Have you learned to be less condescending? Help me do that.
January 10, 2020 6:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm a white male college professor in my late thirties. Over the last few weeks, I've gotten some bracing feedback about my way of being in the world. At work, it was a tenure review conversation with my (female) department chair. At home, it was a multiday debriefing with my (female) spouse after a party at our house where I had a bit too much to drink. These are people whose opinions I greatly respect. And they're telling me the same thing: that I have a habit of being rude and condescending, especially to women. (Of course the patterns they're diagnosing are far from new.) How can I do better?

Known issues: the desire to challenge and correct; deeply seated prejudices about the kinds of expertise I have being more rigorous/valuable than others'. Garden variety internalized sexism and racism. I'm sure there are lots of things about the way I seem to others that are hard for me to see.

Where things are coming from: an argumentative family culture and formative early adult male friendships that were competitive/argumentative/sometimes verbally aggressive; intellectual insecurity both personal (a promising graduate and postdoc trajectory dwindling into an adequate but underwhelming mid-career) and structural (trained into a shrinking and old-fashioned subfield of a humanities subject that is itself in steep decline); still drinking too much in my thirties. Here too I recognize that my self-knowledge is incomplete.

What I know I can do: be quieter, listen more, ask more questions. Be both more humble and secure in the small set of things that I know and the large set of things that I don't. I welcome concrete suggestions about how to get better at doing these things.

What I'm looking for: above all concrete suggestions from folks who have been in my shoes and learned to do better. I've learned a lot from reading comments and posts here from people who have been around people like me, but I recognize that this project isn't their job.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (45 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
So, if you have the motive and desire to do the "what I know I can do" section, all you need is to take away obstacles until you get there. The biggest obstacle is probably time -- in the moment, it's hard to remember the difference between what you're doing and what you'd like to be doing until it's too late and you've already followed the worn path of habit.

I haven't been in your shoes specifically, but at one point I realized I had a tendency to mildly put my foot in my mouth or generally later say things I wish I hadn't, or had said differently. (It wasn't a matter of offending people, usually just making myself look foolish/strange.)

What worked for me to reduce the frequency of these situations was just shutting the heck up. Literally biting my tongue at times. I'd get the urge to say a thing, then not say it and consider it carefully, say it in my head, see what it sounded like a little more clearly, and then and only then open my mouth to say it if it passed muster.

This often meant I could not make commentary, give input, or generally say anything before the conversation topic moved on.

I accepted this. I accepted just being seen as a bit quieter for awhile, until the groove of what I wanted to be doing was worn smoother.

In the meantime, I asked a lot more questions in conversation and learned how to keep the focus on other people, because people don't notice that you're not talking about yourself if you keep them talking about themselves. This is also a great tactic you can use too. Someone says something, tell yourself you have to ask a question, not make a statement in response. Go into conversations making it your goal to get other people to talk as much as you can, imagine you're a therapist or a spy or something. (I'm not patronizing, I actually did this to help me remember my goals.)
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 6:45 PM on January 10 [49 favorites]


still drinking too much in my thirties

I quit drinking 26 years ago this month. Doing that forced me to deal with all the shit I was trying to hide from by having a beer in my hand at all times. Did it suck for a long time? Oh yeah. I actually changed careers in order to get away from a lifestyle that practically rewarded heavy drinking, and I still make an effort not to be around people that I know drink too much.

So, from an Internet stranger, my main piece of advice is: quit drinking. Don't taper off, don't just do it on weekends, quit. Get help quitting if you need to, but quit. From your own description of your behavior you're not a fun person to be around when you're drinking, so take that as a major life hint and fix it. What this will mean is that maybe you can't have parties at your house for a few years, or go to parties, or be around people who drink heavily. You may need to change your entire friend group. It's OK, worse things have happened. I left a number of people in my life behind when I quit drinking, and my life was better for it.

On preview, I was going to say something similar to what gloriouslyincandescent said: during this time I learned to shut up and realize that everyone else's story was as interesting as mine and to let them talk. And go to therapy of some kind.
posted by ralan at 7:03 PM on January 10 [38 favorites]


Hmm do you often read novels written by women? I really believe in the power of story to somehow exponentially increase our understanding of one another's experience, so.. that's were the thought is coming from.
posted by elgee at 7:03 PM on January 10 [38 favorites]


I sometimes jabber and plow through in a haze of insecurity and ego or nervousness.

I am someone’s mom, and really work now to not fill in empty spaces with my hot takes. If you want a kid to talk you have to give them space. I count to five or ten in conversations and most of the time, given a chance to breathe, the other person has more to say.

Give them a chance to breathe, to gather thoughts and talk, then ask more questions.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:10 PM on January 10 [13 favorites]


Stop drinking. Only engage with other humans when you are thinking clearly enough to monitor your behavior. You may not have a drinking "problem," per se, but you have a problem when you drink.

Make a point of only making declarative sentences (vs. asking questions) when the other person seems to have run out of steam or has asked you a question. Don't ask leading questions, or taunting questions. Don't listen so that it's your turn. Listen so you can identify what the other person IS saying rather than what you expect them to say.

Only ask questions to get information that you don't have. And don't assume that you already have ANY information unless it's 100% in the field where you are the acknowledged expert (in the world, in the room, whatever).

Read women writers and writers of color -- in your field, outside your field. Fiction. Non-fiction. Study it. Take notes on things where you disagree, or even where your gut instinct is to disagree because it doesn't match your own lived experience, then recognize that that's how others feel all the time. If necessary, read your notes on what you read OUT LOUD.

Get a mentor for this self-improvement project. Ask your department chair if there's a man in the department whose behavior and attitudes she'd like to see you model. And then learn from him. Don't ask or expect her or your female colleagues to educate you on this subject.

Ask your spouse if there's someone already in your social circle who is doing it "right" in this regard. Get to know the guy she recommends. Watch him. Listen.

Consider whether academic and intellectual "rigor" outside of the hard sciences may often actually be a construct based on traditionally masculine ways of looking at things rather than a a fixed truth and/or net positive.

Read more about sexism and racism from people who have experienced it. Think of this as though you were going to do graduate studies in the field, and accept that you likely will not LIKE many of the things you read, especially at the beginning, but that you don't have to like something to believe it. And then read what experts have written about what THOSE experts have written. You will, over and over, see examples of what you shouldn't do, and those errors will turn into behavioral signpoints such that you'll hear yourself, in your head, about to say something and recognize, "oh, yeah, that's wrong."

If you really have trouble not talking instead of listening, start chewing (a lot of) bubble gum. It's harder to talk when there's something in your mouth. I'm not kidding.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 7:21 PM on January 10 [34 favorites]


Learn to listen. It's not an innate skill, especially for academic white men who just...aren't expected to do it. Not just active listening, which everyone has heard of, but listening with empathy and - this is the one weird trick - a communal spirit of goodwill as if you and the speaker are on the same team. Imagine that your job is NOT to challenge, but to raise up (non-condescendingly). Not to be the most right, but to learn more about things from other people who have other perspectives.

Step one to listening more is clapping your trap. Second step is engage as a conversational partner and not a debate opponent, not to display what you know but to find out more about what they know.

And a big tip: women tend to converse in a sort of parallel rather than perpendicular - like people rowing a boat together instead of people playing tennis at each other. We share experiences back and forth to express empathy and understanding, not to win the conversation. We're more likely to ask follow-up questions instead of trying to one-up (this doesn't always go great, sometimes you ask what someone does and they tell you and you ask if they like it and they're like "no" and tear up because it's a shit place to work but then you say "oh, I'm so sorry, that sucks" rather than trying to prove your bad boss is worse). It's a collaboration. It's not Jeopardy(!).

Many men are trained in a conversational style in which they are obligated to fix things or be an expert in things. I tell you about my crappy boss, you tell me to go right in there and stand up for myself (this is a pep talk only allowed for the most close of friends, not some dude at a party, don't presume that kind of intimacy with me). I tell you I garden and you want to tell me all about gardening to display to me that you know a thing about my thing, and you might even mean well when you do it, but what about instead asking me my favorite vegetable and enthusing about both it and your own (which is a shitload more fun to talk about anyway!)? We might very well still learn from each other, but with fun instead of lectures!

I know a spate of dudes who are pretty damn good at this. About half of them are creatives with some kind of acting or improv training, so they've learned to Listen Your Ass Off (this was painted over the stage door in the green room of my improv school). I just spent a vacation weekend with people who put shit into space and onto moons nobody's been on before and they are surprisingly humble people because ***fuckin' moons man!!1!*** (and also having the kind of colleagues who redefine the scale of "smartest person in the room" and projects that redefine "budget") and they could smile and laugh along with my glee and awe for them even if I have the most rudimentary understanding of the science.

I think one of the basic building blocks of being an Actual Good Guy is rediscovering some joy and curiosity and wonder that I know is beaten out of you at an early age, but is worth trying to re-attain. Not everything is a competition. There are so many things to learn from other people. It feels nice to engage instead of debate. The thing you're asking to do is difficult but not unpleasant, there is value and warmth in learning to see and appreciate other people exactly where they are.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:41 PM on January 10 [183 favorites]


In addition to all the above, listen to the podcast Real Talk with Nicole Antoinette. She does long form interviews with women. It'd be good to listen to more women, practice just listening (you can't interject; listen to all the interviews), expose yourself to more intersections, pay attention to the flow of conversations and questions, etc. Also, she quit drinking and that comes up but infrequently.
posted by jrobin276 at 7:50 PM on January 10 [10 favorites]


Listen to them systematically, and listen to the whole interview even - or maybe especially - the ones that don't seem that interesting initially.
posted by jrobin276 at 7:54 PM on January 10 [2 favorites]


I had similar problems at work. In dept. meetings stop thinking that your opinion always matters. Stop sharing thoughts on every issue.

I learned that, generally, most things I had to say or points that I had to make would be said and made by others. Besides being less domineering this also means that my colleagues pay more attention to me when I do have something to say.
posted by oddman at 7:56 PM on January 10 [16 favorites]


I have 2 ideas:
1. if there is a person or people you trust who would be willing to hold you accountable in the moment, that is a place to start. My family teased me for years about how I talk too much and it was hurtful but ultimately I try really hard to ask people questions about themselves, their work & their life instead of talking about myself. Just having someone continue to say "you're doing that bad thing again" makes you not want to do that thing.
2. I actually practice keeping my mouth shut on metafilter. A lot of times I read a bunch of comments and have thoughts to share and then I just think - what if I didn't. Sometimes I have filled up the comment box and I just erase it. And then one of three things happens: someone else says what I was going to say, but better. Someone else makes a point that illustrates how ignorant my original point was. Or I keep having that thought so eventually I do write it as a comment and the delay hurt no one. This has been especially effective when it is stuff I am sensitive about or that I think I know about but really don't. For instance, if someone says "white feminists are like this" and I'm like "hey!" then I really make an effort not to make that comment and I just see what happens. I think the online practice has also helped me in intense conversation in regular life.
posted by Emmy Rae at 7:57 PM on January 10 [27 favorites]


A lot of this is grounded in fear. Fear that you'll fail to dominate a woman in a challenging situation and what that says about you. Someone taught you that, probably your parents, possibly your mother. Think on that and try to see how its affected your family as a whole. Ask your partner for help here if you can. It might not have been yoir parents, I've seen several men do a 180 on feminism when they married a woman who was herself not a feminist, she didn't like or trust other women and they picked it up and became more sexist. No one creates their opinions in a vacuum. Understanding where yours came from is the first step to examining them.

And yes, consume media by women exclusively for a while. Podcasts, movies, books. Retrain your brain not to see a woman and get its hackles up. We are just people.

As a woman I can tell you that if other women are saying this to you openly they were likely already mentally prepared to write you off if you react badly. Consider what that means in terms of your life but also try not to live in fear going forward. Men who truly like women do not fear them being strong or in charge.
posted by fshgrl at 7:59 PM on January 10 [12 favorites]


5 paragraphs, you mention drinking twice. It doesn't go in a better direction from here. Tackle the drinking first, see how you go, then start in working on the other behavioral issues. A great place to start is the book This Naked Mind.

If this is an issue in the classroom or meetings, you could find a trusted peer coach to watch you in those settings and note specific behaviors - phrases, mannerisms, vocal tics - that are triggering people's reaction to you, and after they've shared what they've observed with you, work to eliminate those.
posted by Miko at 8:00 PM on January 10 [3 favorites]


This is coming from a deep-seated discontentment with your life and you know that. Until you deal with the underlying cause, really deal with it, you'll never get better. You need the ability to self-reflect and cope with your feelings, beyond hiding behind a drink.

Get a therapist.
posted by Amy93 at 8:02 PM on January 10 [8 favorites]


Some of this has to do with your career. I'm sure if I were a professor, it would have taken me a lot longer to outgrow my arrogant phase. Find ways to be a novice, to be embarrassed, to not be in charge. Your tenure (sorry) on this side of the power dynamic has not served you. For me, the cure was working in customer service. You might be able to come up with something similar.
posted by Sterros at 8:10 PM on January 10 [5 favorites]


It sounds like this is ego wrapped up in fear of women showing you up, so you knock them down before they have the chance. If you’re a professor in an obscure declining humanities field, it’s not so hard to be the smartest person in the room when it’s a room very few people are interested in being in. I think you know this and it scares you. (Might explain the drinking too.) Try stretching yourself, go out into the world and meet people outside of academia. And I don’t mean your traditional ‘smart, impressive people’, like doctors or lawyers. I mean anyone, but especially women.

Because most people will have some kind of knowledge you don’t and could do with. Have a chat to your plumber the next time they’re over fixing something. If it’s not intrusive, ask them how or why they’re doing something. Chances are, it’s harder than it looks and there’s a reason it took them a four year apprenticeship to learn how to do it. Same with your dental technician or your child’s nursery educator. The things they can tell you about child development will blow you away, if you simply care enough to ask. Try to gain respect for people who know things outside of your narrow field. They’re everywhere.

Consider that you’re not required to give your opinion on everything and when you do, people are allowed to disagree and sometimes you’ll be wrong. That doesn’t make you inferior, it makes you human.

I feel for you, the way you were raised and the world has encouraged this behaviour in white men for so long that it must be extremely confusing to realise you’re not only not special (or at least only as special as everyone else) but that there’s now no longer a place for you and your behaviour and if you don’t change your ways super quick, there may not even be a job for you. It’s a lot to process. I think you owe you wife and department chair a big thank you for drawing your attention to this before it’s too late and permanent damage has been done to your marriage and career. And of course, therapy. Best of luck.
posted by Jubey at 8:16 PM on January 10 [16 favorites]


Known issues: the desire to challenge and correct

a. to truly love to challenge, you must have a love of losing equal to your love of winning, because the essence of the challenge (vs. the sneak attack) is the fair and open fight. to challenge someone is to try your strength against theirs, and you are of course not stronger than everyone you challenge on every topic; no one is. Would you say that you notice when your intellectual challenges fail? particularly your intellectual challenges to women.

b. to correct, you must be not only right but more right than the other person. I'm sure you are, sometimes. I'm sure you are not always. Cultivate a love of correction equal to your love of correcting. construct your statements and declarations so that, without being wishy-washy or falsely meek, they solicit and attract and welcome correction. This, if you don't already habitually do it, is....a challenge. learn to love the right answer more than you love being the person who has it.

c. indulge your desire to correct by exercising it upon yourself. Take one of those opinions or theses or bits of knowledge that you would ordinarily offer as a correction to someone and, instead, try to correct it. ask yourself "what if I'm wrong" and "how might I be wrong," not as a humility-cultivating mantra, but as an intellectual exercise. a serious game, where you win if you find a good answer. this should be fun for you. you do not have to do it out loud.

-- You say you think your self-knowledge is incomplete, but your regular knowledge is also incomplete. consider which secret drawer you keep your ego hidden in.

deeply seated prejudices about the kinds of expertise I have being more rigorous/valuable than others

prejudice and intellectual rigor are not really compatible. thinking about this more could be fruitful.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:21 PM on January 10 [35 favorites]


Well, outside of a silent buddhist retreat...take a day - 24 hours(weekend, whenever) and don't say *anything*. Be quiet. Just listen. Then when you begin speaking, make your first words be intentional and necessary. Cultivate the *everyday practice* of listening carefully as you speak. Notice what happens.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:09 PM on January 10


Two concrete actions that helped me:

1. When I thought I had a unique, insightful comment to make, I would just hold it in my mind, and not say it. 99% of the time someone else makes the same comment within a few minutes. Often the person who I intended to direct the comment to as a critique.

2. Pay close attention to when you are wrong. Just flat out wrong on facts, or when your interpretations and analysis do not stand up over time as new information becomes available, or other modes of knowledge (direct experience, emotional intelligence, etc) yield better results. When you think someone else is wrong, and are about to tell them why. Remember a time when you were wrong, and have that inform how and if you respond.
posted by hworth at 10:13 PM on January 10 [13 favorites]


If this is happening in work conversations where it might be appropriate to take notes, *write your idea down* instead of saying it right away. Then you can concentrate on what the other person is saying, to really listen to them and try to take their words on board, without being worried that you'll forget your own point in the process.

If your point is still relevant, then you can bring it up after you've listened and responded to what your interlocutor actually said. If it isn't, you don't have to say it.
posted by nat at 11:44 PM on January 10 [8 favorites]


You've gotten tons of great advice, and--improbable as it may be--for concrete illustrations of a part of this, I'd suggest reading the "status" chapter in Keith Johnstone's book on improvisation (probably the earlier chapter on "blocking" too). In a series of dialogues, the text tries to get you to see how status is pervasive at a microscopic level in most interactions. It may help you to see that happening and to practice avoiding high-status moves by recognizing others' conversational goals and being more supportive of them, building other people up in genuine ways, consciously going low-status to keep things flowing, etc.
posted by Wobbuffet at 11:57 PM on January 10 [9 favorites]


I learned to keep my big mouth shut. That simple. I comment/correct/interpret much less than I did previously. I do keep a running dialogue in my head that often amuses me, but I just wait to speak. Sort of like drafting an email that you want to sleep on before sending that sounds harsh the next day, I wait until the conversation is over and then decide if it is worth it to interject.
posted by AugustWest at 12:24 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]


the desire to challenge and correct

Like you I come from an early situation where arguing was the norm, and my oldest relationships are with people who really like a good back and forth. We have arguments going that are so old that neither of us remember which side we were originally on, so we just adopt one side or the other when we feel there's a new point to make. Digging deep into information, arriving at new facts and insights about any topic, gives me the warm fuzzies.

Naturally I want to share that feeling with others, which is why I came off as condescending and pedantic to a large number of people who didn't have the same associations. For some people I was just that guy who was always trying to start an argument, and for others I was an actively threatening figure -- the person from their past who was always trying to dominate them by telling them they were wrong.

Once I realized that I was actively frightening people it was a lot easier to stop. Part of getting to know people for me now is sussing out how they prefer to interact and going with it. Of course I'd prefer if they did it my way, but I'd rather meet them at some level than be completely dismissed.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:46 AM on January 11 [8 favorites]


The drinking and the condescension seem kind of similar.
Things which you would like to be in control of but are not.

The solutions are simple. Drink and talk less.

Unfortunately as a "white male college professor" you condescend for a living. I think the only way you could make this harder is if you got a gig as a wine taster on the side.

For me personally I became a better listener and less controlling because I had to. Tell Me No Lies' comment "Once I realized that I was actively frightening people it was a lot easier to stop" rings true for me. I despised the person I had become when I finally saw the person I had become when I saw how other people perceived me. Sure, they loved me and liked me but they could also be afraid of me and frustrated by my attempts to control conversations and them.

Armed with an overwhelming desire not to be that person again I began to deliberately, I mean scrunch your face up weightlifter breathing d-e-l-i-b-e-r-a-t-e-l-y, talk less. I tried to disappear in conversations and to focus entirely on the other people. Especially in conversations with women. You may think that makes them one sided but dude, you're a white male college professor you ain't ever gonna be silent.

You know what though, it's fucking amazing.

People man, they're awesome. Endlessly fascinating and life-affirming. New ideas, new perspectives just wonderful things happen when you learn to shut the fuck up.

It gets easier as habits form but you always have to be vigilant. Sometimes you may even get to be your old condescending self when it's necessary. Bullies always need taking down a peg or two :)

Seeing who you really are through the eyes of those you hurt is tough. Really tough. The opportunity to be better is worth it.

Good luck.
posted by fullerine at 2:12 AM on January 11 [17 favorites]


These are people whose opinions I greatly respect.

Try not to divide people - especially women - into people you respect and people you don't respect. If you don't make people earn your respect, if you focus on respecting everyone all the time, you will get better at listening to them.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:06 AM on January 11 [46 favorites]


The more intense or important the conversation, the more I benefit from ritual. One way I (try to) slow myself down is by asking myself, about everything I'm thinking of saying, whether it's true, timely, helpful, kind. Am I sure it's true? Is everyone else in the conversation ready to hear it? Will it help? Are my intentions kind? I happened to learn this habit from Buddhism.
posted by kingless at 4:19 AM on January 11 [7 favorites]


Thank you for asking this question. It speaks well of you that you want to do better and I think it speaks well of AskMe that you came here to figure out how.

I think you’ve gotten some great advice above about listening and about drinking, so I won’t belabor those points. I have also been told by my spouse that I can be argumentative in an off putting way — although it’s been a decade plus since I’ve heard that and I’m hoping it’s because I’ve grown. (I certainly *feel* like I argue less.) Like you I work in academia, although in a nonfaculty capacity, and for me the most wonderful tonic for any arrogance I might have felt has been that my role is inherently interdisciplinary, especially in my current job. It forces you to think critically about when it’s time to talk vs listen. What would it look like if you took your research or teaching in a different direction that requires a collaborator from another discipline? Or what about if you spent your next sabbatical (if your institution does those) in some kind of visiting capacity in a new place, learning something new? In your shoes I think I would try to find a situation for myself where I could be the student again, in some way, to remind myself what it feels like to not have all the answers (because this is actually all of us all the time, and it’s just that sometimes entrenchment in one role for a while can make us forget).

Honestly, I think the social role of The Expert is poisonous and confining and I think you will be happier when you learn how to escape it. Not sure it’s the absolute worst feature of academia, but it’s probably in my top five.

The other thing I do that might help you is to make a practice of thanking people: for their time, for sharing their thoughts, for correcting my mistakes when I make them. It makes them feel good (I hope) but it also reminds me of my place, which isn’t above anybody, just next to everybody.
posted by eirias at 5:06 AM on January 11 [6 favorites]


Deb Tannen is a linguist; her book You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation might be interesting for you. I (a woman) actually agree with some of the criticisms that she leans too much on generalizations about gender, but I still think it could be helpful for you.

Maybe look in your area for opportunities to participate in groups where conversation occurs in a guided, thoughtful, manner with clear rules. Something that could give you a different way to experience a conversation in a space outside your norm. For example, I have access to small discussion groups where people meet regularly and set intentions about how they will be with each other in the space. Generally speakers have the opportunity to respond in turn to a question or a reading, but don't question or follow up on each other's remarks.
posted by bunderful at 5:43 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]


a few years ago i learned the Third Dude Rule and it changed my life.

it’s really easy. in a group setting, make a promise to yourself to try not to be the third dude to talk in a row.

it’s a simple game and good listening practice, but it will reveal many things to you.
posted by sixswitch at 5:56 AM on January 11 [28 favorites]


Something a couple of male friends have confronted: quite often, women in conversation with men who are being dominating know-it-alls just want to find a way to end the interaction because it’s highly unpleasant—but often those men experience this quick-resolution mode as “winning” the conversation, like “oh, they’ve all conceded to the power of my argument!” when it’s really “what’s the quickest way to get this guy to stop talking so I can go chat with someone else.” This misperception can feed an already-horrendously-large ego, while at the same time eroding the respect of the people around it even further.

If you sense a mismatch between your opinion of your conversational talent and the perception of others, it might be this.

The best advice you can get is just be quiet for a while and listen. Especially when you think you’re about to make a killer point, or when you feel excitement at someone else being wrong.
posted by sallybrown at 6:01 AM on January 11 [34 favorites]


I learned to shut the heck up and not feel the need to express every thought and opinion I'm having in real time by developing a deep meditation practice. YMMV.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:17 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]


All these people are your professors. They all know more about many things than you do, and you are missing opportunities to learn. If you spend time showing off how smart you are you are not using your interactions optimally. While you are lecturing those poor creatures about how much you know, other brighter people than you are picking their brains and gaining insights.

So when you start an encounter, one question to ask yourself is what you can learn from this person. If you are limited and small minded you are going to say that there is nothing worth learning from them, because the only things worth knowing are facts that you already know, or facts that other people don't know. Nothing this person knows is worth learning. If you do this you are going to remain, or end up embarrassingly ignorant. It's okay to decide that you won't pursue certain subjects. If you are a professor of economics learning about football and football celebrities may be a subject that is too complex and would take too much time to learn about. It's okay to say that your lifetime is too short to spend discussing football or even many other specialties that people could teach you. However, the chances are the people you are condescending to are people that know things that matter about your profession and the subjects you are interested in.

For example, you are a teacher so you tell your students how to learn. But if you ask your students how they learn, you will get information that could be useful to you in figuring out why they are not learning more from you than they are, and why they may not be excited and motivated to learn your subject. If you simply tell them to do the exercises on page 137 you won't know how long it takes them, if they are simply writing down the answers from the answer key, if there is an error in one of the problems that makes it insolvable nonsense, if they work better in groups or solo, if they are doing badly on the text book exercises which they actually do, but much better on the papers because they are buying them, or because writing consolidates the facts for them, if the average student in your classes has less time to study now than ten years ago because their housing conditions of changed and a host of other facts. If you simply over ride your students without finding out these things you are missing the opportunity to be the teacher that your students admire, or the teacher that your students really learn from.

Similarly if you chat up some woman at a faculty party and lecture her on your pet subject, you are missing the opportunity to find out that there are going to be departmental cutbacks, that the admin support staff are going to have trouble making it in to work because of the parking lot changes and the next time it snows you may be locked out of your building, that some of your students are missing classes from literal starvation, that three people have had falls in the stair well since the new tiles were put in, that a brilliant graduate student in Edinburgh has written a paper in your field that you ought to read, that the students' study group is being funded now... a whole host of things that you don't imagine are going on, but which could be really relevant to you if one of your students starts swaying slightly and doesn't seem to be listening during an office consult, or if you find yourself sitting on the floor on landing with a badly twisted ankle.

Every time you think you are scoring points you may be losing them. Keep that in mind. Other people are not the best way to support your ego. Of course your ego needs supporting; everyone has an ego that needs supporting. But when you support your ego by using an interaction to dominate and get attention, you're training people to treat you differently behind your back than they do when facing you, and instead of thinking "anonymous is smart!" they are thinking, "anonymous is dumb" and instead of thinking "anonymous is a leader!" they are thinking "anonymous has no clue!"

People who let you condescend to them are patronizing you. You stand there talking about your departmental credits and they stand there politely nodding and say, "He must have been impressed!" while they are feeling the exact opposite and are not impressed at all. They are letting you run on at the mouth because the consequences of pulling you up short would be bad for them, but meanwhile they will be catching the eyes of other people and signalling, "He's doing it again..." Behind your back they will be discussing you. "Never answers your questions, but he is safe to see in a private office consult. At least he's not one of the grabby ones." When you condescend you are shutting people down, and that means that your language and communication skills suck.

You know this. I am repeating it because you want to cultivate an absolute aversion to doing this. How to stop being condescending? Well, it's a habit. And two things help with a habit. One is to be so horrified at the idea of doing the bad habit thing that you become hyper-aware of the possibility that you could be about to start doing it, and worse yet have already started doing it. And if the emotional linkage of pervasive dread is not enough incentive and reminder not to do it, then setting yourself a structure with goals should do the trick.

Figure out the times when you may be being condescending, and actively do the opposite until it becomes a habit. Talking to students about the third chapter in the text book? If you are not covering the actual material, try not to talk in a group more than ten percent of the time, and ask lots of leading questions, and do not react emotionally. Observe when you get the urge to reaction emotionally.

You've been trained to not speak up and ask, "Who is supposed to go first?" because often the first person to say, "I am," gets the prize. But that only applies in certain very limited simple situations like sperm competition. It definitely doesn't apply to teaching, or to being part of a team. With teaching you are trying to get them all to win. It might help also to think in terms of your win being a loss for the department or your win being a loss for the family. When you are a team player you don't plan on shooting all the goals no matter what position you are in. If you are getting all the goals it's not a game, it's you practicing shots and you're going to eventually notice that everyone else went home. If your wife takes a loss for you to take a win, the family is not getting anywhere, it's just getting weakened. You're not a team player. Seek to be a team player.

Remember that a guy who attempts to pull rank when he is actually the junior suffers a significant set back. If there are six guys in the department and two of them are in the running for a promotion and you go around telling everyone that you are sure to get it when they all know that you won't and if you tell the guy who is going to be your future boss, "When I am your boss I will be able to help you a lot..." you ensure that nothing you say or do when he is your boss is ever going to impress him as he has already written you off as too dumb to live.

That's basically what you have been doing because you have been mistaking your status for higher than it is. It doesn't matter how good you are at your job in this scenario because your social errors are bad enough to sink you. The root problem is making assumptions about other people. It's a type of faulty social awareness.

Part of why you got into this habit is because sometimes it works. If you barge to the front of the line many people will let you go ahead because the possible consequences of challenging an idiot are not worth it. So you've been doing this thinking that you are entitled to go first, and gotten worse and worse at figuring out precedence. The situation has moved from you taking your rightful position, to you asserting yourself to go first because someone has to, to you ignoring the fact that someone else has a better right to go first but hasn't had a chance to speak up, to you ignoring the people trying to tell you that you're breaking the rules, to you stepping in front of your boss and confidently telling him that you are taking his office for your own now. There were a lot of steps involved in this slippery slope and you'll need to backtrack on all of them.

"I think you'll find that if you actually read the material you will do very well..." That's how you sound when you are triggered into being condescending. But when you score points with these zingers you are actually scoring own goals. You want to learn to notice when you see an open goal and not try to score. You want to stop, not say anything and listen and get more information. There's a particular feeling at that moment - sometimes it's annoyance where you are feeling the urge to deflect or to block someone, sometimes it's eagerness for triumph. That's the second you are stepping into the trap.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:53 AM on January 11 [7 favorites]


Find ways to be a novice, to be embarrassed, to not be in charge.

Yeah, that was going to be my advice as well. I get the sense that you don't have enough experiences in your life where you felt like you were incorrect about something, or enough experiences where you felt like your expertise was unimportant. Having more experiences like that might make it easier for you to relate to the feelings that your colleagues have when you condescend to them.
posted by 23skidoo at 7:16 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


I know people of both genders like this and a lot of it is just false ego. Puff yourself up because you secretly feel small.

It's not really such a secret. These women probably see through you and realize you feel small. If they thought the arrogance wasn't overcompensating for fear of not being good enough, I doubt they would have tried to help you like this.

So, the answer is to face that fear of not being good enough and to put yourself in situations where you aren't good enough. Face the pain, the fear of humiliation, etc. Face the shame avoidance, because then you won't be so afraid of it you have to go on the offensive.

Instead of propping up the false image, pay better attention to the real fragile self under it. Work with that squishy part of you instead of living from pretense.
posted by crunchy potato at 7:51 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]


Lots of good suggestions.

I would add that you're trained to view knowledge as a commodity, as you are a gatekeeper to knowledge as your bread and butter. Consider reducing or eliminating the idea of a conversation being something which you gain or extract from, or that someone must gain and extract from you. This sort of capitalistic approach to conversations imbues them with a framework of domination. Consider conversation for play, where there are no "winners" and "losers", rather, an exchange between people to see what can be created together without expecting a gain or transactional exchange. Play in conversation is a big way to bond with people, become spontaneous, and feel more open and comfortable with yourself and others. Not everything has to contain the gravitas of the declaration of your mind's excellence, or even have a goal or endpoint such as what ought to be bought at the grocery store for dinner.
posted by erattacorrige at 9:53 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]


The best advice you can get is just be quiet for a while and listen. Especially when you think you’re about to make a killer point, or when you feel excitement at someone else being wrong.

I wanted to add one more thing, because your question and some of the points above about drinking and insecurity got me thinking more: lots of times, drinking provides a way for us to mute or soften the intensity of our emotions. Sober, what emotions would you feel if you were standing there listening to an argument on a topic you know a lot about and find interesting, and you were not allowed to participate and make all those incisive points you have to make? How would you feel if you weren’t able to illustrate your knowledge to others through argument and explanation? A lot of us (not just domineering men ;-)) might feel like our worth didn’t exist if we couldn’t prove it to others externally this way, by showing them what we know. But that’s not the case: you still know what you know. And even if you knew nothing (Jon Snow), you would still have worth as a person. Avoid the utilitarian/career mindset that your worth is what you know, and put more value in the way you treat others: kindness, listening, respect, curiosity. The funny thing is, when not occupied with our own insecurities and making sure others know we have value not as people but as people who know stuff, you stumble across the fact that lots of other people will say things you don’t expect—people who are usually quiet, or who just think differently.
posted by sallybrown at 9:58 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]


I had this problem at work as well. I am very accustomed to being smart, to being valued for being smart, for smartness being how I get respect and validation. I got this as feedback as a junior employee on a performance review - listen more, you don't need to prove that you know the answer, you need to hear what other people on the team are thinking and concerned with so that you can all reach the right decision together. So those are my bona fides to answer the question...

What helped: working as a team to solve a problem in an area where other people had expertise I did not have. Taking on tasks to learn things rather than to prove/solve/fix things. Assigning myself the role to aggregate information rather than to disseminate it - I'm here to learn what you experts all think and absorb all your different, conflicting opinions and make sense of it for myself.

In a social environment, the realization I can *just stop talking* has been life-changing, as mentioned above. But not for condescension. For condescension the big change has been cultivating a sense of curiosity and a habit of asking myself, after I walk away from a conversation, what did I learn about this person? What did I learn about their concerns, thoughts, beliefs, experiences?

Also, notice when you have a knee-jerk reaction "NO! THAT'S WRONG!" and feel like you need to interrupt and shout someone down. That's a place you're feeling threatened. You may be right to feel threatened - maybe they're expressing doubt about the scientific basis of climate change, or the value of education, or expressing a hope that the apocalypse will come soon and fix the world. But you will be more persuasive and more accurately engaged with the world if you can have a compassionate, person-to-person conversation.
posted by Lady Li at 10:49 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]


One more item, which pulled together all that for me. There's a workshop I took (through a continuing professional skills program) called "crucial conversations". You don't need to take the workshop, but you need to absorb one concept from it: getting people to stop arguing with you doesn't mean you've convinced them. It just means you've gotten them to give up on talking to you - worn them out, frustrated them, shouted them down, attacked them, generally made them decide the conversation isn't worth the effort.
posted by Lady Li at 10:58 AM on January 11 [10 favorites]


A couple-three suggestions I haven't seen yet:

- Some years ago, I was in a work situation where I needed to talk less. (Part of it was, yes, quite akin to the issues you have recognized in yourself. Part of it was -- not, and to avoid derailing I'll leave it there.) It helped me, in the moment (and there were many moments until I finally got out of that job), to have a physical token as a reminder, a symbol to myself of how I wanted myself to behave. I used a ring, which worked fine, but there are certainly plenty of other possibilities.

- Is there a way for you to pivot out of your existing subfield? What might that way be? A new collaboration, some new-to-you service work, teaching a colleague's course for a semester if they're on sabbatical, mentoring a new scholar in a different area, something else? I think that growing broader (rather than deeper) as a scholar -- with all the messy learning processes that implies -- might give you more humility, and weirdly, more security in your own place in the world.

- Kathleen Fitzpatrick's book Generous Thinking would be a good read for you right now, I think.

Good luck, and thanks for being willing to work on yourself. Not everybody is.
posted by humbug at 11:03 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]


Other actionable items:

If you ever feel like you want to start a sentence with “well actually,” don’t say the sentence.

If you’re about to restate something that a lady just said but you’re going to add an insight to it, try to phrase it like “I think Jane was right when she pointed out x and it made me think of y.” This way you’re crediting the original insight and adding to it instead of correcting it.

Spend some time around non academics who you like and talk about things where you feel you don’t have to prove anything (how are your kids/pets/hobbies?)

Invite other people who aren’t typically heard into conversation. “Octavia, you looked like you had something to say; what do you think about x?” You’re not only inviting them to speak but you’re inviting yourself to listen.

If you’re working with your peers try to assume that they are coming from an equally educated experience as you. They’ve probably read similar background material, studied similar subjects, and worked under similar experts. Academia can seem very competitive but in the end, you’re one department so it’s important to recognize that everyone in that department was hired because they were deemed eminently qualified.
posted by donut_princess at 11:06 AM on January 11 [8 favorites]


You’ve got to be more selfish! I’ll explain:

Counterintuitively, what you really need here is to become truly, deeply secure and content in who you are - and to become happier. Because the traits you want to change come from fear. You’re an animal and a mammal and snap responses to fear threats helped your ancestors survive, but late capitalism is a super different milieu. All the great stuff suggested above, which you should definitely do, has a cost, and you need a fund from which to pay that cost. The correcting and the self aggrandisement are sticking plasters on a base unhappiness and enacting them will never make you happy. Hard therapy work and profound life changes that actually make your life meet your true needs are what’s going to give you that fund, that deep wellspring of self, and the resources to step back and listen. Your body and mind need to know that you will consciously do what it takes to benefit them, and they won’t yammer in your ear to challenge or correct or aggrandise if they know that. You may need to make BIG and courageous changes - new jobs, new relationships, new lifestyles - to find one in which you feel safe and content.

Also, learning to identify your emotions and learning distress tolerance skills will help you identify discomfort in the moment and give you a chance to stop, think, and apply the techniques described above.
posted by The Last Sockpuppet at 3:19 PM on January 11 [4 favorites]


Make a concerted attempt to "lose" every conversation for the next week, or two weeks, or day, or [set length of time] and see what thoughts arise in your head. And then start identifying those thoughts.

I realize not all conversations are win/lose, and I realize that other people are frequently wrong. But if people are telling you you are condescending (wow*) you must be seeing that people like thing A, and pointing out to them that thing B is better, and/or that they are wrong about A. For the purposes of this exercise, when a person likes thing A, you say "Yeah, it's pretty good, what do you like most about it?" Do not mention thing B, or why thing A is bad.

This will feel unnatural. WHY? Identify why this feels unnatural, and you will have something proper to grapple with. And then come back and tell us all what progress you made!

*When I deal with condescending people I *never* tell them they are condescending, I just write them off. These people who have told you about this must think you are fixable. That's quite a gift.
posted by Vatnesine at 8:20 PM on January 11 [7 favorites]


A lot of good advice here: a specific tip that might do some good, as well. A big part of how conversationally aggressive men get treated differently from women in conversation is that people generally, men and women, are much readier to let a man take a conversational turn than they are to let a woman. If a man and a woman start speaking at the same time, people around them focus on the man and the woman is expected to give way.

So, pay attention to women trying to get heard. Look for them in groups, face them and listen when they start talking, actively pass the conversational ball to them. It’s not only about talking less yourself, that can end up with you receding behind other pushy men and the overall dynamic not changing. If you’ve got control of the floor, consciously pay attention to actively handing it off to someone who wouldn’t get heard otherwise.
posted by LizardBreath at 8:57 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]


And yes, while you’ve got problems, you should be encouraged that multiple people have thought there was a chance that talking to you about being condescending would help. Most condescending guys, it’s obviously hopeless, but you’re somehow projecting that you’re interested in improving your behavior and you might be able to pull it off.
posted by LizardBreath at 8:59 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


I read somewhere that "You can be right, or you can be loved," and while there are obvious limitations to that, it bears considering.

On January 2, I lamented about the Iran situation with something like "Another war, only 2 days into the new decade." A (male) friend probably pulled a muscle LEAPING into the convo to let me know that ACTUALLY, it's not a new decade. People dear to my heart are Persian and some of them are living in Tehran. Fuck that pedantry.

Don't be that guy. We're rooting for you.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 4:30 PM on January 12 [7 favorites]


I gesture a lot when I speak so if my head has decided it’s not prudent for me to speak anymore, for whatever reason, literally sitting on my hands, or otherwise making sure that both of them are truly occupied, can help my mouth follow through on my mind’s intentions.
posted by Salamandrous at 4:20 PM on January 19


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