“What do you think?” he asked. That usually means someone wants my opinion.
I opened the file and half a page of our writing assignment popped up on my screen. He was asking for an advice probably, if not validation. I scrolled down with some constructive notes in mind. Before I said anything, I sent him mine to give him some ideas that this is how I write and what I think is right in terms of the writing style. After he read my writing, I did my best to be sensitive and suggested him that he could bring up more academic atmosphere by removing some part of the paragraph. I expected him to comment about my advice. Instead, he said he would just submit and see how the professor finds it. Then I thought, alright. Advice wasn’t what he was seeking.
After a few hours, I attended the class and the professor asked us to swap our assignment paper with the next person’s so that we could give and receive some constructive feedbacks before finally handing it in. The guy next to me read my 120 word abstract paper word by word while marking some underlines and comments. I read his with another constructive thoughts in mind. It was about 400 words. I didn’t make any notes as I preferred oral discussion to understand the context better and my plain words might get lost in translation on the way to his understanding. Instead of making a statement, I thought it would be much better to ask him clarifying questions so that he could answer himself. He wouldn’t finish reading so I interrupted and suggested we’d start sharing our thoughts. He enthusiastically embarked his comment on my research abstract by adding, changing, and replacing my original words. I could feel myself wondering if I should get offended by now. I didn’t enjoy the fact that he was actually editing my writing without knowing the whole story. As if he was my instructor. Although, I sensed that he was trying to be careful by adding ‘I guess?’ remark at the end of his comment. He was giving his opinion on what it should be like and why should I get offended by that? He cannot certainly outdo his own opinion and why would I expect him to give me something that he isn’t? I wondered if it’s me being insecure about being criticised or it’s the power relation where I became the lower position by being criticised by someone else. Or if it’s simply me thinking that my abstract was flawless. Probably not.
I thought I had to explain what context I had in mind so that he could adjust his constructive advice with the proper understanding of the context, because it’s after all academic writing for the readers who have a certain degree of background understanding. And then I asked how he perceived certain words with the intention to avoid any confusion by my choosing of some words. Because that I thought was the feedback I needed from my peer.
When it was my turn to give him the feedback, I asked a question to clarify his intention of using certain sentences because as I understood, he had 2 thesis questions in one research, which should be avoided by all means. He talked about the content of his research but it didn’t really help me understand why there are still two questions. I repeated again in an indirect manner fearing he might get offended, but it somehow didn’t clear it out. It was obvious that I was taking this issue sensitively already as I was aware that it might hurt feelings including mine. It was already in my head. Maybe he didn’t understand my comment or he thought it was pointless to take into account. Maybe he felt defensive. Maybe he didn’t like my comment at all. He resisted falling to the lower position under my ‘wisdom of thought’ by avoiding to face directly to my comment.
I do not like the feeling of going down to the lower position. It evokes the thought that the person giving me the advice isn’t necessarily better than me and why I have to listen to him/her when I can figure it out better myself. It’s a different feeling to be criticised by someone I consider smart and knowledged. Maybe it’s not necessarily about the quality of advice. It’s the name tag. But why is it so hard to give and receive a piece of constructive advice? Do I not have any trust in the intention of people?
And it was yesterday, that I asked someone an advice of my essay writing. In my head, I was hoping he could kind of complement my writing, as I was very well aware of my clumsy sentences and connections between paragraphs, and point out things that are not understandable. Then he gave up on reading the full essay for the reasons that I was semi-expecting: sloppy grammar structure, unclear, scribble-like sentences. He said the problem was likely the fluency. I tee-heed out of embarrassment and felt bad he had to read them. Certainly, though, I didn’t feel offended as I was in the last feedback session with another guy.
It must be the degree of agreeableness. The degree which I can relate to, I can agree with. If that’s true, I can make giving advices more pleasant. I can just ask “what do you think is your weakness in this writing?” Then I can offer more relatable feedback instead of pointing out something he or she didn’t even think about. I will have to experiment on this for a while.
Photograph: Verne Ho