A reader we’re calling Kait recently found herself in the position of being asked to review a piece of writing from a friend of a friend. Kait’s friend knew that she had expertise in the field on which the piece of writing focused so he thought she might be a good resource for feedback.
Typically, Kait’s friend would check with her before giving out her email and suggesting someone contact her. This time he didn’t and Kait was surprised when the email from someone she didn’t know arrived seeking feedback.
“I don’t know what to do,” Kait writes. “I really don’t like it.” Kait continues that she doesn’t know the writer, but that she’s confident he’s a terrific person. “If we had some kind of relationship I would be honest.”
Kait writes that she’s tempted to make a handful of small suggestions and to tell the writer, “it’s just fine.”
“What is the right thing to do?” Kait asks.
The way Kait presents the issue, there are at least two choices facing her. The first is whether to help her friend’s friend and move on, or make it clear that she’s glad to lend a hand but would like him to check with her first or to at least give her a heads up that he’d given her name and contact information to someone.
In this situation, Kait should talk to her friend and tell him to ask her before giving her name out. That would have been the thoughtful and right thing for the friend to do on his own, but if Kait doesn’t say something it’s likely to happen again.
The second choice is how severe to be in her criticism of the piece of writing. Kait doesn’t need to engage in what Sisela Bok refers to as “truth dumping” and point out every little flaw in the writing. It would be perfectly fine for her to offer a few suggestions without going into excruciating detail of just how much she doesn’t like the piece. But the right thing is to stop short of telling the writer something that she does not believe to be true. Disingenuously saying “it’s just fine,” is not, in fact, fine.
Kait is not obligated to offer any form of criticism in response to the writer’s email if she does not feel comfortable doing so. We are all capable of saying no in response to requests of our time and expertise, even if saying no is something many of us find challenging. If Kait is comfortable and offers as much constructive criticism as she feels comfortable offering, she will be showing kindness to the writer and to her friend who sent them along.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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