Business culture

Can You Handle the Truth? Feedback and Constructive Criticism in English

“I like constructive criticism from smart people” – Prince

Are you someone who is good at being honest with your opinions? Are you someone who is able to take other people’s opinions well? Can you give constructive criticism and give positive or negative feedback to people? Or do you often harshly criticize your colleagues?

Either way, it can be difficult to both give and take opinions, and it is only made worse when you are speaking in a foreign language and to people who may not have the same cultural background as you. I have had several clients here in Korea discuss awkward interactions they have had with their foreign colleagues. Some of them are quite funny, others are quite awkward. All in all, these encounters leave people wondering what just happened, and if they did something wrong. So, what can we do to make it a little less awkward?

People from different parts of the world are…different?

There are a few ways to approach this problem. First off, we have to recognize that people from different parts of the world do things differently. Shocking, right? That being said, this is something very important that is often forgotten about. Sometimes we are not even aware of it. You might be used to criticizing people in your own native culture, and assume everyone takes criticism the same way. Think about it; you are criticized by your parents, criticized by your peers, criticized by your teachers, neighbors, elders, etc. And notice I say “criticize” here in the broadest meaning possible; to from a judgement on something. While often it has a negative meaning, it can be used to have a more neutral meaning depending on context.

You and your counterparts are used to a certain way of giving and taking criticism if you are from the same culture or background. If you are thousands of kilometers from home – say if you are an Indian manager in Korea, or an American businessman in China – your colleagues won’t have that same history of giving and receiving criticism like you do. So they may be confused by how and why you are saying things. If you are working in another country, or have a colleague from another country, try to figure out how criticism is given and received in their country.

This might involve just talking to them, and learning about their past. Some places like a more direct approach to criticism, and some places prefer to be a bit tactful. Either way, it’s always best not to assume they are different but rather try to understand how they are different. That way, you and your colleague can better understand how each other think and perceive the world, which will mean you will be better at working with each other. This is also certainly true if your boss is from another part of the world, it is important to be aware that your boss may not mean to hurt or offend you. They may not simply be aware that giving criticism is different. If you are unsure, you may want to ask for suggestions for improving your performance.

Give and take

It’s also very important to not frame criticism as being all negative but as being helpful. I have had experiences where bosses have heaped on a lot of criticism on me and then proceeded to tell me “you’re doing great”. I was confused – was my boss Gordon Ramsey? And why was he being nice all of the sudden? It felt like whiplash. I then realized; this was his way of giving constructive criticism. In an English speaking context, though, this is not very helpful. English speakers prefer to know in very direct ways how to improve, and very direct ways of improving. How can I be a better worker? Many people often want to know how they can do better, so it’s best to tell them clearly and honestly. So, when saying something that your colleague can improve on, you should give them some ideas on how to improve that behavior or project. For instance, if you have a colleague who is having a hard time making deadlines for projects, calmly explain to your colleague that it is important to make those deadlines, and then offer some suggestions to make sure they improve their behavior (start working on it earlier than usual, try working on the project in small chunks over a longer period of time, etc).

And lastly, remember that criticism is meant to help. If you are a boss, make sure you are helping your staff be the best staff they can be. Yelling at them might motivate them for the short term, but may hurt their morale in the long term. Positive feedback – telling people that they are important and are doing a good job – can actually be more beneficial for the long term than only yelling at them. 


constructive criticism – (n.) judgements that help someone be better at something
positive feedback – (n.) (business) receiving praise for something
negative feedback – (n.) (business) receiving blame for something
to harshly criticize – (v.) to give only extremely negative criticisms
encounter – (n.) a meeting with someone
to heap on – (v.) to add more things to something
whiplash – (n.) (slang) feeling of sudden change that leaves your head spinning
to make a deadline – (v.) to finish or submit something at a final date.

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