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Help me be less patronising and condescending
February 24, 2011 1:13 PM   Subscribe

Tips on how to be less patronising and condescending

I have been told that I often come across as patronising, in both social and professional situations.

I was quite unaware of this until I sought feedback, and everyone I asked said the same thing.

So can anyone offer me any constructive advice on how to be less condescending? Perhaps this is something you have successfully worked on?

I was diagnosed with ADD as a kid, and also have ongoing problems with face recognition, tone judgement, if this is relevant.

All tips and anecdotes gratefully received.
posted by choppyes to Human Relations (25 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
If you are ready for brutal honesty, and you have one or more friends or family members whom you trust and are very comfortable with, you could talk to them about ding training to call to your attention exactly when you're coming across wrong, which would give you some solid information about where to begin. Good luck.
posted by trunk muffins at 1:18 PM on February 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


One big thing to keep in mind is that your opinion is just that - your opinion. Your opinion is no more or less valid or important than anybody else's, and should not be thought of as such.

If you have problems with judging people's tone, maybe take an extra few seconds and ask a clarifying question or two of a person to whom you are talking before you make a comment? This might help you divine where the person is coming from and help you structure an answer that will not come off as condescending.

Overcoming that sort of attitude is a really hard thing to do, but well worth doing, as it will make your life a whole lot easier.
posted by pdb at 1:20 PM on February 24, 2011


Asking MeFites on how to be less patronising might be barking up the wrong tree. (I kid, I kid)
I have a tendency to be condescending, too. Part of it stems from being judgmental, and part of it stems from thinking that you're right.

I try and keep it under control by recognizing that people's viewpoints, stories, and voices are usually as valid as my own, and that they are simply coming from a different perspective.

As for actionable suggestions- have you tried simply talking less, listening more, and nodding while people talk? (Don't smile while you nod, that could come off as extra patronizing.)

You mention ADD and face recognition- it suggests to me that you're a sort of intensely rational person who likes to problem-solve. Don't do that when people talk to you. Just listen. When someone says "Oh man, my car wouldn't start today, and I was 30 minutes late to my big meeting", don't say "Oh, you should take your car in for maintenance more often." or "I always plan to be at meetings an hour in advance." That kind of talk, while germane to the topic and possibly helpful at another time, assumes that the speaker hasn't already had those kinds of thoughts.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 1:22 PM on February 24, 2011 [15 favorites]


I can sometimes fixate on words (I love them) and wax loquacious. People sometimes perceive this as me putting on airs. I try minimizing my SAT words in normal conversations, especially professional ones where people might mistake that for superiority. Body language is also important. Lastly, listening; not interrupting even though I know something definitively that the person is trying to convey, is something I still work on. These were some points people gave me when I pretty much assessed myself in the same way you are doing now.
posted by Debaser626 at 1:27 PM on February 24, 2011


Question everything you're about to say to someone else, and ask yourself "how would I feel/react if someone else said this to me?"
There is really not more to it than that, but it is ever so hard.
posted by Namlit at 1:29 PM on February 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Can you give an example of something that you were told was patronizing? It may help if you can learn to see exactly what people are experiencing negatively.
posted by KathrynT at 1:33 PM on February 24, 2011


People you trust have agreed that you often sound patronizing. You've accepted that there's probably a real problem, but do you know what exactly you're doing? Did your friends give you examples of something you said? Can you hear your own words and understand why that might have been misconstrued in a hurtful way?

My advice would be, take an evening to diagnose yourself. Go out to a party with a good buddy and the two of you talk to a lot of different people. Chat for 10 minutes, and then wander off. Your buddy tells you if you said anything iffy. Chat to some other people for 10 minutes. Ideally, you'll learn to recognize things that pop into your head that will need rephrasing before you can say them.
posted by aimedwander at 1:36 PM on February 24, 2011


thewumpusisdead: You mention ADD and face recognition- it suggests to me that you're a sort of intensely rational person who likes to problem-solve. Don't do that when people talk to you. Just listen.

This is incredibly important. I am terribly guilty of being a problem-solver rather than listening to the person who is talking with me. If there is one lesson anyone needs to learn it is this: listen to your conversational partner. If they want a solution, they'll say so; which you'll hear because you're listening.
posted by 47triple2 at 1:50 PM on February 24, 2011 [6 favorites]


I have the same problem, more or less. I think I also come off as overly negative sometimes. It's really jarring to hear this kind of information and upsetting to hear that this is how people see you. However some people never get this kind of honest feedback, so actually you are lucky.

I just try to be really conscious about it. Also when sharing information I try to use language that is more open, such as "Oh I read something really interesting..." instead of "this is how it is" - does that make sense? Also ask questions, and give recognition to others' viewpoints even if you don't agree. Instead of jumping in with your opinion, you can acknowledge the person's view, and reply with a "well have you ever considered it this way" which sounds less like "you're wrong I'm right."

Another thing is to always show interest in other people. Ask about their lives, kids, etc. Make note of what is going on with them and then ask about it. You come off as less self-centered.
posted by radioamy at 1:54 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hope you don't mind my going through your posting history, but what's your progress on improving your tone of voice? That's probably a healthy chunk of what people are reacting to.

Other than that, we'll probably need examples to give you better advice - and you might want to ask trusted friends/associates for examples of things you regularly do.

One very general suggestion: treat all conversations as an exercise in figuring out what the other person thinks and feels. Why are they telling you X or Y? What input are they seeking from you? What kind of mood are they in? What do you have in common with them? Etc. This can be tricky for introverts (I'm awful at reading moods), but the good thing is you can practice this with anyone who's talking, even if you're not in the conversation.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:03 PM on February 24, 2011


If you find yourself about to tell someone how to do something, or otherwise give your opinion, stop and think for a moment about whether the other person actually asked for it. If not, then bite your tongue and don't say anything.

If you really can't help yourself, then ask the person, "Would you mind if I tell you my thoughts on this?"

If they say they wouldn't mind, try prefacing your comments with, "This is just my opinion, but ..." or "This is one way this problem might be solved ..." or "I may be just a random asshole, but here's what I think" or whatever preface you feel most comfortable with.
posted by Ashley801 at 2:36 PM on February 24, 2011


- practice keeping your mouth closed
- ask people their opinions first, before giving yours
- let people talk all the way through their idea, without interrupting
- keep in mind that most people really don't care what you think, even if you are right, especially if you are right all the time
- practice keeping your mouth closed
posted by mrmarley at 2:52 PM on February 24, 2011 [7 favorites]


Also -- do you FEEL like others are worthy in a way of your condescension? They aren't as smart as you are, can't do this thing as well as you can, don't notice things that you notice, don't understand things as well as you do ... make dumb mistakes, don't catch things that should be obvious, take too long to learn what should be simple, etc.

If one of these thoughts (or a similar one) comes into your head about someone in a given situation, try to change it, and think something respectful that doesn't put you above them in any way. If you're not actually feeling condescending towards others, then you'll be less likely to come across that way.
posted by Ashley801 at 2:57 PM on February 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Do you use a "la de da" sing-song kind of "oh, you just..." tone? I've found that these can...grate. Listen to the people you respect and hear what they sound like, tonewise, but I've found that there is a common trope of descending tone while talking that onomatopoetically matches condescension.
posted by rhizome at 3:25 PM on February 24, 2011


The Four Agreements is a self-help book that can be cheezy, but it's really helped me in this department. It's a super quick read and (among other things) can help you remember how being nice actually helps YOU a lot.
posted by hansbrough at 3:43 PM on February 24, 2011


I feel your pain. Have been recently involved in this epic battle with a person I supervise due to the way I inform her of tasks at work. For me, Ashley801 hits it spot on. I hadn't even realized I was feeling this way about said lady until now. With any luck, I'll be to work through this in a healthy and helpful manner.

Sorry that I don't have advice for you right now, but I just wanted you to know that you're not alone.
posted by ms.jones at 4:00 PM on February 24, 2011


I recently told the managing partner of a law firm that does work for an organization I'm with that he was being patronizing and I didn't like it. (He apologized and said he gets that a lot and he's working on it.)

There were three huge things he did, that are fairly common to other situations where I feel patronized:

1) Interrupted me. (And I'm the damn client!) It's obnoxious and makes it clear he doesn't give a shit what I have to say.

2) Talked to me like I was a child or moron, overexplaining things I clearly already knew. He had a double-whammy on this because he'd reiterate things I clearly already knew (issues that arose from my own organization) as well as talking like I'd never heard of the law before when I am also a lawyer. Sometimes reiterating the "ground rules" or the basic information that everyone ought to know is a necessary evil, but I would a) figure out if it's actually necessary for your audience and if it is then b) say something like, "I'm going to briefly go over the basics/how we got here/etc. to make sure we're all on the same page; I know most of you are well aware of this already, but please feel free to clarify or ask questions as necessary." Or whatever's appropriate to the situation.

3) ONLY DOES THESE TWO THINGS TO WOMEN. If you can't cope with women in the workplace in 2011, it's time to retire.

But yeah, 99% of what comes across as patronizing to me involves interrupting, overexplaining, failing to take into account my knowledge or background (when those things are clearly known to the speaker), or being unable to cope with women. So if you do any of those things, check yourself. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:20 PM on February 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've been told I am patronising or condescending. This only seems to happen when I congratulate someone for something. Like, say someone tells me they went for a run last night, and I say, "Hey, well done!" or something. It seems to happen disturbingly often that they will reply, "No need to patronise me." Obviously I never meant it that way. I have tried to work on my tone of voice in these situations. I think the most important thing is not to sound surprised (higher pitch). This implies that you didn't think they could do whatever they told you they did.

The other thing is that I have stopped congratulating people on anything other than epic achievements. I used to think, hey, I'd be proud of myself for doing X, so I'll tell them I'm proud of them too! But maybe I set the bar rather low for myself, and they don't realise this, so they think I'm setting the bar lower for them than I would for me. (And this implies that I don't think they are as good as me.) So I wouldn't congratulate anyone now for going for a short run, but I would for a marathon. I wouldn't congratulate them for finishing a draft of a paper, but I would for finishing a PhD. Basically I only say something if what they did really honestly and truly AWES me. In other words, if I seriously doubt whether I could do that thing myself.
posted by lollusc at 5:04 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Someone above said something about opinion. That is meaningful both in the "opinions are like assholes, everyone has one" way he described, but also in a more subtle way. It is very hard to mask one's own opinion about a situation or a person. It comes out in subtle tone changes.

Here is a good example: watch a couple episodes of "Burn Notice". Listen to the way he talks, especially in the narration. That is a textbook example of how patronizing and condescension sounds. If you use any of those patterns and cadences in your speech, get rid of them.

Another thing is sarcasm. It is very close to condescension. It only really counts as sarcasm if the other person is "in" on the joke. If they aren't, they may hear condescension.

Another thing that many people do, probably unknowingly or with good intent, that I find patronizing is a sort of emotional over-reactivity.

Me: These fucking people are driving me nuts!
Person: [mirroring my tone] Grar! Yeah, me too. I want to punch them in the neck. What people?

This pops some kind of breaker in my head that makes me feel patronized. They weren't feeling the same thing I was, and were just pretending to feel that way.

It works in reverse, too.

Me: These fucking people are driving me nuts!
Person: Aww, I'm sorry you are feeling that way, it will all work out ok! I promise! Who's making you crazy?

They are saying this in earnest (not sarcasm). How can you know you've chosen the correct platitude if you don't even know what I'm talking about?

It is subtle. Moral of story: listen, understand, react. Not in any other order.

(You see this ALL THE TIME with customer service robots, phone voice response machines and script readers.

Recording: Please say the reason you are calling today!
Me: Account balance.
Recording: Did you say account transfer?
Me: No. Account bala-
Recording: Please say the reason you are calling today!
Me: Account. Balance.
Recording: I think you want to be transferred to the accounting department. Is this correct?
Me: NO!
Recording: [in a sad, wilting tone] Ok! I'll transfer you to an operator who can assist you! [don't hurt me!])
posted by gjc at 5:11 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm a problem-solving sort with a stronger personality and I have to be careful not to get overbearing. Sometimes I fail.

I find a little self deprecation can be helpful when dealing with friends. I make sure it's no big deal if my suggestions/instruction/whatever is blown off. Offer advice once, a small piece, then back off. I try to never say I told you so.

On the professional side, I make sure I am quick to own up to being wrong and I praise other counter-arguments or suggestions. I try to be generous in giving credit to others, and saying thank you. I work with a bunch of engineers and it's pretty amazing what a genuine "You're right, I didn't think of that," now and then will do. It smooths down the rough edges when I have to get them to do things my way later.

Everybody likes to feel smart sometimes. If you can work in way to make the person you are communicating with feel smart or skillful (coming from you, a smart person), it will give you a nice cushion of goodwill if you should stumble and not phrase something as diplomatically as desired.
posted by griselda at 5:15 PM on February 24, 2011


I've been told I am patronising or condescending. This only seems to happen when I congratulate someone for something. Like, say someone tells me they went for a run last night, and I say, "Hey, well done!" or something. It seems to happen disturbingly often that they will reply, "No need to patronise me." Obviously I never meant it that way. I have tried to work on my tone of voice in these situations. I think the most important thing is not to sound surprised (higher pitch). This implies that you didn't think they could do whatever they told you they did.

The other thing is that I have stopped congratulating people on anything other than epic achievements. I used to think, hey, I'd be proud of myself for doing X, so I'll tell them I'm proud of them too! But maybe I set the bar rather low for myself, and they don't realise this, so they think I'm setting the bar lower for them than I would for me. (And this implies that I don't think they are as good as me.) So I wouldn't congratulate anyone now for going for a short run, but I would for a marathon. I wouldn't congratulate them for finishing a draft of a paper, but I would for finishing a PhD. Basically I only say something if what they did really honestly and truly AWES me. In other words, if I seriously doubt whether I could do that thing myself.


I think I do this too. One way I have found to work around it is to congratulate the effort, not the achievement. And if I am comparing them favorably to myself, I make sure to verbalize it. "Wow, 5K? That's awesome. If I ran 5K, I'd be on the ground vomiting right now. I'm proud of the work you did- I wish I had that kind of drive."

Because you're right, "pride" has a dark side. It is dangerously close to saying you didn't think someone had it in them.
posted by gjc at 5:18 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Question everything you're about to say to someone else, and ask yourself "how would I feel/react if someone else said this to me?"

This. Think about times that you've found other people's comments to be patronizing/condescending and how you felt--generally pretty shitty.
posted by -->NMN.80.418 at 5:41 PM on February 24, 2011


I notice that you've phrased your question in mostly Latinate words (rather than Germanic words) and in the passive voice. This makes me think that you're a precise thinker who tends to use somewhat formal, professional language in your writing, and, I'd assume, also speaking. This isn't a problem in and of itself, but if it's coupled with a bit of social awkwardness, it can come off as patronizing or condescending.

>I have been told (passive voice) that I often come across (passive voice) as patronising. I was quite unaware of this until I sought feedback (Latinate words).
This sentence is fine, of course, but consider that it could also have been phrased
>People say I seem patronizing; I didn't know until someone told me.
Can you hear how the second version sounds more personal, vulnerable, and approachable?

Many screenwriters consider when to use Latinate v. Germanic words in order to differentiate the voices of their characters. Latinate words are usually multi-syllabic and sort of conceptual and intellectual; you have to think to decode them as they don't sound like their meanings, and they can seem proper and a bit detached. On the other hand, Germanic words are simpler, shorter, onomatopoeic. They're emotional, blunt, and can seem more sincere.

Consider the following word pairs; Latinate/Germanic:
precipitation / rain
perspire / sweat
inquire / ask
procreate, fornicate / have sex, fuck
I sincerely apologize / I'm really sorry

See how the Latinate words have a more distant, professional feeling, and the Germanic words sound more earthy and sincere? Ditto the use of the passive voice. It feels impersonal and less sincere: "I have been told" / "My friend told me"

You might want to consider using Germanic words and a more active, personal sentence construction sometimes, particularly in situations where you're concerned about how your tone will come across.

"I'd like to convey my sincere apologize for the misunderstanding and of course you will be compensated"
"I'm very sorry about the mistake and I would love to make it up to you"

If you keep an eye out for this in your daily media consumption, you'll start to notice the characters and companies who use which voice, and when. Consider how "cool, young, friendly" companies (like Threadless) write their copy, compared to more conservative, older-skewing companies (like Martha Stewart) compared to really traditional/highbrow companies (I can't think of a great example, but here's the New Yorker).

In casual conversation- particularly with people under 40- it's kind of expected that you'll speak colloquially. Speaking or writing professionally to younger people can make you seem condescending, unfriendly, or socially clueless.

It's not really about "dumbing things down", either- it's maybe better to think of it as just a lack of pretension and an acknowledgement of shared humanity and equal status by using simple, common-denominator language and expressing personal feelings in a way that shows a bit of vulnerability. I'm not saying to abandon your current manner of phrasing completely, but adjusting your word and phrasing choices in some situations can be a very useful tool if you want to connect to people in a certain way.

Other advice you might want to consider:

- Listen without offering solutions- assume the person has lots of smart ideas about how to solve their problems and is just telling you things to make conversation, not to seek your feedback.

- Respond to stories with interest and simple positive phrases- "Nice!" is good. "Good for you" sounds a bit condescending to me personally. Treat people like equals, not like they're less able than you and you're proud of things they did.

- Maybe think of being "impressed" rather than "proud", since pride has a whiff of self-congratulation about it, as if you taught them?

- Avoid explaining things the person might already know about. Casually say things like "Well, for starters, ya know how a motherboard works right?" and then look to see how they react and proceed accordingly instead of jumping in with an explanation right off the bat. They'll show you with nods or facial expressions how much they know, so you can proceed where their knowledge leaves off instead of reiterating things they already know.

- Don't interrupt. If you accidentally interrupt say "Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you! You were saying ....." Be careful that you're not anticipating the ends of their sentences and kind of going "Yep" or nodding to cut them off too early- that can sound like "yeah I know shut up". Maybe tape yourself to see if you do that- I talk fast and I tend to do it accidentally, which I didn't realize until I heard a tape of myself talking to a friend.

- Actually, in general, taping yourself is really helpful. Videotape a conversation (with permission) and screen the tape a few weeks later when you've largely forgotten the conversation. You may notice things you're doing that seem condescending; if not, get a blunt friend to point things out and offer constructive criticism.

- Couch your ideas in more open terms: "I heard", "I think", "perhaps", "it might be worth considering", etc. Remember that your thoughts and facts are not ultimate Truth, and speak in a way that reflects that- it sounds humbler and more respectful of others.

- Compliment people's ideas. As they're talking about their ideas, say things like "cool, ok, that sounds good, nice, right" to show you're on board with their ideas.

- Make a real effort to discover the talents and skills of people you interact with. If you've seen them be totally amazing at something you'll probably be less-condescending to them because you'll genuinely admire them. I had to work with a man once who was the most irresponsible, easily-distracted person I've ever met; he messed up every task on his list and he annoyed the crap out of me. Then I saw him give a speech and he was just utterly, effortlessly charming and persuasive and funny and engaging- I could never ever have given a speech that well and it made me see him in an entirely new light.

- Find this secret skill in people you interact with- are they funny? musical? athletic? responsible? perceptive? etc... Ask them about their hobbies and passions and follow up with a little research if necessary (ie, go to their community theatre production or read their blog or whatever). Find something real to admire in them and your interactions with them will probably change for the better, since it's hard to seem patronizing to someone you look up to.

I think it's a good start that you're asking the internet for feedback; good luck!

posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:59 PM on February 24, 2011 [27 favorites]


pseudostrabismus, I'm not disputing your point, but just to clear one thing up quickly: there's nothing even remotely Latinate about your bolded examples. "Sought" and "unaware" are indisputably Germanic. A word doesn't need Roman origins to come off as snooty!

Carry on.
posted by tangerine at 11:41 PM on February 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


Thanks for the great responses. I've taken many of your suggestions on board, and really I am amazed at the results after just half a day at work. Just banning myself from using the phrase 'you should' has made a huge difference to the length and tone of my conversations, to the extent that I'm in shock how dramatic the change is. Thanks! Life is much more fun on the same level.
posted by choppyes at 6:41 AM on February 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


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