You Probably Didn’t Realize This, But You’re A Jerk

You Probably Didn't Realize This, ButIf you’ve ever managed people at work, taken a low-level psychology course (especially organizational or social psychology), or read an advice column about giving someone negative feedback, you’ve probably heard advice about giving criticism. The conventional wisdom advocates tactics like “couching” or “making a sandwich,” in which negative comments are preceded and followed by positive ones in order to soften the blow.

Unfortunately, while accompanying criticism with compliments feels less icky to the person delivering the message, some evidence suggests that feedback sandwiches dilute the message. Too much congratulatory bread can mask the flavors of the remonstrative meat (too far with the analogy?).

I recently read about a tactic of delivering criticism–really, asking people to stop an annoying behavior in the moment–in the book Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*uck by Amy Alkon. Alkon’s suggestion takes the best of the sandwich idea, which is trying to make a person more receptive to criticism by also offering an ego boost, without detracting from the central message that the person’s behavior has just got to change.

The advice is simple. When someone:

  • Blasts music from their car in front of your house
  • Neglects to pick up their dog’s deposits from the sidewalk
  • Clicks away on a mobile device without headphones on an airplane or bus
  • Etcetera  . . .

you can preface the request that they stop with the simple phrase “You probably didn’t realize this, but . . .:

  • We can hear your music from inside the house
  • There’s a city ordinance that says you need to pick that up
  • The sound from your phone really carries.”

Chances are, yes, the person totally realizes that their behavior is disruptive and was hoping that no one would care enough to pipe up. But by giving him the opportunity to pretend it was actually an oversight and not an incident of jackassery, you allow the person to save face when he complies with your request.

Alkon calls this a “no-blaming/”just the facts, ma’am” approach . . . you aren’t giving them orders, you’re simply pointing out a helpful fact . . . if they care at all about being considerate, or at least being perceived as considerate, you’ve just put them in the best possible mind-set” to act considerate.

Have you ever tried something like the “you probably didn’t realize this but” approach? Did it work for you?