It is priceless and something I always want to express but can never come up with a good way. (I always envision something like…”I’m sorry for pushing your buttons, wasn’t my intention, but I’M STILL GONNA WRITE WHAT I’M GONNA WRITE AND IF NOT I JUST OUGHTA STRANGLE MYSELF WITH EVERYONE ELSE’S RULES OF WHAT’S PROPER, SO BUG OFF. And no, I’m not going to go back and edit to make it politically correct according to you.” Yep. It’s that last part always gets me.)

  21. I’m still waiting for my blog to get big enough to get that type of criticism….Sigh.

  22. I actually have a few things to add. Everyone’s great comments (and I say that because they’re pretty positive; had they all been negative, I would be saying, “Despite your dumb-ass comments”) have reminded me of a few things:

    1. As a few people have suggested, there’s a chance you’re the one in the wrong. I haven’t looked at that scenario here. I’m looking at the cases where you’re lily-white and beautiful and the world can only bow to your wisdom.

    I actually don’t mind being proven wrong and will not stick to an indefensible position. For instance, in my last CB post about grammar, a LOT of people said it’s okay to use “they” as a singular pronoun. So I’m now doing some of that. (By contrast, I will still not budge on “an historic.”)

    2. Joseph raises a good point, and so does Trina through her story. Sometimes it’s not about you. In fact, in the most venomous cases, it’s probably not about you very often. Simply understanding that helps.

    3. I definitely agree that not all criticism requires a response. But personally, I believe in answering all but the most incoherent that seems to ask for an answer. The reason is that many harsh critics expect to have the last word and do not expect you to bother to answer… and they expect that if you do, you’ll do so in anger. Answering these barbs — and especially doing so calmly or even compassionately — is a great way to disarm a critic. They simply don’t see it coming and often won’t know how to respond.

    Now, of course, many of those folks will still insist on getting the last word and so will keep trying to fight with you. That’s when you use #4. They may get the literal last word, but you’ve also said your piece… and your other readers will see that you have.

  23. Three more things:

    1. @Angry Writer – Sure, use it… just give me credit! There’s actually more to that response. I went on to say:

    “For what it’s worth, I didn’t intend it as a put-down — just as a descriptive tactic. And further for what it’s worth, I’m an insulin-dependent diabetic and have been since age 13. So to some degree I know where you’re coming from.”

    I added that for two reasons. One, I wanted her to know that I was coming from a place of understanding a “condition.” But also, I wanted to remind her that it was possible to be in that place and still not be so emotionally wounded about it.

    2. Eric reminded me of something: Welcome criticism. If you aren’t getting any, you’re not making an impact… yet.

    3. Drew’s comment made me laugh out loud.

  24. Hey! Great advice and great article! This remids me of a couple of articles I did a while back on a similar topic. You might enjoy them…

    http://www.mokurendojo.com/2009/07/everyday-application-of-aikido.html

    http://www.mokurendojo.com/2009/07/aiki-for-indirect-violence.html

  25. You’re a better man than me – I’d have put his head through the nearest wall. Criticism and assault are two very different issues in my eyes.

    That said, I agree with the spirit of your post.

  26. Well yeah, it’s funny. But there’s another lesson there. If you plan on going the rip-his-arm-off-and-beat-him-with-it route, you better be damn sure you can do it.

    The lesson is expanded on a bit in “Ender’s Game”, which was on the Marine Corps reading list. (Yes, we had a reading list.) The explicit lesson in military tactics was: Avoid a fight if you can. But if the other guy won’t let you walk away, make sure you beat him so convincingly that no one else wants to challenge you.

  27. This post makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. Yes, this is meant to be useful information on how to behave on line, but I take this as much more than a how-to. In fact, I don’t even care about that right now.

    This sensitive, well written piece teaches us all that the internet is a virtual space where humans can really hurt and be hurt. It can be a painful place. Thank you for humanizing it through this post.

  28. This concept also works great in customer service situations where you have to diffuse an irate customer. Great advice.

  29. Awesome story! It’s a perfect illustration of putting “How to Win Friends and Influence People” into effect. That book is a great source on handling to situations and can still work today, and I just wrote an article about using it in social media.

  30. This is a great concept, and one that is easily applied to other arenas. In design, many of my fellow students/coworkers have a hard time taking criticism, and react badly in most cases. Constructive criticism can be extremely important to anyone, not just creatives. I recently posted on a similar topic, but was targeted toward a lack of design criticism (mainly from student to student).

    You’ve also proved that a great headline can convert a looker into a reader. Well played my friend.

  31. As a Swiss, and no, I’m not drunk at all, I kinda like the idea that we Swiss can teach people something even when drunk! Seriously, excellent article with examples showing how looking at a situation in a dispassionate manner often produces a better response than an immediate, in the heat of the moment response. It has become all too easy on the Web to fall into that trap as, especially with email and comment boxes like this one, we have tools available that allow for spontaneity. In certain circumstances using them in this way is not advisable, whether you respond to a drunk Swiss or a heckler of any nationality as a matter of fact.

  32. By experience, I learned a lot of these lessons working with people as a receptionist years ago. Sometimes just saying “I understand why you’re angry” goes a long way. It doesn’t mean they’re right — but at least you’re acknowledging their passion. Calmly listening to them vent somehow dissipates the venom.

    Great post! Thanks for the reminder.

  33. You’ve offered some great advice here Johnny. I think most people are happy enough to agree to disagree if they feel like they’ve really been heard. Those that aren’t reasonable enough to leave it at that are not worth your time.

    My weakness is that I do have a bit of a temper and can react emotionally without taking a minute to calm down. I think my strength is that I do respond only once and generally refuse to get bogged down in a back and forth that benefits nobody.

  34. Fantastic, sound advice in a well-written article. Thank you!

  35. Criticism is very hard for me, and yet, I’m a customer service manager so I’ve had a lot of training and practice.

    Most people just want to vent because either you pushed a hot button or they’re mad about something else and it’s safer to vent at a stranger than someone who actually knows them.

    The majority will get it off their chests and if you remain calm and try to empathize with their feelings, will settle down and maybe apologize.

    Unfortunately there are a few morons that just seem to want to beat you up no matter how hard you try to be polite and helpful, no matter how much you explain. It’s best not to egg them on. It’s pointless with these types of people anyway.

  36. Thanks for another ripper post, Johnny! Great story telling. It takes guts to put yourself into your tales, but the benefit for readers like me is huge. I’m digging your scenes. Best regards, P. :)

  37. Ashley, while I’m sure you are right about lots of cases, there are also times where the company is wrong, the customer is justifiably upset, and the customer service person is caught in the middle with nothing they can do.

    I spent 12 hours in the last four days on the phone with tech support and customer service because an “upgrade” went wrong, my site was off the air, and email was being silently dropped. After the 8th person told me, “I assure you, they’re working on it right now and we’ll call you as soon as it’s fixed,” I was tired of hearing it.

  38. Thanks for the post. I’ve always had trouble with dealing with non-constructive criticism, especially at my day-job. I’m definitely going to try and use the tips. They might make customer service(the day job) a bit less stressful to deal with.

  39. I totally agree.. Sometimes an offend comment is very hard to handle..
    I’ve to handle many negative comment …

  40. If anything the negative comments only egg me on to write more, write better and just shove the criticism back in the critic’s face.

    I’ve had hateful comments on one of my blogs. My response was to rip the other person apart with reply to their comments and then ignore them completely and let them seethe in their efforts to attract attention. I liked the fourth point the best.

    Great article. Loved reading it.

  41. Great article.

    I especially like the last point, about only responding once. I’ve done this wrong to many times:

    Angry reader: I don’t agree with your view on X.
    Me: Ok, let me explain it again in simpler words, only adressing X.
    Angry reader: I still don’t agree.
    Me: Oh dammit, I couldn’t possible explain it with simpler words. Let my try again
    [.. keeps on going..]

    I’m not sure why I feel the need to “win” a conversation and always prove my point.

    If 1.000 people read your article and 5 people disagree, where one of them wants to argue it – it’s not worth it. Your spending time with 0.01% of your readers. Waste of time!

    Thank you!

  42. On reading this write-up, I recalled an often repeated thought, ” when somebody insults you, top it, if you can’t top it ignore it, if you can’t ignore it then it is probably deserved.
    I liked the way you handled the situation, its best to see the situation from the other man’s perspective.

  43. This article is useful to people online, the same to real life of course.

  44. There is a inherent danger in unleashing any talent in a public medium and it’s hard to constantly be looking over your shoulder for a potential circumstance that may cause offense. It’s hard enough in the physical world where it’s often easy to put one’s foot in one’s mouth, but online it’s virtually impossible to avoid if you want to maintain your edge.

    Aside from sharing your talent, probably the single most important human emotion to throw out there would be compassion (in my mind), so I think you dealt with the situation perfectly.

    Anyway, getting to the start of your post – great story, really well told. I’ll be checking out the rest of your posts.

    Cheers

  45. Hey Johnny,

    I didn’t know you could post in a polite language! This is very different from the lingo you usually use in your other posts (esp. on IttyBiz)

    Cheers mate,
    Endy

  46. What common sense and a good education (…) should be the headline maybe. I agree that the drunk man is a good hook, but maybe he is given to much credit in this post for the teachings mentioned here?

  47. I had a similar problem with someone a while back. They basically called me a liar. I just explained what was really going on and why. It’s amazing how you can diffuse a confrontation by being calm and honest.

    This is a great post, I think everyone should read this one.

  48. Excellent article. And I think the key here is not just being open to criticism and welcoming it, but understanding how to use it in a process of continual improvement.
    When I had a piece of writing off to someone else I tell them to “make it bleed”, meaning that if I get it back without any comments, I feel as if they haven’t read it (and reminiscent of the old days of editing with red ink).

    Empathy is important, but I think the key is this: let your reader know that you are listening and you will seriously think about their comments.

  49. Great post. Wish I had read this a few days ago as the advise is very helpful.

    Probably the most valuable thing I took away from it was Part 4, Respond Only Once. My guess is most of us are perfectionists and like interaction so knowing when to end a conversation/argument can be difficult.

  50. Your great advice works well for in-person encounters as well as online. I think Jesus stated it well when he said (paraphrased) to treat others the way you would like to be treated. We never really know what bad news someone may have just received that made them more sensitive at the moment. You sound like a great guy to have for a friend. Keep up the good work.

  51. Diplomacy at it’s best. Deflate, debate or walk away.

  52. @Endy – Where have you been? Copyblogger won’t let me swear. I found that out in my first article here I tried to have Donald Duck saying “F**K!” but it didn’t fly.

    *Note: Although Brian did say it would have been funny.

  53. I love the story. I had something similar happen to me at the Stockyards in Ft. Worth (Never go overdressed to the stockyards by the way).

    Looking past what is being said and trying to figure who why it was said can make a huge difference in your response. Nothing kills a Troll’s thunder like reacting calmly.

  54. Hi Johnny,
    Lots of interesting ideas.

    I did want to comment on Angry Writer and your discussion about being able to use whatever words you want–even if they offend people and hit their hot buttons.

    I agree, this is America you can use whichever words you want. But… you are a smart person. Why would you want to purposely offend people? You can use words like idiot, moron, imbecile, crip, tard… but why? Does it make you feel superior? Does it make you feel better than someone else?

    As a parent and advocate, I have helped people with the labels of asthma and diabetes get car insurance when they were denied. Sight unseen; was it right for an insurance company to assume that all people with those health issues were risky drivers and discriminate against them?
    My son has the label of mental retardation. Because of those two words, he was not allowed to go to public school. Because of those two words we had to spend 3 years in court, costing thousands of dollars, to be able to go to a public school. Because of those two words he was not allowed to participate in swimming lessons with the other kids in our neighborhood PUBLIC park. Because of those two words people in a previous generation were sterilized, given doses of radiation, taken from their families and put in inhuman institutions. There are still churches which will not allow people with the label of those two words to marry, some churches do not even allow “those” children to attend their services or receive the sacraments. Because of those two words we have been refused to be served in a restaurant and a Doctor refused to have us for a patient. .. need I go on?
    In Ohio, the state legislature just passed a new bill removing the words Mental Retardation from state agencies and its documents. This was the work of numerous advocates, thousands of hours of public hearings. It takes effect Sept. 1, 2009. This is NOT ancient history. This is a civil rights movement where we are fighting for the right of our children to live, work and recreate in the community. The right to be seen as human beings and citizens of this great country.

    If you would like to become informed about the history of people with disabilities I recommend Parallels in Time http://www.mnddc.org/parallels/index.html It might take a moment, but like your interaction with the Swiss drunk guy, you might learn something that will help you the rest of your life.

    And, BTW. The reason for many abortions in this country is–sight unseen–those two words.

    Remember the childhood chant, “Sticks and stones can break my bones,” well words sometimes inflict just as much pain and consequence. It is up to you to make an informed and conscious decision how you want to communicate your thoughts. I am betting your better nature will prevail.

  55. Mary,

    I understand what you’re saying, and I know what you’re fighting against, but focusing on labels isn’t always the best approach. You called this a civil rights movement, so I’ll use the language of race to explain my point.

    In 1960s Alabama, there were whites-only drinking fountains. If you were “colored” you weren’t allowed to use them. But was the label the problem? Someone must have thought so. That’s why they became black, then Afro-American, then African American. But racism still exists.

    Change the labels all you want, and people will learn that the new label is just that: a new label describing the same reality. And if they choose to discriminate against that reality, they will.

    When the church denied your son the sacraments, was it because of the label or because of small-mindedness? What if you tell them, “He’s not retarded, he is differently-abled … developmentally challenged … has an intellectual disability … is slow … special …”? Do you think they will suddenly decide he can take the sacraments after all?

    People who look down on your son don’t do it because of the term “mentally retarded”. It’s the opposite. They use “retard” as an insult because they look down on your son. *That* is what should infuriate you. Not that they use a label, but that they don’t respect your son as an individual.

    If a doctor uses the clinically descriptive term “mentally retarded” when talking about your son, that’s not an insult. It is the label used to describe a collection of intellectual conditions with similar features.

    Using a label isn’t by itself discrimination. It’s easy to identify, but it’s not the real problem. It’s probably better to point out and criticize real insults and real discrimination, than to spend time correcting people who are simply using descriptive language.

    I really do sympathize with what you’re facing. I just don’t think the labels are the real problem.

  56. I forgot to include this link, which makes my point more directly: http://www.sath.org/index.php?id=10130&sec=741

    Vice-president of AAIDD, Steve Eidelman, like many other experts, goes a step further and calls for a public education campaign to foster more positive attitudes towards people with intellectual disabilities. In an article published in a past issue of IDD, he said, “Changing the term (mental retardation) will make many people happy. That happiness will quickly fade when the new term is used as a pejorative. Without a long-term effort to include everyone and to educate those with negative or neutral attitudes toward our constituents, a change in terminology will become the new pejorative very quickly.” Eidelman’s comments were made in the midst of a debate on the name change of AAMR to its current day name, AAIDD.

  57. When a label carries enough stigma that the label alone can cause discrimination-the label is a problem.

    The civil rights movement of the 60’s laid the ground work for Sec. 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act…. If you look at the closing statements in Brown vs. Board of Education you will see the school districts arguments that (paraphrased) “If you let negro children in the public schools, the next thing you know the school will have to educate retarded children and Indians.” Our civil rights legislation didn’t take place until The American with Disabilities Act (1990)–less than 20 years is a short time in history.

    In 2009, our children have the right to go to public schools, and restaurants cannot refuse to serve us or ask us to leave. Churches, non-public schools and organizations can still decide who they allow in their churches but because so many of our children are going to school and living with their families in the communities, there is not the fear that once existed. Even the medical professionals have dramatically changed their low expectations and acknowledge the limits of the IQ test and other measures they used to label people. The new labels of ADHD, autism and developmental disabilities are now used on some of the same people who used to have the old label of mental retardation but they do not carry the same stigma. Sure this came about because of civil rights court cases and federal legislation, but mostly it happened as decent people decided to give people who were different a chance.

    The challenge in this post is to all of you who write blogs and send your words out across the world. Will you take cheap shots and continue hateful language which hurts people? Or, will you use respectful language and at least give us all a chance to build a better world for ALL people.

    Words have power. The people who use these words have power. Are you willing to change your attitudes and language for change.

    One of my favorite quotes, “The measure of a society, is how it treats its most vulnerable people.”

  58. “… because so many of our children are going to school and living with their families in the communities, there is not the fear that once existed.”

    Exactly my point. It wasn’t changing the label that made the difference. It was personal experience with people who were different.

    The last thing I’ll say on this is that hatefulness can come through even the most politically correct words. Words matter, but intent matters more.

  59. Try to avoid offending anyone, and you sterilize your message. It can’t be done. There’s always someone who will be offended by something. Personally, I agree with Carlin’s viewpoint: there are no “bad” words. There are bad intentions, bad behavior, but the words are neutral. Jesus healed the cripples – it’s in the Bible. Yet in the increasingly Puritanical U.S., calling someone a cripple is “insulting”.

    Mary, you’re wrong. Words don’t have power. People have power, and words are the tools they use to exercise that power. I’ve been called an idiot by people whose opinion I value, and that hurt. I’ve been called an idiot by people whose opinion I couldn’t care less about, and it didn’t hurt. Is the word “idiot” the problem?

    Similarly, I’ve been called a retard by a friend who was just giving me a hard time, and it wasn’t meant in a harmful way. We both knew that, and it wasn’t a problem. On the other hand, I’ve been called a retard by someone who genuinely doesn’t like me and was trying his best to insult me in front of a crowd. Is the word “retard” the problem?

    You don’t solve a problem by eliminating words from a language. If someone wants to be insulting, they’ll use whatever words they have in hand – if “retard” is somehow magically eliminated from English, they’ll simply use another word. Problem solved or not?

  60. Interesting discussion. Daniel’s comment got me thinking about how I have this perverse desire to walk the line. I’m perpetually the person (in my humor, anyway) who is seeing how much I can get away with. But, it really ends up being more about deflating the prejudice that often comes with the topics I cover… when held in more malicious hands. Because, me? I’m one of the least prejudicial and most tolerant guys you’ll meet.

    My posts “Fear of a Truant Planet” and “Christmas is Gay” both flirt with that line. In one, I’m a white guy talking about being black and in the other, I’m a straight guy talking about being gay. Yet through those posts, I’ve gained some good black and gay friends, respectively. It’s a strange thing. Intention is really at the heart of it all, truly and deeply.

  61. Thanks for the article. It has helped to remind me that even thought you cannot see the reader on the other side of the computer, they are there. Ranting through comments is similar to road rage. Just because you don’t have to face the person, does not mean that you should only see the car!

  62. Dude, the guy groped your sister. He ain’t giving you criticism, he’s sexually assaulting your sister. It has nothing to do with criticism. You should have fought the guy, even if you’d have been beaten. At least you could have proudly told people that this is the scar you got while defending your sister’s honour, instead of how some sycophantic sympathy towards a xenophobic pervert somehow helped you handle your blogging critics.

  63. @Anna – I was ready to. Had he not backed down right away, I would have. But I figured I had a chance to try and get out without a melee, so I took it.

    There are some things I’ve omitted from this story in the interest of brevity:

    1. Whatever it was was very brief and seemingly not aggressive. Max lights off time was 1-2 seconds, and remember, I was relying solely on a facial expression — one that was half amused and half offended, not one that was seething, outraged, hurt, or anything else.

    2. She was pissed at me later for intervening. To this day, she maintains that there was nothing risky about one young girl sitting on a bar chair in a sparse basement back room of a pub in a foreign country, quite literally surrounded by guys, and everyone but me drunk… her included.

    My brevity probably makes it sound a whole lot more like a Jodie-Foster-in-The-Accused situation than it was… so far. Violence without even attempting a peaceful solution would have been a substantial overreaction.

  64. A nasty troll became a great inspiration for me:
    “Stop Him Before He Ruins Your Tango”

  65. I think everyone who maintains any kind of online presence has faced this issue at one point. People tend to act on their thoughts before they give themselves time to calm down. A good lesson for blog commenters to learn- give it at least 10 minutes before putting anything out there. Think of it as a cool-down period.

    For both sides, if someone has offended you consider that they are more likely to be influenced by a calm and reasonable explanation than by a counter-attack. As you said, you can literally change someone’s whole attitude by taking the time to answer them as if they deserve a rational response (even if you don’t think they do!).

  66. The nice thing online is you don’t have to worry about getting beaten up. If someone wants a fist-fight with me in real life, I’ll run away… even if I “should” defend my honor… because if I fight I’ll get beaten up because I have no experience fighting. No reason to get beaten up… I’m going to live a long time. I don’t want to lose teeth.

    Online, it’s totally different because apart from psychos who want to take disputes to real life, you don’t have to worry. Still, it’s good to maintain manners and courtesy. Often commentators spoiling for a fight will be totally surprised when you don’t give it to them. Also, there is time delay. A few hours after a comment war you may have a totally different perspective based on logic rather than emotion.

    I liked the “severely retarded” thing more than the Swiss drunk guy, but you couldn’t use it as your hook because it’s a bad headline. I looked at your post and you were wrong because you grouped idiots with retards. “Idiot” is no longer used for mental retardation… the mentally retarded work as hard or harder than us, but they have problems with their brains that make life harder for them. Not their fault!

    Don’t get too caught up in politically correct language… I don’t like “mentally challenged” because it diminishes the severity of the problem. It sounds like it can be overcome, but physiological problems can generally not be overcome.

    I hope to read more articles on Copyblogger by you in the future!

  67. I always have to walk away for a bit, maybe even a day.

    My initial reaction is always flash anger, and I can blaze out a biting retort with deadly accuracy (one of the perks of being a writer, as everyone here can attest – the pen is, indeed, mightier than the sword).

    But I know that isn’t the right way to handle things, and when I have immediately responded in the past, it has always either made things worse or made me even more upset when a back-and-forth ensues.

    I find it is extremely beneficial to walk away for a bit; to never respond to criticism after the initial reading of it. Give yourself time to cool off and think objectively. You’ll find your responses much the better for it – more professional, more level-headed, less passionate, yes, but more compassionate.

  68. Amazing post!

    I can personally relate to your experiences as I also get a few people here and there who tell me that I have been ripping people off. What’s funnier is that they place an order for my services below the minimum size and when they dont get results, they get pissed off. (I am in the SEO industry so go figure LOL).

    This post gave me some great insights on how to respond to such people.

  69. Though I’m new to this whole game, I really enjoyed this read. I’ve had very little controversy online so far, but I’m sure someone out there is just wait to stumble upon my site and destroy me.

    Thanks for this article :)

  70. This should be required reading as part of everyone’s induction to the internet. The principles are the same as Aikido – don’t return force for force, don’t confront and onslaught head on. Thanks for the reminder Johnny.