Lesson #12: How to Criticize a Friend

by Rachel on June 29, 2010

I love helping people feel good about themselves, but I can’t stand being fake — especially when someone asks for my honest opinion. If a friend says to me, “I want your honest opinion,” it’s because she wants to hear the truth…not what I think she wants to hear.

(Well…if she did just want me to tell her what she wanted to hear, she learned the hard way that’s not what I was going to give her.)

I mean…sorry I’m not sorry. I don’t have anything to gain from letting my friends be ridiculous. Being honest is an important part of being a good friend. How many times have you looked back on something you’ve done — whether it was bad eye shadow or a bad relationship — and wondered where the hell your friends were during that time? Um, yeah…not letting that shit happen on my watch.

But before you start thinking I verbally attack women for sport, let me be clear: part of the reason people come to me for an honest opinion is because I’m pretty tactful. And because, apparently, an honest friend is actually a pretty rare thing. But that’s crazy! We can all be better friends in this way. Here are some ways to be supportive and honest.

In general…

  • Don’t give unsolicited advice. Sometimes a friend just wants to talk; she isn’t asking for your opinion. So don’t give it. And don’t give unsolicited criticism. Wait until she brings it up. (Because…she will.) Offering a long-winded explanation of what you think without being asked is often what leads to hurt feelings.
  • Do let her know ahead of time that you’re an honest friend. This is often really easy to do when you’re discussing another friend — say, the friend with the bad eyeshadow. If your friends say, “If I was doing that, I’d want someone to tell me!” use it as an opportunity to say, “I will always tell you! Seriously…”
  • Recognize the difference between keeping things light and making a joke. Actually, using a joke to tell someone your honest opinion is probably the most hurtful thing because it makes us feel like we’re being mocked. When that happens, I think of a phrase I recently heard via Leah/”Last Comic Standing”: LOLCI. Laughing out loud, crying on the inside! “Oh hahahaha I better laugh along with everyone else or they’ll give me a hard time for being sensitive…but actually I’m really self-conscious about this thing and my face is getting hot and my eyes are filling with tears and now I feel like I know how you really feel!” Um, don’t cause that in a friend! Your joke isn’t funny.

When shopping…

  • The fact is this: when a woman asks about an outfit, she’s actually asking you if it makes her look skinny. If it accentuates something she’d rather hide, then you need to say that.
  • Have go-to phrases that let you state your opinion gently. When answering the question of “Do you like this [insert clothing item here]?” my go-to responses are, “I’m honestly not crazy about it” “It’s OK but it doesn’t really do anything for you and you want to buy clothes that do something” and “I just don’t think it’s super flattering.” I mean, really, it depends on the situation.
  • Point out what it is you don’t like about something — and try to keep it general instead of focusing on her specifically. Something like, “Well I like the color but I think the empire waist tends to make a lot of women look pregnant, even when they are thin and especially those of us with bigger boobs!” Making it more general and relating it to yourself can often help.
  • Hyperbole can sometimes work too. “I know high-waisted pants are really trendy right now but I feel like anyone who is not Gisele can’t really pull them off. I wish we all could, though, because I love them in theory!” Remember, keeping it light and making jokes are two different things!

When it comes to dating/relationships…

  • Fight the urge to spin everything to make your friend look like a winner. Be real. And give your friends some credit; they can handle criticism! But homegirl doesn’t need you cheering her on as she goes reading a guy’s texts.
  • Seriously think about what she’s asking you. If a friend says, “Am I being crazy?” think about the question. Is she being crazy? Don’t just give a stock response. A good friends thinks about it because she actually cares.
  • Always say it with love. Seriously, I often start the sentence with, “I mean this with a lot of love…” I love my friends. I want them to be successful in love and I absolutely believe they can be! But I don’t believe they can be if they are reading a guy’s texts and being crazy. Sorry I’m not sorry…again, DBR.

There’s actually an article in this month’s Marie Claire on this very topic with some good tips for ending this whole female enabling culture. The article suggests that when answering a question like “Be honest: am I single because I’m fat?” you can say something like “I think you’re one of the most wonderful women I know but I also think men can be superficial and might not get to know you. If you’re interested in getting in shape, it might attract more men. How can I help you do this?” (Um, but put that in your own words please. Sounds a littttttle scripty, MC.) The article says to enable the goal, not the self-deception.

Ways you can make your friendships more honest…

  • Talk to your friends about this topic! Seriously! Send them the link to this post and say, “Let’s agree to be tactful and honest with each other all the time.”
  • Come up with a “safety word.” Sometimes I just say, “Don’t be That Girl.” That’s my way of saying, You’re crossing into bad ridiculous territory and you don’t want to be That Girl, so snap out of it. You and your friends can agree on your word or phrase that means, “I love you, but I’m judging you and you need to pull it together. You’ll thank me for this some day.”
  • Be honest with yourself. I can’t say it enough. Don’t ask your friend, “Am I being crazy?” until you’ve asked yourself, “Am I being crazy?”…and then put down the guy’s phone and the bottle of tequila long enough to actually answer that question.
  • Use honesty as a way to build your friendships. I’ve gotten closer to my friends as we have these real conversations. When a friend comes to me and says, “I know that what I’m doing is pretty crazy. Do you think I’m taking it too far?” I respond to her vulnerability with compassion because I have so much respect for the fact that she’s even asking me. And it makes me want to be more open to my friends’ opinions in return.

And, most important of all (this could probably just be a rule)…

  • Stop asking ridiculous questions in which you’re pretending you want an honest response but you’re really just asking for confirmation. STOP IT, WOMEN. Stop, stop, stop. STOP. If you can’t handle an honest answer, then do not ask the question. You’re setting your friend (and your sister and your mom and your boyfriend) up for failure.
  • Let your friends be good friends. Let them stop you from being That Girl (even if That Girl is very close to…who you are).

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rachel Marlena June 29, 2010 at 8:25 am

Thank you thank you thank you! I am super honest and it can be difficult to be honest while also keeping feelings in mind. It can be more difficult to be super honest when people don’t actually WANT honesty! I was helping a friend pick out an outfit and she kept picking these belts that just emphasized her belly. Finally I said, “they are hitting you the wrong way, let’s go in another direction.” And once she found something flattering and comfortable she felt like $1,000,000 all night!

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2 j@nycandlove June 29, 2010 at 8:29 am

It’s posts like this that make me glad to be a guy, the dynamic between men is so much easier. We don’t need to say things nicely, if we think you look like Ppablo Escobar’s hair stylist in that suit we’ll tell you. If your beard makes you look like a child molester you’ll be the butt of the joke until you shave it off. Simple!

I think one of the hardest things to give criticism on is the persons girlfriend/boyfriend. on one hand you want to encourage them to see it through, but you also want to have the stones to say “you can do better.” Normally they say it after you’ve broken up with the person and it just makes you want to slap them, but at you also appreciate the candid honesty.

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3 Emily June 29, 2010 at 8:32 am

(even if That Girl is very close to…who you are).
I love this line…my friends and I joke about this all the time the fine line between being the party girl at a party (aka life of the party) who everyone wants to talk to and being THAT girl at the party( aka the drunk girl). When one of us maybe be going down the path towards the drunk girl, we always say “be a party girl” meaning maybe that 4th lemon drop isn’t really needed.

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4 Exercise and Eat June 29, 2010 at 9:00 am

Another great blog post with great advice. Shopping can be a pretty difficult task when those questions come up! It’s important to know how to answer tactfully.

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5 amanda June 29, 2010 at 10:06 am

I love honest people and try to live by that. I hate when people are fake and have those fake smiles plastered on their faces.

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6 Kaytee June 29, 2010 at 11:59 am

This advice is pretty great! I’ve been so lucky to have honest friends, especially in a relationship scenario. I, however, have a hard time doing it because it’s so easy to lose a friend by criticizing their relationship, especially if it’s unhealthy (or if the guy is a complete scumbag).

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7 Bess June 29, 2010 at 12:26 pm

I have just been having similar conversations with some friends recently.

I have found that one of the hardest things to give women constructive criticism on is the guy they are dating…not only do they get uber defensive and sometimes cut off contact but also, I’ve learned to not say anything even right after they break up.

This is because the couple often reunites and sometimes the girl even tells her guy the not-so-nice (but true) things their friends told her about him.

Plus my friends always know when I don’t like the people they are dating b/c the word fake just isn’t in my vocabulary….this applies to fake foods, fake flowers, fake boyfriends, fake orgasms, etc.

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8 maria @ Chasing the Now June 29, 2010 at 9:51 pm

This was an EXCELLENT post. Really well written and had great advice. I hate when you ask someone’s opinion and they are obviously being fake. All girls should send this link to their best friends.

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9 Fit Girl June 30, 2010 at 5:49 am

Looove honesty!! Have to agree with j@nycandlove on the guys are much more straight forward front. Guys have always been the ones to keep it real and say, look, if he hasn’t called, he’s not interested, and that was all I needed to move on, NOT indeed my girlfriend saying, maybe he’s lost your number, or I’m sure he’ll call he’s probably just busy, or you can do better than that idiot…yawn yawn yawn!! Bottom line is, if he isn’t tapping up your phone number, dude isn’t interested! So thank you guys for your honesty, and ladies let’s man up when our girlfriends need to be told! As always, a wonderful post Rach!

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10 MelissaNibbles June 30, 2010 at 8:10 am

It drives me nuts when people ask a question and then act upset when you answer honestly. I’m not here to coddle your ass!

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11 Heather June 30, 2010 at 8:17 am

Ha, this makes me think of the conversation we had a few weeks ago when you picked me up from the train station. I was talking about being a crazy girl (in reference to a guy, which is usually when I deem myself psycho, let’s be honest), and you were like, ‘No, that is not crazy, so STOP saying that it is!’ It not only made me think about the situation from a different perspective, but it made me realize that some thoughts and questions in relationships are totally justified. And now I know for sure that you really didn’t think I was being crazy, or else you would have said it, haha. (I do think you may have had to tell me DBR a few times, though.)

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