When I was a kid I used to run out of books to read pretty often. I no longer have this problem because I always, always have homework to do, and when I’m somehow done with that homework, there is always an interesting book around that my mother-in-law has recommended (or even sent in a care package).

Thanks! An embarrassment of literature!

But, back to my childhood…I used to read pretty much anything I could find between trips to Barnes & Noble or the public library or the library at my high school. As a result, I read such scintillating classics as Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution (almost every adult I knew was on the diet at the time, so there were copies around everywhere to read). Once in a while the public library or school library would have one of those boxes of rejects sitting outside, and I would pick up a couple of those to read just in case I ran out of something I had actually chosen for myself. Those books were on an assortment of topics that were totally random, but I didn’t mind because I like to read that much. That’s how I ended up with a copy of What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should). This is the sort of book that has advice on how to control your significant other by doing things like returning your new dress if he says he doesn’t like it. Brilliant.

Anyway, I only bring it up because I think that book is the first time I remember learning about the criticism sandwich. I think the author made reference to a dish of southern origin called vinegar pie? Of course, I read it so long ago that I could be wrong about learning it from that book; I could be recalling a passage from an etiquette book (I have a small collection of them too) or maybe from one of those American Girl magazines. Either way, I always liked the concept of the criticism sandwich, where you say something nice, then slip in the thing the person could use some work on, and close up with something nice again. The compliment “bread” softens the blow of the hefty criticism “filling.” I bet there is science somewhere that would say it’s actually easier to take criticism when you’re feeling fluffed up from flattery, but I’m not going to go find that science right now. Instead, for evidence I’ll say that it worked well for my students, both with teacher feedback and peer feedback. Like this:

You should be so proud of yourself for finishing this draft on time!

I can’t figure out how the information in your third and fifth paragraphs helps prove this argument.

If you use the same concluding sentence structure from your really clear second and forth paragraphs in the third and fifth paragraphs too, your reader will definitely be able to follow your argument more easily.

I’m clearly having trouble remaining on topic today because the reason I mention any of this is that I wish scary information at the hospital were delivered in a kind of bad news sandwich. The hours between being admitted to the hospital and going into surgery were terrifying. I was in a lot of pain, the kind where intravenous drugs dull the ache without quelling it. Anxiety about missing school and not doing work actually crept up while I lay there agonizing about everything from scarring to infertility.  My husband was tired and missing school and I felt guilty for burdening him. My belly groaned in hunger and had no idea when I would be allowed to eat. Bad news, or the promise of it, kept coming and coming and coming.

Doctors said things like if it’s malignant (cancer!) we’ll have to bring in specialists from another hospital. Or, since it looks like the cyst is twisted around your ovary, the ovary might be necrotized and gray and then we’ll have to take it out. I became more panicked as I considered each additional data point about my condition from the worst-possible-scenario-perspective. I felt even more exhausted and afraid. 

I don’t blame the doctors for shooting straight, of course, because they need to provide patients and loved ones with information about what could possibly happen. It would be worse to go into surgery expecting everything to be quick and easy, and find out afterward that a complication the doctor could have reasonably predicted actually did occur. Some people anticipate loss to mitigate grief.

Still, I could have used some good news wrapped around my bad news. I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know exactly what good news there could have been, at least until after the surgery. But maybe they had eliminated the possibility of something particularly insidious, and could have shared that tidbit with me.  Maybe they had done very similar surgeries before many many times and could have mentioned that, we’ll need to do surgery right away, but we have done this type of surgery on similar cases ten times this year and it is often successful and without complications before discussing the complications. I don’t know what would have worked, but I remember clinging pretty tightly to one nugget of information that seemed vaguely promising, cysts are relatively common, even in young women. How bad could something normal be, even if it had expanded and grown beyond average proportions?

I’m going to try and remember, whenever giving really bad news from now on out, to try and frame it with some good news too. I’m sure there are some other people, like me , who could benefit from a little support in keeping back the anxiety beast.

How would you like your bad news delivered? Do you use the criticism (or bad news) sandwich? Have you ever had vinegar pie?