In the Season 10 premiere of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David and Leon walk into Mocha Joe’s, a coffee vendor Larry refused to tip a few seasons prior. After ordering a latte, coffee and a scone, Larry immediately starts with the unsolicited advice. The scone is too soft and Mocha Joe should call it a muffin, the table is too wobbly and Mocha Joe should fix it.
What follows is a feud spanning several episodes, launching Latte Larry into the coffee industry in an attempt to bring down his nemesis. As always, Larry fails to learn a lesson many of us know all too well: Most people don’t appreciate constructive feedback, and our time is better spent keeping our opinions to ourselves.
However, new research out of Harvard University suggests that Larry’s method is actually the better way to go. The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that people largely underestimate their peers’ desire for constructive feedback about their scones, wobbly tables or whatever else is wrong with them, and withhold helpful advice as a result.
For the study, a research assistant surveyed students on the Harvard campus while she had a big, obvious mark on her face (she used both chocolate and lipstick). Out of the over 200 people surveyed, 155 admitted they noticed something on her face (it was one of the questions on the survey), but only four people told her about it – that’s a devastating 2.6 percent who had her back. “We all like to think of ourselves as someone who would give someone feedback in this kind of situation, but our study showed that most people don’t,” Nicole Abi-Esber, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School, tells me. “The overwhelming question people have in these scenarios is: ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me?’”
To better answer that question, Abi-Esber and her colleagues initiated five additional surveys to examine how people would respond to receiving feedback in hypothetical workplace scenarios, like making a crucial error in a report or mispronouncing a client’s name. Other questionnaires asked study subjects to recall real-life examples where they had opportunities to give feedback, as well as receive it, and whether or not they did. When these two datasets further confirmed that people underestimate how much others want constructive feedback, Abi-Esber conducted yet more research. In one survey of 204 people who were asked about their comfort level with feedback, the subjects “largely overpredicted how uncomfortable both giving and receiving feedback will be,” she explains.
In other words, the problem isn’t the Larry Davids of the world — it’s the Mocha Joes who can’t cope with their own embarrassment or who don’t want to tell someone they’re wearing pants with an unfortunate tear. Or as Abi-Esber puts it, “We recommend leaning into the awkwardness.” More specifically, she advises putting yourself in the position of the person with a ripped pair of pants at work. “Ask yourself if you’d want feedback if you were them. Most likely you would, and this realization can help empower you to give them that feedback,” she says.
So whether you’re telling your nemesis their scones suck, letting Elaine know her head is too big or giving George’s girlfriend a heads up that she’d look better with a nose job, there are a lot of ways to lean into the awkwardness of being a Larry David. You might make a few enemies along the way, but at least your new adversaries won’t have to walk around with shit on their face.