When you’re twelve, few things are as terrifying as the bubble-lettered dog eared spiral bound notebook of doom. The slam book, the bane of my generation’s elementary school existence. If you’ve seen Mean Girls, you know it as Regina George’s Burn Book. Yep, same thing.

Round cute lettering underscored what was inside: collective cruelty. If you’re not familiar with slam books, the gist is this: it was a notebook upon which you could anonymously share your deepest held opinions/ insults. Each page was dedicated to one specific person and underneath: the collective id of the classroom, their casual opinions committed to paper for not only you, but the whole world to see.

Calculated for Cruelty

As humans, we’d fail as a society if we were constantly walking around saying whatever we felt like to each other’s faces. It is in our best interests for survival to modulate that so we don’t kill each other. But the crueler among us have realized there’s a workaround: writing it down, delivering it anonymously. Free of the burden of facing the consequences of their cruelty directly, they weaponized the word in an attempt to crush you.

It was impossible to resist the urge to open the book. As one might expect, it was a place for people to sharpen their teeth on those they perceived as most vulnerable. Its goal: hit them where it hurts.

It is quite effective. Twelve year olds are exceptionally good at isolating insecurities and magnifying them x 100. The idea is, we’re supposed to grow out of that urge- and some of us do. Some do not.

What I didn’t realize then was that it had nothing to do with truth versus untruth. It was about exercising power by inflicting maximum hurt. It worked. Part of the “fun” of slam books is in watching people’s faced crumple when they read them.

Yelp, The Online Slam Book

As great as the internet is, it’s also equally horrible. The impact of the words we say extend now far beyond our classrooms and workplaces and ripple across the world. Public shaming is a form of sport, the ability to pile on now includes millions, not tens, of people. The slam book never went away, it just got uploaded. It started with ten year olds taking the slam books online for the world to see, but adults have gotten in on it too.

In this culture, Yelp has proliferated. People read it for entertainment as much as they do insight. They read it to see people destroyed.

The problem, of course, is that normal people also use review sites for constructive criticism and praise, and every reputation management consultant on the planet tells you that you need to monitor and respond to the comments.

Even the burns. Especially the burns.

They’re Only Meant to Hurt

We work in a high stakes profession where emotions run hot. When people are hurting because their pet is sick, or feel guilty because they couldn’t afford care, it’s commonplace for that to be redirected at the caregiver.

The people who genuinely think they were wronged go to the medical board and the court system, which is thankfully not that often, right? Writing one star reviews is 100% calculated to punish an action, not change it.

So they go after us where it cuts the deepest: our skills and our motivation for doing what we do. Ergo, incompetent and money hungry. They impugn our entire identity as caring professionals, and it can be devastating.

“Fighting Back” Only Fuels the Fire

The one thing you never did in a slam book was respond. Writing “nuh uh” next to an insult was pretty much an invitation to double down. It empowered the bullies to go at you even harder because they now verified that it worked. Ever see what happens when a business owner responds to a negative review by fighting back? Get the popcorn.

It is a given that the words are going to hurt once you see them, true or not. There was one way and one way only to deny the slam book words’ power: refuse to read them. Pass it on by, and take away the fun of your reaction. I don’t think it occurred to us at first that not engaging was a choice, but it was.

Which puts us in a bit of a catch-22 as business owners, because reviews are 90% legitimate and 10% slam book. It would be like if your progress report also contained random insults from the school bully sprinkled in between the comments on your citizenship. Given their online visibility, we can’t ignore reviews entirely. But I do believe we are doing veterinarians a disservice by demanding they take the direct hits over and over.

Protect Your Staff From Useless Things

There is a trick and an art to responding to bad reviews in a way that defuses and still hits the correct notes for the public. It’s a PR puzzle. I’ve been working on it for years and I finally have it down. I can do this in my sleep for anyone in the world- except myself. I still can’t be objective when I’m being insulted, because I’m a human and that stuff hurts no matter what.

It is 100% impossible to be objective about your own nasty review.

I do not believe any good comes out of veterinarians reading their own reviews. It ruins your day, it poisons how you see clientele, and drives a wedge in that crucial owner relationship that by all measures is usually a good one.

Refusing the review its impact is the ultimate way to defend your team. Angry responses only legitimize them.

Practice managers or anyone else who isn’t the target of the direct hit can and should be trained in how to respond to reviews and just as importantly, how to recognize and protect those being targeted by hurtful insults. When you’re not the one being targeted, it’s very easy to recognize the smears for what they are: garbage words.

As curator, they can pass along the constructive things that need to be addressed and ask about a negative interaction while holding back the grenades. They can also pass along the lovely comments that make our jobs worthwhile. I mean, this is not a weird concept: other fields prone to receiving angry missives like government officials, Planned Parenthood care providers, and celebrities have other people manage their “feedback.” Why shouldn’t we?

It’s an absolutely unnecessary wound to inflict on an already sensitive profession to make veterinarians read their own slam book comments, and the mark of a caring business owner to protect them from such useless things. It’s the radical self care we all need for 2020.