How do you respond to patronizing friends or colleagues?
June 27, 2005 10:03 AM   Subscribe

How do you respond to patronizing friends or colleagues?

When confronted with a problem I am always interested in other people's opinions. This is not because I am lazy and don't want to think for myself, or because I don't know how to deal with the situation, but because I'm always aware that there are many different ways of approaching a problem and I'm always interested to hear what other people have to say - that's why I'm here :-)

Unfortunately though oftentimes people read this as a cue to be patronizing, that my request for their advice means that I "need" their help, which makes me reluctant to ask them again. So are there ways to present my questions which do not invite condescending behaviour, and how do you deal with people that are simply patronizing period?
posted by forallmankind to Human Relations (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Perhaps if you phrase your question like so: "Hey, I wanted to ask your advice about A,B and C. I was thinking that I could do D and E, or maybe F. Do you have any other ideas?"

This way, you present your solution/thoughts, so the person you're asking knows that you've been thinking about the issue already.
posted by Specklet at 10:14 AM on June 27, 2005

Yes. Don't present your questions as open-ended. To my mind, that means they have a right to assume you are asking the question at a beginner level. The way to avoid condescension is to present some indication that you have thought about it some. If you ask me "Why do stars shine evenly and not blink?" I'll be inclined to respond "Well, timmy, you see..."

On the other hand if you ask it as: "Ok, I understand about the self-regulatory nature of fusion and gravity in sustaining a star's energy output, but why is it fairly even instead of, say, producing wild harmonic variations?" you'll get a different response altogether.

This is almost par for the course on the Internet where people will generally assume you are an idiot.
posted by vacapinta at 10:20 AM on June 27, 2005

...oftentimes people read this as a cue to be patronizing, that my request for their advice means that I "need" their help, which makes me reluctant to ask them again.

Maybe that's the point. Maybe some of your friends or colleagues don't want to help you and this is a passive-aggressive way of showing that.
posted by grouse at 10:22 AM on June 27, 2005

I say that I'm brainstorming or looking for fresh angles.

I've found that I have a group of co-workers that I can rely on. I've stopped asking the people who are condescending...some people simply do not understand/desire the value of collaboration.
posted by desuetude at 10:26 AM on June 27, 2005

Goddamn grouse, you're always so prickly.
posted by Specklet at 10:27 AM on June 27, 2005

Well Specklet, I think that is something the OP should consider. He didn't say all of his friends or colleagues acted patronizing, so why not stick to the ones that aren't?
posted by grouse at 10:32 AM on June 27, 2005

Maybe this is just me, but I find patronizing to be the worst form of rudeness. I would rather someone call me a cocksucker than patronize me. So I would probably deal with it by saying, "can you answer without being so rude, please?" There's no excuse for patronizing. If you think someone is stupid, tell them they are stupid (or say nothing). Don't patronize them. And don't allow others to get away with this sort of behavior.
posted by grumblebee at 10:37 AM on June 27, 2005

whatever you say, cocksucker.
posted by subclub at 10:40 AM on June 27, 2005

I would rather someone call me a cocksucker than patronize me.

Someone's been watching too much Deadwood...
posted by mkultra at 11:04 AM on June 27, 2005

How about if someone sits you down and carefully explains what it means for you to be a cocksucker?

If someone gives you a piece of patronizing advice, thank them and get on with your life. If you try to cut them off, it'll just make you look insecure and defensive. And looking insecure gets you less respect, which will just get you patronized more.

The real solution is to avoid getting patronized in the first place. Vacapinta's got the right idea — a little aggressive display of competence goes a long way.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:24 AM on June 27, 2005

This way, you present your solution/thoughts, so the person you're asking knows that you've been thinking about the issue already.

If you've worked with the person for a while, they probably have a very good idea of your knowledge level on a particular subject. And why should you have to tell someone everything you know in order to get a small bit of information? What a time-waster. Even if the coworker does not know your level of knowledge, there are ways of presenting information that do not presuppose idiocy. I'm with grouse on the passive-aggressive theory.
posted by Morrigan at 11:41 AM on June 27, 2005

Looking at things from the other side, it can sometimes be a little awkward fielding questions from someone whose experience you are not familiar with. I know that I've been unintentionally patronizing (perhaps "pedantic" is a better word) with some people when answering their questions and was surprised when they were insulted. When someone asks me a question now, I tend to gloss things over and assume they will ask me more questions as their experience dictates. This can also be problematic because sometimes people will not want to ask further questions for fear of being interpreted as "stupid" - which unfortunately has the effect of only perpetuating their dilemma.

That said, I think there are two things you can do. The first is to define as much as possible the limits of your knowledge to whomever you are asking the question before you pose the problem to them. The second is not to ask the advice of people you do not respect or who are simply rude. Don't cloud your thinking with the advice of too many people. If AskMefi should teach you anything it's to happily accept the advice of those interested in helping you and to ignore the assholes.
posted by quadog at 11:50 AM on June 27, 2005

As a woman with an English degree but a decent working understanding of computers, I found similar problems when I first started collaborating with my IT department. (To be fair, I think that's mainly because the poor guys were so used to answering questions from people who *were* clueless that they just had that as default mode.)

I found that sitting patiently through their explanations, and politely responding with "Yes, I tried that, and this happened..." or "OK, so that fits with X and Y, but doesn't address Z..." would often make them realize that I did have a clue, and then they'd treat me as such the next time.

If you just ask a question then take the answer at face value, of course the answer-giver isn't going to go through the trouble of elaborating, or really working with you. The conversation needs to be an equal give-and-take to get anything productive out of it.

That said... there are just patronizing assholes out there, and, as others have said, you should probably just avoid them.
posted by occhiblu at 12:02 PM on June 27, 2005

I should add: I love answering questions and giving advice, BUT... I've worked with people who feel the need to consult me on Every.Little.Thing and it drives me nuts -- and makes me patronizing, because Dude, get a backbone and make your own choices.

So make sure you're not just asking questions for the sake of asking questions.
posted by occhiblu at 12:04 PM on June 27, 2005

Generally if somebody starts explaining things to me on too simple a level, I interrupt them a "Oh, so you're an expert on that stuff, awesome, then you must know this much more refined and difficult stuff, please enlighten me." Obviously the goal is to make them feel embarassed for having patronized me, but superficially it sounds respectful. If they're too enamored with the sound of their own voices going over the stupid bit, one must repeat "Right, I get that part, my real trouble is this much trickier thing." People rarely patronize me twice.
posted by Aknaton at 12:37 PM on June 27, 2005

I'd also recommend....asking the question....even open ended...

and then,

"I have a couple solutions in mind, but I value your opinion - how is the best way to get X from Y."

The idea that you indicate that you have a solution(s), points out that you've thought it through, enough so that the first answer may or may not be the best, you're soliticing advice, while yet, complimenting the person you're soliciting advice from.

Whew. All because some cocksucker thinks you're an fu*king douchbag. The nerve of people!
posted by filmgeek at 12:54 PM on June 27, 2005

and makes me patronizing

That's like saying people who leave their money lying around makes you steal. Don't be patronizing. Patronizing is passive-aggressive and cowardly. Get a backbone yourself and tell them directly to stop bothering you all the time.
posted by grumblebee at 12:55 PM on June 27, 2005

patronizing is more than just explaining things at the wrong level - it has an attitude, a kind of sarcastic sneer.

if you're being patronized, tell them to fuck off.

if you're getting an explanation at the wrong level, give more detail ("i think the dhcp server is down" or "as far as i can tell there are no cycles of references" or whatever).

if you're unsure which, it's probably better to go with the second option.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:56 PM on June 27, 2005

Sorry I offended you, grumblebee. Geez. In the particular instance I'm thinking about, we did in fact tell the guy he was driving us insane, but given that he was our boss, we didn't have all that much control over his behavior.

And when your boss interrupts you every five minutes to ask for synonyms, and then wonders why you're getting snippy, well... I'm really not going to claim to be the one at fault, there. You don't get the right to interrupt me at will and expect me to be sunshiney happy about it every single time.
posted by occhiblu at 1:21 PM on June 27, 2005

occhiblu, Sorry if I was harsh. I'm sure you're a nice person and I have no desire to get into a flame war, piss you off, or make you feel guilty. And I totally understand what it's like to work for a horrible (or irritating boss). But this is something I feel really strongly about.

By my ethics, you ARE at fault here. (And I stress by MY ethics.) You have acted impolitely, and there's no excuse for it. When someone acts badly towards you, it's still your job to treat them politely. And patronizing is simply rude. I can't think of a single situation in which it's not rude. And I'm not saying I've never been rude in my life. I have been. And when I AM rude, I'm wrong. I think that when you patronize your boss, you are wrong.

That said, in some social groups -- particularly Gen Xish people -- there's not a high premium on politeness. I'm more old world.
posted by grumblebee at 2:11 PM on June 27, 2005

The boss is now one of my closest friends, so by whatever standards we were operating in, I think they worked out.

My overall point is still this: If people are consistently treating you in ways you don't want to be treated, then either they're assholes you should avoid, or you're doing something to provoke otherwise fine people into unacceptable behavior. One of these provocations could be constantly asking questions. So if you do that, and you're not getting the response you want, maybe you should stop that. That's all.
posted by occhiblu at 2:21 PM on June 27, 2005

Maybe this is just me, but I find patronizing to be the worst form of rudeness. I would rather someone call me a cocksucker than patronize me.

Really? Patronizing is a way of expressing annoyance at someone while still showing that you do in fact want to interact with them. I think it's only passive agressive when it's done out of fear (of saying something hyper-confident like "shut up you dumb cocksucker"). In most cases, I tolerate patronizing behavior from my friends because I'm a human and can understand statements with multiple levels of meaning, and because it's a subtle way of letting me know my question may have been stupid. I actually do not tolerate statements like "you are a cocksucker" after a question because a) it is a non-sequituur and b) it kills the exchange.

If you were to walk around responding to everyone who asks a stupid question with "fuck your question ya retard" you would probably never have a conversation again.
posted by Laugh_track at 2:23 PM on June 27, 2005

Also I thought that Aknaton's advice was excellent.
posted by Laugh_track at 2:24 PM on June 27, 2005

You say you are always interested in hearing what others have to say, but obviously that's not true. You're only interested in hearing what they have to say if it meets your conditions for not sounding patronizing or condescending. Otherwise you consider it a problem that needs to be "solved" in some way.

Maybe you should be a little more clear with yourself what you are expecting to get out of the interaction. Do you really need some specific information from them, or not? Is there some particular goal you're trying to achieve? Is a particular person's tone of voice/attitude actually critical to achieving that goal?

It seems odd that you would "always" be interested in others' opinions. I certainly can't imagine being interested in "everyone"'s opinion on anything. I would only want the opinions of people I respect and think know what they're talking about. Their generally not being condescending would certainly factor into that. If I knew a person was going to be condescending but I thought the conversation had some higher value, then I would just bite the bullet and accept their condescension.

To put it another way: if you "know how to deal with the situation", then why are you asking them? Doesn't it seem understandable that they would find it difficult to figure out how to react to you, or be somewhat annoyed, if you are asking them a question you already know the answer to (and possibly consider your answer better than theirs)?

I tend to wonder if your agenda is more like: I will go around testing everyone to see if they will treat me in what I consider to be a respectful way 100% of the time. Then, if they don't, I will get to enjoy feeling justifiably angry.

Really, when you see someone behaving badly--treating other people (including you) rudely, or whatever it is--you should be happy. It's like a poker game. Some people, when they see a guy playing really badly, get all upset. But why? If you're a better player, you're going to win a lot of money from that person. You're lucky to have the insight not to make the same mistake that they're making. Similarly, you should be happy that your non-patronizing behavior is going to lead to much better results--however you may define that--than the other guy's patronizing behavior. (And if it doesn't, then how do you know it's actually 'better'?)
posted by mcguirk at 3:42 PM on June 27, 2005

I second (or fourth or whatever) the suggestion that you give some indication of what you already know about the subject.

I work in the labs at my school. My job description does not include helping people with their homework, but I'm usually happy to help folks out. But, ultimately, these problems are theirs, and if I get the sense that they're using me to further their laziness, of course I'm going going to be a condescending dick to them.

There's a huge difference between "My program's giving me the wrong answer, what's wrong with it?" and "Okay, so my program is supposed to generate the sine function using an ODE solver, but it's not working right. The answer is checked from the built-in sin() function, and it's right to three decimals, but not beyond. I thought it was a floating point error, but I went through the book's chapter on roundoff error and effected the suggested changes. Then I tried implementing Runge-Kutta instead of the Euler solver I was using at first. It didn't get any better, but I might not have gotten the RK working right. Could you come have a look at it?"

The first approach shows me that you're probably a sleazeball who's just trying to get me to do your work for you. In this case, I generally say something like, "That sucks. Your code's probably fucked up."

The second approach says, "Yo, I've been beating my head against this for a while now, and I really need some help." In this case, I go help them, happy that somebody has brought me an interesting problem to solve.

Actually, the number one thing you can do to garner condescension from me is to bring me a problem that you could have solved in fifteen minutes by reading a book, googling the web, or playing with it.
posted by Netzapper at 5:39 PM on June 27, 2005

I generally say, as part of the question "I'm not going to tell you what's already been done on this yet, as I don't want it to influence your thinking". While purpose is to explain what you're doing, not ward of patronising, it does render it pretty much impossible - they've either got to misunderstand the question (in which case, you get to explain it to them again, slowly, making their attitude totally backfire), or they have to assume you're bluffing, in which case you can follow up with "No, we've already got that one, I was hoping for a take that's a bit more outside the box. Any other ideas?". If you usually have to run with the obvious solution, they may think you're lying about not using their ideas, but if they're being patronizing, you be esily able to find better ways, and that might be a useful work standard "whatever method I use, requirement #1 is that it's a better method than asshole's dumb suggestion" :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 7:01 PM on June 27, 2005

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