The View from the Cheap Seats

I have this theory about haters: I think they think they’re helpful. That they’re providing a service and the rest of us should thank them.

I’m active in my faith community— at the moment, I’m a little too active, because I sing in the choir, I read the scripture aloud at services, and I’m teaching religious education. That means that during a typical service, I’m doing three different, and sometimes competing things, in addition to being there to learn and worship, myself. And on major holidays, I feel more pressure. This Easter, I went to church with my mom on Saturday, and then needed to sing and read, Sunday morning. So I was out late and then up early, dressed up fancy and at the church more than an hour in advance, to rehearse. I’d been at the church pretty nonstop leading up to Easter, and here we were. When all was said and done, I’d sung my little heart out, read with as much meaning and feeling as I could muster, and done what I could, imperfectly, but with my very best effort.

When I got tapped on the shoulder as I was getting ready to leave, I thought it might be a friend, wishing me a happy Easter, or possibly (and I mean this humbly, though it might not seem that way) someone thanking me for singing/reading/contributing to the service.

The stranger who tapped me let me know that she thought my (knee-length) dress was a little short, and that when I had bent over to pick up something that a fellow choir member had dropped, I’d shown rather more leg than I should.

I think she meant it as a “word to the wise.” I’m quite sure she believes she meant it kindly. But the incident she was referring to had happened more than an hour earlier. It was accidental and unrepeated. I don’t know the woman and haven’t seen her since. Also, I’m an obviously grown woman, not a little girl who needs to be told to sit with her legs closed. What I took from what she said was that she needed to convey her disapproval, either for what I wore or for the attention she thought I was trying to attract. I felt stung by what she said.

Another example: I’m a new-ish member of my local Toastmasters club. I love our meetings, and I’ve delivered a couple of speeches that have been invaluable experiences for me. Our club is warm and supportive— a great place to practice a skill as emotionally fraught as public speaking— but we’re all there to grow as speakers, and evaluations with constructive criticism is a big part of how we do that.

I’ve heard some very helpful constructive criticism. Among other suggestions, several people have pointed out that, while speaking, I sometimes cross my legs. I also don’t take a moment onstage before I begin. I tend to talk over laughter, and sometimes, I’m so relieved to be finished, I dart from the stage instead of standing there calmly, shaking the Toastmaster’s hand, and generally behaving like a grown-up. I tell you this to let you know that it’s not that I can’t take criticism.

However, one of the members points out any grammatical infelicity that I commit. I’m a former editor, so my grammar is typically better than average, but if I misspeak and say “asked Person X and I” instead of “asked Person X and me,” in a speech, she’s pointing it out in writing. I should share that, I’ve heard her speak, and as much as I enjoy her speeches, they are not grammatically perfect; however, I confine my comments to her content and delivery. Also, her most recent criticism of me included her assessment that I’d chosen the wrong bra for the occasion (and lest it seem otherwise, it was under a long-sleeved shirt and scarf, none of it was visible), which felt rather more personal than was called for.

As with the church lady, I know her conscious intentions are for my improvement. But I wonder if she understands that the method of holding (especially a beginner, but really anyone) people to a standard of perfection and noting any deviation, instead of focusing on what someone does well and building them up, isn’t helpful. Instead of being able to see my next speech in its entirety, presenting something carefully prepared but still spontaneous, will I be up there second-guessing the grammar of every turn of phrase, locking down specific words and phrases until they’re stilted and over-rehearsed? Will that improve me as a speaker, or will it contribute to the nerves I already feel? How much time will I spend on composing an outfit if I believe she’s going to assess my choice of undergarments as much as she’s assessing my speech? I think the missing word here is constructive. She’s got the criticism part down.

And for the record, she’s not wrong about her feedback. I should have said “me,” where she points out that I should have. She wasn’t entirely wrong about the bra, either, not that it’s generally something that is discussed between near-strangers.

Here’s how it comes down for me: We live in a world where people are afraid to get up and do their part, speak their truth. And they’re afraid because of things like this. People assessing how they look speaking their truth instead of engaging with the truth they’re speaking. People commenting snarkily about them instead of recognizing that volunteers are serving in several roles because there are too few people who will step up, despite our large community.

The people in the cheap seats are going to have to forgive me for not thanking them for picking nits. I’m not grateful to be shamed, and I think it’s the sort of thing you should think at least twice about, before you do. However good your view of the imperfections of the person who’s doing the work, I think we all have to start with respect for the work getting done.

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3 thoughts on “The View from the Cheap Seats

  1. i can relate. Take a notebook to your next Toastmasters and while she is speaking write out your grocery list. She doesnt have to know specifics but perhaps she will note her own imperfections. . .

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