Giving feedback, American style

As it’s become redundant from my previous posts, this process of landing a job “American style” can take a while – specially for a foreigner like me – and between sending a CV here and writing a cover letter there (#IStillBelieveInHR) I’ve been having a lot of time to go to classes, lectures, conferences, dodge ball tournaments and – my favorite type of event: book presentations.

So for any of you who’re not American and might confuse this with a book cocktail, happy hour, book signing or any other “come buy my book and I’ll feed you some free shrimp cocktail” type of event, that’s not it.

Here’s the deal: you go there, at any given library, sit down with a bunch of people who like you have nothing better to do a Tuesday afternoon, and then the author comes and reads some parts of the book, kind of putting his own tone to the reading, eventually giving out some spoilers and explaining how it took him 8 years and 2 broken marriages to write that book. Ok, so far, no big deal.

And then they open the mike for questions from the audience. What a moment. It gives me the shivers just to think about it.

Before I go on, little side note: as I’ve said in other posts there are some stuff about the American culture that still don’t make a lot of sense to me (like that messing up with the dates thinging). But if there’s something that the US say and it’s completely solid is the fact that they are a free country. It seems to me that people here actually do whatever they feel like doing, in the most beautiful aspect of it, as long as it’s legal. So you’ll see people going out on their pajamas to take their kids to school, having long, deep conversations with crazy drunks on the subway and things of the sort. So what I’m about to describe shouldn’t surprise me. But it always does.

Now, get this: every time, but I mean EVERY time that they open for questions from the audience there will necessarily be some one who’s gonna raise his hand and say something like: “yeah…didn’t like the book. It’s poorly written, I didn’t connect with the main character, hated the end”. Or some more elaborate version of that.

At that point, myself, who’s seeing this “in your face, biiiatch” type of approach publicly for the first time, went ballistic. I started to look at other people in the audience, waiting for someone to react, perhaps a big fan would threaten that crazy folk, maybe even a minor riot would start, who knows?

And then this happens: nothing.

Not one reaction, not even a raised eyebrow. Even the author (did I mention the 2 marriages stuff!?) was like: “didn’t like it? Cool, bro. Way to go man, express yourself, this is a free country. Peace. Next question”.

Mind. Blown. It completely shifted the way I thought feedback should be given, especially in front of an audience.

It made me realize how I had always lived in two cultures (Brazilian and Spanish) where, at least from my experience, you’re supposed to give feedback the “care bear” way: when you want to criticize someone’s work you should spend more time talking about the a-mazing stuff about it and then maybe, mention how, “hum… re-doing the whole thing might be a great opportunity to produce something even better!”

I know. The definition of bullshit.

Well, let me tell you, watching that stranger say something that blunt about someone else’s book opened my mind in the most beautiful way possible!

Being able to say, in front of a whole audience and a guy who dedicated 10 years of his life on a book, that you don’t like it, you don’t agree with it – being honest without being disrespectful, of course- what a wonderful thing! You Americans might find it hard to understand, I guess you’re used to it, but for me, well, that’s just golden.

So I, the biggest chicken currently reported to be living in Massachusetts, marveled at the courage of these free spirit folks, decide to take on the mike, stand up in front of about 40 people – and the author – and give my own version of “meh, didn’t really like it”.

I know, I know, I wasn’t giving feedback to the UN’s general secretary nor was I one of Taylor Swift’s BFFs/über model performing on one of her shows, but I was trembling. But then I just did it, and, who would have thought, it was just fine. No one stared at me or half-coughed/half-called-me-loser when I talked. Everyone’s lives just went one, like nothing happened.

But inside, I was screaming the bejeezus out of my lungs, thinking that this was more liberating than skinny-dipping.

I sat down, triumphantly, thinking that well; actually I could maybe give some feedback to the UN’s general secretary, why not?



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