Omphaloskepsis: on asking questions and providing suggestions

It’s been kind of a crazy few weeks in SCA blog-land when it comes to arts and sciences and how we ask questions and do things and information transfer and how to act on social media.  Y’know, a light week of reading.  (So you have an idea, check out these posts: Social Media, the SCA and You: an editorial.Tolerating Intolerance: The Trap of SCA Courtesy, and Remember the human: don’t be that guy at A&S classes and displays.)

It’s some heavy reading, but decent food for thought.  Go read.  Come back here when you’re done.

Done?  Okay.  Awesome.

So, let’s look at this in a couple of ways.

Social media in a lot of ways has become the village well.  We talk through projects and concepts pertaining to the SCA.  In a lot of ways, it continues the learning process that happens at events, practices, A&S nights, and collegia.  People use it to bounce ideas off of others.  It can be a tremendous source for providing or asking for help.


Let us remember that unless someone is asking for help (or you have asked them if they need help!), it is not a good idea to make unsolicited advice or suggestions, even if they are well-intentioned.  It will create more friction to those who are seeking information.  When in doubt, ask if you can offer advice.  If someone says, “yes,” then yes, go for it.  Awesome!  If not, then don’t offer it.  There may be reasons, but it’s not for you to go into.  And unless you are prepared to fix the thing yourself, seriously don’t offer.  And, yes, it is okay to ask “are you needing my advice, or do you need to rant?”  I assure you, there is plenty of space to rant about how terrible a project is.  I have an entire closet of banished A&S projects.  I have ranted about all of them to someone willing to listen.  (mostly my peers, but hey, sometimes other folks, too.)

Same with commissions.  If one asks about if commissions are open, and they aren’t, then they aren’t.  Don’t press for reasons, because there could be anything preventing commissions being open.  Don’t even go into “oh, I would still love to have this if they open,” because that’s passive-aggressive.  It’s not even flattering.  On the artisan end, it can be frustrating.  Pro tip: Ask simply and directly.  “Are you taking commissions?”  “Are you open to taking a commission?”  It’s a yes or no answer.  And if you get a no answer, please be graceful about it.

It really boils down to consent.  And consent matters.  (Seriously, this is a matter of respect.  And respecting boundaries is important.)

Same with at display and competition tables.  The boundary is a bit fuzzier, certainly, as there’s clearly a place for information transfer.  However, there really is a way to couch suggestions.  Saying “you should do this” versus “have you thought about. . .” really does frame advice in a friendlier way.  That being said, be prepared to actually listen why the person on the other side of the table didn’t do it that way.  If the person can’t afford it, give them the tools to help.  Our hobby is expensive, and for people starting out on the path who may not have found their passion, it is unfair to ask them to invest in items that they may not be able to afford.

If your kingdom doesn’t do face-to-face judging, this is a great way to leave helpful links or book titles, but please remember that you’re losing tone when you’re leaving written comments.  Much like business emails, written comments don’t have the benefit of body language, and even helpful comments can read as being harmful.  (Same with social media.  If you’re going to leave a comment on a display, read the information and then comment with something truly helpful.  If you have nothing helpful to add to the conversation, don’t add it.)

Couch your comments like a compliment sandwich.  A compliment sandwich is compliment-constructive critique-compliment-encouragement.  An example is “you did this particular thing really well.  I would like to see this change, and this is how you can take steps to do this.  Even then, you made a great attempt, and I can’t wait to see more!”  Honesty, though, is important.  If there’s room for improvement, then let them know.  But let your advice be easily actionable.  Think of constructive criticism as a way to work alongside them in improving their work – you become partners.

And that brings me to the second point.

Ask honest questions.  Veiling passive-aggressive points as a question is not a question.  Weaponizing “have you thought about. . .” is a great way to get someone to not listen to future advice.  Example: “Have you thought about the fact that your stitches are wrong and you need to do this” or “Is there a reason you didn’t use this particular resource?” is a great way to upset someone.  Sticking your nose into a social media post on telling someone how to do something without them asking for help is a really big faux-pas.  Don’t do it, please.

For those who are already looking at this as a TL;DR (too long; didn’t read), I bring you Konstantia’s Guide to Being a Better A&S Judge.

  1. Encouragement.  You may be talking to someone who is incredibly gunshy to judging.  They could be dealing with nerves or a life explosion.  Any number of things.  Be kind.  Encourage them.  Unless you are willing to fix a reason why someone is unable to do something (and it’s listed in the documentation), do not tell them how to fix it unless you’re willing to help show them.
  2. Be positive.  Even if you’re having an absolute rotter of a day, don’t take it out on the person you’re judging.  They can be nervous, upset from a prior judging session, or even may be dealing with something else unrelated to the Society.
  3. If you see someone tanking someone project, tell someone.  Seriously.  Please tell someone, whether it be the Minister of Arts and Sciences, the person running the display event, or the event steward.  Part of what makes the information transfer work is positive experiences (not everyone runs off of spite and caffeine like me), and that means if you see someone being a jerk, privately mention it to someone who can make a conversation happen.
  4. Couch your conversations with love and joy.  Socratic methodology is great, but please don’t be passive-aggressive with it.  I know I’ve said this over and over, but please, be kind.  Listen.  Support.  (see also the line about encouragement.)  Now, be honest, but don’t be brutal.  Brutality is not a peer-like quality.  Neither is unsolicited advice.
  5. Give contact information.  If you’re judging something, you may be a subject matter expert.  (and even if you’re not, judging is a great way to network and connect and to check in with the people you’re working with.)  You may even learn something new, subject matter experts!
  6. Write award recommendations.  Seriously.  The Crown/Coronet is not psychic, nor are they able to co-locate.  Call people to Their attention.  If you want to learn how to write an award recommendation, please read my article, found here.

This list is far from being complete, but it’s a good start.  Please feel free to use it in your toolbox and to modify things as necessary.  And let me know how it works!

4 thoughts on “Omphaloskepsis: on asking questions and providing suggestions

  1. So, my rule of thumb is that I only give feedback if I’m asked for it, unless I know the person really well and know that my feedback is welcome, and even then, I usually ask them if they want it before I say anything other than, “Wow, that’s great!”

    In other words, I remember what my Lady Grandmother always taught me, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

    As for the social issues: we definitely have a problem in the SCA, or at least in our group, of enabling bad behaviors or even destructive behaviors for the sake of saving some sort of face, either because they’re a peer or they’ve been part of the friend group for a long time, etc. Also, people are afraid of confrontation. There is definitely a vibe that a peer-like person is someone who is liked by everyone, and that leads to be unwilling to risk offense.

    The reality is that not everyone liked William the Marshall. If Roland had been well-liked by everyone, we wouldn’t be singing a song about him. In modern history, Lincoln was absolutely hated: he was blocked from the ballot in several states and we know how he ended up… However, these are persons to whom we all look for inspiration, as examples of chivalry or integrity. Having integrity means being willing to be disliked if it means standing up for what’s right.

    We need to stop viewing courtesy and chivalry as popularity contests and look at quality of character. Rather than looking at whether everyone likes an individual, we need to remember that you can be the sweetest peach that was and there will still be some people who just don’t like peaches. That doesn’t make peaches bad.


  2. Pingback: Omphaloskepsis: that pesky C | konstantia kaloethina

  3. Pingback: Omphaloskepsis: Consent | konstantia kaloethina

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