don't condescend...
March 10, 2009 10:56 PM   Subscribe

How does one properly use the term condescend (or condescending)? Is there a correct way? Is there a more popular way? It seems the word expresses two contradictory meanings.

In one sense, condescend means to address one's inferiors in a way that debases oneself, thus leveling the playing field. In another, condescend means to sarcastically overplay the act of debasing oneself, thus underscoring the difference between oneself and another. Is it synonymous with patronize? Is it similar to patronize but it implies a greater level of facetiousness? Is there a cut and dry way to use this word? It seems rather obscure to begin with, so a routinely sarcastic use is problematic. and for god's sake, how is it used in Barton Fink?!?!?!
posted by es_de_bah to Society & Culture (13 answers total)
Bear in mind that I'm not a native English speaker, but I usually hear it as:

He condescended to agree to give us underlings a meeting. (When used as a verb.)

In other words, he lowered himself to the point where he'd agree to meet with us. We would normally be unworthy of his time. This is obviously said with some amount of sarcasm.

If the person condescending makes sure you know that he or she is condescending, well . . . that's a pretty patronizing thing to do.

As an adjective, I hear it as:

He agreed to meet with us, in a kind of condescending way. In the real world, this is pretty similar to the way that "patronizing" is used. But to me, "patronizing" involves belittling those whom you're dealing with. "Condescending" is the doer lowering himself to your standards.

In other words, it's patronizing (for you) when I do it to you. It's condescending (for me) when I do it to you.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:04 PM on March 10, 2009

I don't remember "Barton Fink" so well.

However, in the simplest terms "condescend" means to speak to someone as if they are stupid; to "dumb it down" for them because you think (or want to imply) that they couldn't understand the "smart people" version.

The meaning is very similar, if not identical to "patronize," which is defined as:

to behave in an offensively condescending manner toward: a professor who patronizes his students.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:06 PM on March 10, 2009

He condescended to agree to give us underlings a meeting.

I forgot about this use, to grudgingly agree to do something, because you feel the thing or people involved are inferior or not worthy of you.

"Condescending" is the doer lowering himself to your standards.

I don't entirely agree. If you're speaking to a child about a space shuttle launch, simplifying the scientific stuff isn't condescending, it's just courtesy, because they genuinely couldn't understand and it would only serve to confuse and frustrate them. No one would think a child is inferior for not grasping rocket science. It only becomes condescension when you imply inferiority on the part of the listener.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:11 PM on March 10, 2009

The word does have two different meanings. From Merriam-Webster:

1 a: to descend to a less formal or dignified level : unbend b: to waive the privileges of rank
2: to assume an air of superiority

There you go.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:18 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

1 a: to descend to a less formal or dignified level : unbend b: to waive the privileges of rank

Yes, but this feels really really antiquated. I have never in my life heard the word use without a negative connotation. When Obama goes and shakes hands with everyday people, no one says he is "condescending to talk to them." Well, no one who doesn't work for Fox news.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:23 PM on March 10, 2009

The first meaning is almost obsolete and only college-educated readers would understand it (if at all). As recently as a century ago it held a positive or at least neutral connotation: The King condescended to an audience with the commoner. Eventually this took on connotations of patronization (itself also once a neutral or positive term), the "looking down one's nose" sense (which is the one used in Barton Fink). It is this meaning that agrees best with 90% or more of modern usage.

Language evolves. Words change. Not all meanings found in a dictionary are in current widespread use (although the dictionary will usually tell you so). Certainly the disappearance of class as a social guide in modern life has a lot to do with its change in meaning.
posted by dhartung at 11:47 PM on March 10, 2009

mr_roboto has it - the dictionary is your friend. I'm not sure where this definition comes from:

In another, condescend means to sarcastically overplay the act of debasing oneself, thus underscoring the difference between oneself and another.

but it's not accurate. When someone is being condescending in the sense of talking down to someone, they are not being sarcastic - in fact they often don't realize they're doing it, which is part of what makes it so offensive. It is similar to being patronizing, but not the same - patronizing is treating someone with apparent kindness that betrays a sense of superiority.

Also, the first definition - "to grudgingly agree to do something, because you feel the thing or people involved are inferior or not worthy of you" as drjimmy11 puts it well - is not obsolete, it's just not very widely used.
posted by Dasein at 12:22 AM on March 11, 2009

Yeah, what dhartung said. But the more I think about it, the more I think there's actually only one meaning, just with opposite connotations depending on the social context. It's more the case that the context has changed over time, than that the meaning has.

In a society (like today's) where everyone is (at least theoretically) equal, 'to condescend' takes on a very negative meaning, because it implies that the person condescending considers himself to be better than others, or is putting on airs. A hundred years ago, when different classes of society were considered completely natural and self-evident, for, say, the King to condescend to interact with anyone lower than him would've been a sign of great kindness on his part.

Given this, I'd say it's almost impossible to use the word in a positive way these days, but in Austen for example, it's equally unlikely to be used negatively. The modern usage is not about social relationships so much - you can be intellectually condescending, for example - but it's always about one person acting 'better' than another.

I think the meaning of patronise follows the same pattern. A hundred years ago, patronage was simply someone financially sponsoring someone poorer (usually a gentleman sponsoring an artist of some kind). These days using the word 'patronise' is usually negative as it implies one person putting themselves on a higher plane, and, well, condescension. Patronage in a positive sense is usually used in the context of being a customer. So yeah, I guess in the modern figurative sense, patronise and condescend are roughly interchangeable.

I don't think I've explained this very well, but I hope it clarifies things more than it confuses them!
posted by Emilyisnow at 12:35 AM on March 11, 2009

I think I agree with a couple of others here. There may have been a time when the word could be used seriously, but now I think it's always used pejoratively.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:56 AM on March 11, 2009

I'm with Pickle... and I love the sound of that. I might get shirts printed.

The serious meaning (to simplify instructions, to "come down to a lower level" in order to explain something) isn't used often anymore, so what is left is always pejorative. Because of this shift to the "bad" meaning, there are no "nice" ways to condescend anymore. You can think of it exactly as the translated "talk down to", which is easy to imagine as technically polite but of course almost always insulting.

This applies as much to the adjectival as the (rarely used) verb form.
posted by rokusan at 3:12 AM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think you probably got your answer, but for enjoyment's's the scene from True Romance where Floyd (Brad Pitt) meets the hitman (James Gandolfini). "Don't condescend me man..."
posted by brandman at 5:16 AM on March 11, 2009

I agree with Emilyisnow above - there is only one meaning: to lower one-self to level of your 'inferiors'.

The mulitplicity comes about because it is often (but not always) offensive to treat others as 'inferiors'. Hence condescending actions can be patronising when between say colleagues (of similar seniority) but not when an adult is speaking to a child.

The 'air of superiority' arises because to speak to equals in a condescending manner requires implicitly lowering oneself from a pretense of superioirity.
posted by mary8nne at 7:37 AM on March 11, 2009

In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, you can see the beginning of the change in the word's meaning. Part of the time, it is used by people like Mr. Darcy (who is without question the wealthiest, highest ranking person in the book) in an earnest way, discussing dealings with people lower in rank than themselves. The rest, it is used by the overweening Mr. Collins, who is referring to his benefactor, the Lady Catherine de Bourgh. While the meaning is the same, in Mr. Collins' case, Austen has him overuse the word in a way that implies that Lady Catherine's condescension isn't a good thing at all.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:11 AM on March 11, 2009

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