The Cult of Kumbaya

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 7.59.01 PMNot long ago, Adam Aron, the CEO of America’s biggest movie theater chain, had a brilliant idea. 

To attract a younger audience, he wanted to make his AMC theaters smartphone-friendly. If it were up to him, texting would be allowed, and he told Variety why:

“You can’t tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cellphone. That’s not how they live their life.”

Not everyone agreed. His remarks were immediately followed by a widespread backlash on social media. People complained left and right. Days later Aron responded:

“We have heard loud and clear that this is a concept our audience does not want. With your advice in hand, there will be NO TEXTING ALLOWED in any of the auditoriums at AMC Theatres. Not today, not tomorrow and not in the foreseeable future.”

I think Adam Aron is a smart guy. He had a bad idea. People protested. He listened, and he changed his mind. Good for him. Good for us. Unless you’re a millennial. 


This story was just playing out as I was reading a short article by “Voice Whisperer™” Marice Tobias called “The Culture of Complaint: A black hole for Voice Talent and…the rest of us.”

Tobias sets the tone in the first two paragraphs:

“Thanks to social media, attack television and brigades of haters running rampant across all platforms, complaining and criticizing has become the discourse du jour for this moment in time. It generates a lot of piling on and follow-up posts.

Problem is, running a continuous negative commentary is not only tedious and alienating, it can also cost you work and income while wearing the rest of us out!”

“Check your negativity at the door,” Tobias recommends. Clients don’t care for it. You only have so much energy. Use it to be in a more empowering, positive state of mind. 


Part of me totally agrees with Tobias. We do seem to live in a culture of confrontation. Just look at social media or at the current political process. Civility, respect, and intelligent discourse are rare commodities. Facebook threads can easily escalate into shouting matches. Anonymous trolls push people’s buttons. The coarseness and narrow-mindedness of some exchanges is nauseating. 

The voice-over business is a people-business. Nobody wants to work with a jerk. Voice-overs are hired to read copy. Not to criticize it. The more positive interactions we have with our clients, the more likely it is that they will call us again. 

But that’s not all. 

The other part of me strongly believes that there’s a role for criticism. Constructive criticism, that is. Complaining for the sake of complaining is a waste of time and energy, but sometimes people have legitimate grievances and concerns. They’re not being negative. They just want things to change for the better. 


As a blogger I can relate to that. I see the world through a colored lens, and not all I see is perfect and positive. 

One of the worrying things I have observed is what I call “The Cult of Kumbaya.” It’s a tendency to approach the tough business of voice-overs with naïve optimism, believing that most players act out of altruism and integrity. 

It is constantly fed by commercial propaganda, trying to paint a pretty picture of an unforgiving industry:

“Work from home in your spare time,” says the website. “We need audio book narrators now!”

“Become a member,” the Pay-to-Plays say. “Upload your demos, and start making money with your voice today!” 

“Let me be your mentor,” the voice coach boasts. “Give me a few sessions, and I will teach you the tricks of the trade.” 


Then there are voice actors who will tell you that everything is hunky-dory. Whenever I criticize voice casting sites on this blog, they tell me that these companies have “revolutionized the business, and have generated thousands of jobs.” 

When I call out colleagues who are willing to work for next to nothing, I am told to mind my own business because it is a free market. It will all even out in the end. 

When I express doubts about certain awards shows or expensive industry conferences, colleagues get angry because I should be supportive of my own tribe and embrace new initiatives. 

Here’s the problem with this type of uncritical thinking: it’s either/or.

Criticizing someone or something is equated with being negative and unsupportive. The unspoken assumption being that supportive, positive people don’t complain or criticize. They don’t foul their own nest. 

Forgive me, but that’s utter hogwash. 

Every coach knows that they will have to critique a performance in order to support a student. Every journalist has to expose injustice to bring about a more just society. Every parent has to correct their child’s behavior, so s/he will grow up to become a decent human being. 

Secondly, no matter how good something or someone is, there’s always room for improvement. But we can’t improve without quality feedback.


Now, this world is basically filled with two kinds of people. One part of the population sorts for similarities. The other for differences. You need both on your team. 

Let’s say you have a bucket of pebbles that are painted blue. The person sorting for similarities will say:

“Look, all those pebbles are the same color!”

The person sorting for differences will say:

“Every pebble has a different shape and size.”

Both approaches are correct and perfectly fine. We need people in this world who spot patterns, and who can see the big picture. We need people to tell us when things are right. 

We also need people who can spot exceptions, and who can focus on details that are different. We need people who can tell us when things are wrong.


I can handle critics. I can even deal with complainers, because they will tell me that texting in a movie theater is a bad idea. I’d rather hear the honest truth than foolish flatter.

The people I have a hard time with are the whiners. The contrarians. The know-it-alls. Their negativity can be draining. 

So, whenever I encounter criticism, I ask myself a few questions before I react. 

1. How does this relate to me?

If it’s not important, why get all worked up?

2. Who or what is the source?

Do I trust the source? Is the source influential and reliable? Why start a discussion with someone who clearly doesn’t know what he/she is talking about?

3. What is the context?

Nothing is ever said in isolation. To understand where someone’s coming from, we usually need more information than a tweet or quick comment can give us.

4. Is this a real issue or a cheap personal attack?

Some commentators just have a chip own their shoulder. Unfortunately, it’s not a chocolate chip. 

5. What is the complaint or criticism an example of?

That’s a good way to move away from specific examples and elevate the discussion to a higher level.

6. Does the complainer offer a solution?

If that’s the case, you know they’re not just in it to moan and groan.

7. What can I learn from this that is useful and positive?

Even if the criticism seems over the top and unjustified, there might be a lesson to be learned. 


So… are complaints and negative comments a “Black hole for Voice Talent… and the rest of us”?

It depends.

A great critique is never a burden or an attack. It is an opportunity to learn and grow. It is a gift. And speaking of gifts…

One of Buddha’s followers once approached him, and asked:

“Master, do you see that nasty man over there? He is always badmouthing me. I feel horrible. Please do something about it. Make him stop.”

Buddha looked at his student, and said:

“If someone gives you a gift, and you decide not to accept it,

to whom does the gift belong?”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Caro pointing finger via photopin (license)

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About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs."

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media, Pay-to-Play, Promotion, Social Media

22 Responses to The Cult of Kumbaya

  1. Pingback: Here's What You've Missed | Nethervoice

  2. Paul Boucher

    Hi Paul,

    Another great piece – thanks for taking the time to put “word to pixel”.

    The quote at the end of your piece reminded me of another relevant quote attributed to Buddha: “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Buddha was a wise dude. If he were on Twitter today, I wonder how many followers he would have.


  3. DC Goode

    Hey Paul,
    Pardon my use of the phrase…”Fair and Balanced” but this is spot on…as usual.
    Thanks also to Maurice.

    Shout it from the rooftops, “Nobody likes a whiner”



    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    It’s unfortunate that one network seems to have appropriated the phrase “Fair and Balanced,” but I’ll take it as a compliment nevertheless, DC. Wishing you all the best, professionally, and above all personally.


  4. Matilda Novak

    Thank you again, Paul.
    I’ve missed a few blogs, but they’re always filled with wisdom (and often humor as well) which i appreciate. Cheers for civility And criticism (both given and received).
    You sir, are a blessing,


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I feel blessed to be able to blog, Matilda. Thank you so much for your kind feedback. It is much appreciated!


  5. Howard Ellison

    Feedback is gold dust, even though we might choke on it at first.
    Submitting for my WoVO approval, back came a note ‘we heard hiss’. I was deeply shaken by that: letting it happen, AND not noticing! How many auditions had slipped through?
    So, no gain without pain (and vice versa), the issue got fixed. Nice feeling.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Sometimes we’ve become immune to our own sound, and outside ears can be a blessing. That’s why I loved going into a recording studio. The feedback I received from an audio engineer was often way better than from a director. These days, I hardly leave my studio, and I am literally left to my own devices.


  6. Marice Tobias

    I appreciate and admire your forthright presentation of your views and observations.
    I agree with much of what you say in this recent article.

    One point I do want to make is that far from negating constructive criticism if it was not at the foundation of what I do, I would not have a career!
    I encourage clients is to see input/ direction as guidance and information, rather than criticism, even after the fact.

    There can be an emotional sting if what we are doing and have to offer is not as well received as we would like but that goes with the territory of being creative risk-takers.
    But, once that sting subsides the question I ask myself is”
    “Where is the gift?”. The shift to the ability to hear everything as information- the good, the not so good and the clearly not beneficial- is, as we are- a work in progress- but well worth the effort.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you for reading my blog post! I wholeheartedly agree with your approach, Marice. Due to today’s business model, many voice-overs have to master the art of self-direction, and they’re not used to receiving outside feedback (other than a client complaining). I’ve worked with professionals who’ve been in business for many years, and who have developed some unfortunate habits (as well as big egos). They’re so use to the sound of their own voice… they don’t even hear what a neutral outsider hears. For change to happen, people have to acknowledge that they have a problem. If they can’t get to that point, any feedback will land on deaf ears.


  7. Kent Ingram

    If no one complained or criticized, how would we know if something is wrong in our business or, more importantly, in our society? The abolition of slavery, for example, wouldn’t have come about, initially, if there were no “complainers”! The P2P sites that we’ve talked about were doing things that were definitely wrong, unethical and possibly illegal. I’m damned grateful that you, Paul, as well as dozens of others, “complained” about them and brought some very serious abuses to light. I also remember the vitriol and venom directed toward you, Paul, that we both found disturbing. The same held true for the VO awards ceremonies. Without a doubt, and I’ve read virtually EVERY one of your blogs, you’ve always presented a cogent argument and/or criticism without the finger-pointing, polarization and outright vulgarities that we’ve all seen way too much of. Thanks for NEVER stooping to that low level of stupidity!


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    My Dutch roots have made me more direct and outspoken. I don’t feel the need to kiss up to someone to forward my career. Someone’s so-called celebrity status does not impress me. These three traits aren’t always appreciated in an industry where backscratching is part of the game.

    The good thing is that the older I get, the less I care about what other people have to say. That doesn’t mean I’m not open to good reasoning. It means my ego has become less fragile, and that’s a good place to be.

    Thanks for being such a loyal reader and commentator, Kent. I appreciate every word you have written.


  8. Howard Ellison

    Always there’s a take-home in your blogs, Paul! For me it’s your image of those blue pebbles and the varied responses they will evoke. That’s what makes us so effective as a species – and voice people! – each time we celebrate and share our individuality, rather than confront.

    Language plays a part. Way back, I used to support volunteers. Day to day, face to face of course, but in their interest it called for structure.

    Ready made HR/job description language I viewed as feudal and implicitly negative: ‘discipline’, ‘duties’, ‘training’ ‘you will be expected’. Maybe they are a lawyer’s choices but we got along nicely by substituting ‘two-way review’, ‘responsibilities’, ‘development’, ‘you are invited’. And as for ‘weaknesses’ –
    So disrespectful! What’s wrong with ‘things we can revisit’?

    Your theme is complaint. Yes, our trustees did want a written procedure for that, but it was headed ‘what to do if things go wrong’.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Your comments demonstrate how our focus influences our expectations and outcomes. Quite often, procedures are put in place after something went off the rails. Hence the negative focus. It’s aimed at exceptions. Unfortunately, these procedures can become part of an organization’s culture where people receive more punishment than praise.


    Howard Ellison Reply:

    Spot-on, Paul. Do you recall Harvard came up with the notion of the Theory X or Theory Y company?
    X was top-down, controlling, mistrustful. Y believed in people, welcomed responsibility and creativity.

    Interestingly, it was uncomfortable to change job from one culture to the other in either direction.
    Looks like habits die hard wherever we get them from.


  9. M Lewis Sauerwein

    Always insightful and a breath of fresh air, Paul. Thank you. Yes, these know-it-alls (who are generally rude at the very least and many times- foul mouthed) are one of the main reasons why I withdrew from some of the online VO communities. I try to maintain a circle of online colleagues that are respectful and bring something of value to the table in a positive way. Yes, criticism can be positive- if packaged properly. If these colleagues critique or have suggestions, they do it in a mature and respectful manner. Rudeness, arrogance and constant whining are of no value to me. I don’t follow the people who carry that garbage, or their advice (I don’t care how long they say they’ve been in the business or what they’ve achieved) and refuse to make room for their inflated egos in my professional or personal life. Thankfully there is a vast knowledge base within a group of people who bring light and energy. I consider you one of those folks, Paul. Keep up the good work.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thanks for making the point about the delivery of the critique. The French have a saying: “C’est le ton qui fait la musique.” It is the tone that makes the music; it’s not what you say but how you say it. The tone often reveals the intention behind the feedback. Good feedback builds people up, instead of breaking them down.


  10. Rick Lance

    Hee, hee… I’m chuckling as I read through your article, Paul… because you’re so right!


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I appreciate the feedback, Rick. BTW, your blog is on a roll!


  11. Debbie Grattan

    Very timely and insightful blog, Paul. So many tangents one can take with this one. I think of my 11 year old son, who calls anyone, including me, “mean” when he’s being tasked with something he doesn’t want to do, or corrected in some way. We explain all the time that his sports heros, (like a LeBron James) PAY coaches BIG TIME to be there to observe performance, and tell them what they can do better…aka being “mean.”

    Critique is valuable feedback. When received by someone who knows how to adjust their game, performance, etc., it’s ideal. VO talent have to adjust to direction to be successful.

    When received by someone who isn’t really in the game to improve performance (like my son, at this point), or someone unable to easily shift or bend in their POV, or way of being or doing, it can be perceived as an attack. And as your last example illustrates, the receiver is in charge of how they will take the “gift.”

    In life and in art, there are fragile egos everywhere. None of us like to be criticized or rejected. But as a performer, you get used to it, or you get out. Everyday, there is another “no” (or maybe a half dozen!). But hopefully, you find enough “yeses” to boost your worth, and keep you plugging away.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thoughtful critique is a treat for open minds, and a threat to those with open wounds. How feedback is received tells us a lot about the receiver. As a coach I refuse to work with people who want to have their ego massaged, but I am happy to work with those who are ready to learn.


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