I recently had an email conversation with an artist who had just been through battle on her blog. After years of extensive blogging, she received her first negative comment, an inflammatory comment about a post she had written with some derogatory words about her art thrown in for good measure. The level of vitriol in the comment was a bit dumbfounding, especially since it didn’t seem to be coming from a dissatisfied customer but rather from a random visitor to the site who wouldn’t seem to have any good reason to be so . . . blunt.
After the shock and pain wore off, they were replaced by outrage. The artist dashed off a heartfelt response, countering point by point each of the charges in the comment. And thus began an epic battle in the comments section of her blog, with fiery comments flying back and forth over several days. I’m not going to post the comments here – I don’t wish to draw any more attention to them – but I’m sure that many of you who blog, have a website with a guest book, or participate in social media can sympathize with this situation. There’s nothing more disheartening than a brutal criticism of you or your work.
I’ve been blogging for about five years now, and I’ve certainly run into my share of negativity online. Really, this kind of behavior can happen anywhere – on a blog, one a third-party website, via email, and even in person. There are people out there who have a chip on their shoulder and like nothing more than to stir up a fight.
In the online world, this kind of person is called a “troll,” and they pop up all over the web. Rarely do they add anything of value to a conversation; they are usually composing their comments with the sole intent of stirring up an argument.
Dealing with Trolls
So what should you do if a troll sets his sights on you? My advice, coming from experience, is to ignore them. Responding only feeds the fire. If you have control over the forum (if they’ve posted on your blog, for example) I recommend removing the post. Your website or blog is your personal and private property, not a public forum, and you should feel no obligation to give their comments an audience, especially when it comes at your expense. I go a step further and moderate comments before they are posted on the blog – allowing me to prevent any inflammatory comments from ever seeing the light of day.
Try not to dwell on anything said in the comments. It’s easy to let a negative post ruin your whole day. Don’t.
Trolling is a widespread problem on the internet – NPR had to change their entire commenting system to deal with the issue (read about that here).
Responding to Dissatisfied Customers
But what if the comment or email comes from a real customer? It’s one thing to dismiss the rantings of a troll, but handling the negative feedback of an actual customer is another thing altogether. I’ve been fortunate to have very few unhappy customers over the years. I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve had a customer unhappy with a purchase or with the service they received. On the rare occasion where I do have to respond to a dissatisfied customer, I try to keep the following in mind:
- My goal is to get the customer back to a happy state – I will go to extremes to make that happen (although there are limits).
- I don’t argue with customers (or anyone else for that matter). I believe that as soon as an argument has started, the battle is already lost. Let’s be honest, it’s pretty rare that someone will change their views because of a persuasive argument. I prefer to take the diplomatic approach and try and find a common ground.
- Ignore the harsh stuff. If a client has used foul language or leveled strong criticism against you or your art, don’t feel compelled to respond to those parts of the communication. By responding in a civil, professional manner, you’ll likely calm things down, or, at the very least, you’ll feel better about the whole ordeal.
- Provide a liberal return/refund policy. Because returns are so rare in the gallery, I’ve found I can afford to be very liberal about my return policy. On the occasion when it needs to be invoked, I’ve found I can smooth over almost any situation by being generous in the return policy (paying for the return shipping on a piece of art, for example, as well as refunding the purchase price). There may be a cost involved in being liberal in this way, but in the long run, it’s worth it.
- Move any negative comments from a public forum to a private one. If you have a customer post a complaint or criticism on your blog or other public venue, try to get in touch with the customer privately – via phone or email to resolve the issue. Even though you are going to try to smooth the situation over, there’s no point in broadcasting the interactions to your other customers.
Responding to Critics in Public Forums
What if you don’t have control over the forum where a negative comment is posted? Several years ago I watched two artists battle it out on an artists group’s website. Apparently the two artists had a long-running rivalry in real life that moved into the comments section of this website. One artist would post an image of a new painting, and the other would jump into the comments and write what was wrong with it. The first artist would respond, and they were off – thousands of words flying back and forth. In the few posts I read, I felt like I should have a bag of popcorn since the comments had become so absurd that they were almost entertaining.
This is an extreme example, but you may have run into a negative comment about your work in a public forum and been unsure how to respond.
I’ve had this experience with the two books I have written selling on Amazon.com. Though both have been largely well received, if you look in the reviews you’ll see a few comments that aren’t 5-star, and a few that are downright negative (if you’re curious you can read them on Amazon.com).
Since you can’t delete the comments in a forum you don’t control, you’re going to be even more tempted to respond. Again, I would urge caution. It’s even worse to feed the fire in a public forum.
Keep the following in mind:
- Try not to take it personally. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and for everyone that has a negative opinion of what you’re doing, a dozen will have a positive one.
- Try not to get emotional. It’s hard not to take it personally and even harder not to let your emotions take over. The problem is that your heart is far more likely to get you into trouble than your head is. If you feel compelled to respond, I recommend waiting a day or two so that you have time to calm down. This has the added benefit of allowing your tormentor to calm down as well.
- Let your fans respond. Often, if you wait, your friends and fans will take care of responding for you, and it looks a lot better to have a third party responding than replying yourself. You might even alert your friends or fans to the comment via email. If you do, ask them to step up for you but to keep it civil and avoid combat.
Responding to Critics in Person
Dealing with online negativity is hard enough, but it’s even more challenging if the critique comes in person – say at a gallery opening or other public event. So what do you do if someone makes a derogatory comment to your face? Basically, all of the principles above apply – try not to get emotional or take it personally. Depending on the situation, I will try to laugh it off: “I’m sure glad not everyone agrees with that opinion!” or I will ask for further explanation: “I’m curious about your opinion – tell my why you say that?”
No matter what the situation – online or off, remember that your critics don’t define you. Being a glass-half-full kind of guy, I like to think that each critic is helping me thicken up my skin, and for that I should be grateful, I guess . . .
Have You Been the Subject of Criticism or Negativity?
Have you ever been the recipient of negative remarks or harsh criticism? How did you respond? What have you learned about dealing with negativity? Please share your experience and thoughts in the comments below.
You made excellent points in this article. Every artist should read it. Thank you.
This is about a different troll situation. Be careful when dealing with an “entitled” person as a buyer, sometimes labeled as a “Karen”, when you can’t expect their reactions to be normal, nor to understand anything from your point of view. Our one experience convinced us that once we decide not to accommodate an unreasonable request, to not elaborate and to cut off communication. And above all, unless absolutely necessary, not say anything critical about the buyer no matter the provocation. Such a person is not prepared to accept that they have been dishonest, nor to accept that their demand is unreasonable. The circumstances: Buyer bought a group of paintings and most of the net proceeds went to the artist’s heirs. Three years later, she wanted to exchange a small one for a large one we owned. We accommodated her, but the small one arrived not in our frame but an unsuitable cheap import. She then wanted to trade a second small one for a more desirable painting we owned, and we said no. We attempted to explain and made the mistakes outlined above, but instead of accepting our no she demanded that we repurchase everything from her, and her rage and attempted vengeance went on from there. Some people are not safe to be involved with.
I read these comments on this blog with great interest and as an effort to understand how to better engage with people while displaying my art. As soon as I got to the use of the “Karen” pejorative, as happens whenever I read or hear this usage, making meaning from what the writer/speaker is trying to stay comes to a halt. I admit it’s strictly an emotional response. You already described the person you were wanting to discuss, why include a pejorative that takes away from making meaning for a group of readers actually named Karen? Am I being “a Karen” by explaining my response to this reference? Maybe. It’s hard for me to know anymore. And therein lies the problem.
My apologies. In the future, I will endeavor to refer to “an entitled person” instead of using the hurtful shorthand that the internet displays for so many bizarre examples.
I so appreciate your response, Linda.
Much appreciated that the use of “Karen” will get replaced in future. I know many Karen’s that are lovely, warm hearted generous people.
I give you an alternative, “Katina” which is used in Greek and has the same meaning. Plural, Katines.
I have a review on my Google profile placed by someone 8 years ago who was not a customer – this was when G+ was a thing. It makes my rating a 3 star. I have repeatedly asked for the review to be removed by both Google and the posting party. Google says the review doesn’t violate their rules so will do nothing, and the poster is long gone. I originally posted a similar comment on her G+ page but that was removed right away. I don’t have a huge online footprint so it makes a bigger difference to me that someone with thousands of followers. There was nothing to be done but post a reply saying it was a non-customer, which I did some time ago. It still irks me.
There is a silver lining for you Neena. Presuming you had a 4-5 star rating, and one bad review—even a one star—forced you down to three stars, statistically that means you have very few online reviews. I am not saying that to criticize or judge; what I mean is it should be pretty easy to turn that rating around. All you should need is 2 or three 5 stars and you’ll be back on top again. Best of success to you!
It is very hard not to take it personally or be emotional about it but your advices are well presented.
I received a negative comment about a car show picture I posted. He wanted to know how I could post a picture such as this and that it was “cheap Photoshop”. There were some bright golds and purples in the image, maybe that set him off. I never responded, blocked him on Facebook, (it was a Facebook post) and never had to hear from him again.
Easier said than done, but I do try to ignore trolls. They do disappear if you don’t play their game. In person, it is harder and I have several occasions with negativity in person. My newest gambit is “thank you for your interest. Your comments are appreciated and I hope you are able to find, elsewhere, the art you are seeking.” This has worked well. Mostly the negative nelly is confused, afterall they were trying to pick a loud fight and you did not play the game but changed the rules. They usually walk away with no screaming or loud fussing.
Your points are great; just my experiences are more in person than online.
It sure is aggravating and the temptation to respond is almost overwhelming, BUT we have to remember: the people who love our work will love it regardless of what anyone else says about it! And that’s true of any artist. In the end I’m not sure how much long term or lasting impact it really has. Anyone who put any weight on some random comment by a stranger rather than going with their own feelings and responses to the artwork will probably not be the kind of follower you’d want anyway.
Many years ago when I had a retail gift shop and beannie babies were the big thing, I had a customer call me to see if I had this particular bear. I had just gotten a shipment but this was when people stood in line to get them. I told the woman who I did not know that yes we had them . When she got to my store and worked her way through the line we were out of the particular bear. She grew irate saying she had made a special trip to my store and winged another baby across the room at my head, leaving in a huff. My astonished employees just looked at me and I said ” She must have been having a bad day! The next morning I got a call from aa woman who said her name , she said oh you will remember me, I am the one who threw the beannie baby at you. I said yes I remember and she proceeded to apologize. It seems her daughter had died leaving 2 small children for this older woman to raise and she had had a bad day trying to satisfy these 2 children. You never know what someone else is going through.
I’ve read three books by you, Jason, and I loved them. I also love your blogs. Your advice about selling art is so encouraging.
On my last day at work, a co-worker asked what I was planning on doing in my retirement. “More time to paint!” She told me she also painted and asked what medium I used. I barely got out the word Watercolor and off she went. “Ohhhhhh weeeeeeeell – I’m sorry I’m such a snob but I believe oil is the only REAL way to go if you’re a SERIOUS painter…” I didn’t respond. Nothing I could say would sway her opinion so what’s the point. I think a person has to be really insecure in their artwork to dismiss another artist’s work sight unseen merely due to what medium is used.
Then there was the abstract artist who reacted to me telling her I lean more towards realism as if I had just told her my dog died.
I decline to answer when someone leaves a hurtful or derogatory comment or says it to my face. Why? Because I feel they’re too stupid to waste my time. Move on. You will have a better life if you don’t let these people get in your head. They DEFINITELY are not worth it.
Thank you for another interesting article. So much useful information and the comments are always full of great advice from life experiences. The icing is you make it so easy to check out the commenters art which I usually do. Win! Win!
Excellent points. Sad that the world seems to be losing civility and self-control. a liberal return policy may be more costly but I think it gives the buyer more confidence in the seller and product, which is exhibited in your case. You have also provided helpful responses to those criticisms. Thank you.
My wife and adult children are my harshest critics because I have asked them to be and I press them to be critical of my sculptures. Sometimes their comments sting, but I asked for it! I once had a person respond negatively to a sculpture I made which won an award at an art show. He said it was not a good sculpture. I noted that it had won an award, to which he grimaced. I asked him what could be done differently to make it a better sculpture, and it became clear that he didn’t really know, but he didn’t like it. I thought about making a case about why I thought it was a good sculpture, but in the end decided not to do that. Instead, I commented that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which he accepted. He was a good fellow who decided to share his opinion with me and I didn’t need to get into an argument. The next day I sold that sculpture to a collector who loves it and prominently displays it in their home. That took some of the sting out of the negative response.