I feel patronized a lot.
December 10, 2021 2:18 AM   Subscribe

I often feel patronized by others. I think some of it is people intentionally being patronizing, some of it is because I must put out signals saying "patronize me", and some of it is probably me being extra-sensitive to it and probably reading into things too much. Looking for strategies to help me overcome this, and ways of reframing how I think. I am a gay male who is not entirely gender conforming and a lot of the advice out there is aimed at women or at straight alpha males, which I sometimes find difficult to navigate.

I do realise that there are a lot of things I do that are probably subconsciously "inviting" people (men and women) to (what I see as) patronize me.

[in the past, I used to 'attract' workplace bullies quite a lot, which I think is linked].

I do lack self-confidence and have been working on it with a therapist, as well as general self-help stuff. I think this lack of self-confidence is very apparent to others. I'm a bit hesitant and timid and need reassuring a lot. I hope that continuing to work on my confidence will have a positive impact.

I think I may also maybe need to update the way I dress. I dress a bit casually, maybe by dressing a bit more formally (maybe some leather shoes instead of sporty shoes, for example) will help.

Maybe also working out more, building muscle would do some good. But that partly feels like I'm buying into the stereotype that men need to be big and strong and manly, I don't know.

Also, maybe I need to reframe the way I think when I feel that I'm being patronized. For example, recently someone parroted back what I said and then laughed. I found this patronizing, but maybe it was just their way of connecting with me?

Is there anything else that could help me? Anything I could read?
posted by iamsuper to Human Relations (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure that I completely understand what you mean by "patronizing". The example you've given sounds more like they were mocking you rather than patronizing you, but I'm not sure what the context might have been so I can't be completely sure...are you comfortable mentioning a couple more examples?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:51 AM on December 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

Self confidence is huge and as you mention will unfortunately attract people positively or negatively.

Lifting and working out can definitely be something that builds both physical and mental strength so I wouldn't knock it as a stereotype. Just make sure to find a supportive gym if you go out for your workouts.
posted by aetg at 4:18 AM on December 10, 2021 [6 favorites]

I (early 40s, straight male) have struggled with some of these issues throughout my life, particularly with workplace relationships - I manage clients who as a group of people can be very demanding and pushy.

What helped me was two things. First, simply getting older and being able to depersonalize some of the interactions - I know it sounds like a cop-out, but realizing that it is not always about me and often is more about the other person's insecurity. Also, if you make a conscious effort to improve your self confidence, as you get older you should begin to accumulate experiences and complete challenges that put the lie to your negative self perception.

Second, really working on accepting myself, being comfortable with who I am, and trying to live a balanced life where I am not dependent on any one relationship or environment to be fulfilled.

And a bonus third, trying my best to avoid jobs, relationships, or situations which seem to be filled with bullies. Sometimes your sixth sense can just tell - I probably wouldn't take a high pressure sales job for instance.

It is a tough place to be. You have my sympathies.
posted by fortitude25 at 4:26 AM on December 10, 2021 [11 favorites]

Also - I second some type of physical exercise routine, whether at home or the gym. It's hard to explain but it really does wonders to your psychology.
posted by fortitude25 at 4:27 AM on December 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: In response to Empress's comment: I am struggling now to think of specific examples, but I just often find that people talk to me as if I am stupid or as if they feel sorry for me. People are often shocked when I know basic things, or when I order an alcoholic drink or something. (I don't look young or anything). Not everyone of course, just some people. I think people are generally well-meaning when they do this, I don't think they're trying to be mean. I'm also open to the idea that maybe I'm just imagining it?

I can think of a couple of times in my late 20s where people have patted me on the head or sort of pinched my cheek, although that hasn't happened in a while.
posted by iamsuper at 4:31 AM on December 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

It's not you, it's the patriarchy.

Everybody who doesn't look like an alpha male gets belittled. That's the rule. And it's rigorously enforced, including by all kinds of people who don't look like alpha males, because that's the rule.

Basically it's all about insecurity and emptiness in alpha males, but the fuckers run the joint, so what are ya gonna do?
posted by flabdablet at 5:18 AM on December 10, 2021 [16 favorites]

I think an important thing to remember is that most people are only seeing a tiny sliver of "you" - so much of of what makes you you is internal, or in your past, or happens in an environment where these people just don't see you. People kind of build an idea of who you are based on this very incomplete information about you combined with their own ideas about people-in-general and the world. (I guarantee you do this too!)

Like, for a low-stakes version I have had people (multiple people!) who I have known for YEARS tell me they thought I was a music teacher (I am a software developer). There are other people who assume that I have been a software developer since I was in college and are surprised to learn that my major was biology (honey, I would be long-retired by now if I'd been a dev since 1999).

So for starters I would just try to not put too much stock in what other people think about you - we all get things wrong about other people ALL THE TIME. So when someone's shocked that you order an alcoholic drink, instead of seeing that as some kind of judgement against you, maybe you can see it as an opportunity to give them more information about yourself? (Like, "Yeah, I'm actually a gin aficionado and I was excited to see this bottle behind the bar!" or "I always have a drink at work happy hours, I'm surprised you never caught me before!")

Anyway all the stuff people are saying about "depersonalizing" these kinds of interactions is right on: it really isn't about you. You're probably not imagining anything, and people probably are making things weird, but you might also be letting these kinds of interactions/incidents be more important than they need to be.

(For context I'm a white woman in my 40s and conventionally attractive, big emphasis on the "conventional" part most of the time - you would be hard-pressed to pick me out of a lineup after meeting me once or twice. I think I'm basically a blank slate for people.)
posted by mskyle at 5:57 AM on December 10, 2021 [8 favorites]

Don't beat yourself up too much for inviting that treatment or whatever. I'm kind of a dumbass so people sometimes treat me like a dumbass, even when I might happen to know what I'm about, but (along with learning to be a little more assertive and less reflexively self-effacing), I've made peace with this by assuming good will from nearly everyone. Obviously if someone just can't see a social boundary and repeatedly walks all over it that's a good sign to try to avoid interacting much with that person.

Also the time-tested solution for this problem that queers have found is a bitchy affect. It's certainly not a performance that comes naturally, and you don't want to have to employ it all the time, but I think it's useful to let the bastards know you keep that switchblade on you.
posted by jy4m at 6:03 AM on December 10, 2021 [7 favorites]

I'm struck when you say you 'need reassuring a lot' in the same post where you make clear that you hate being patronized. To me, being reassured when I need it feels great, but being reassured when I'm handling things just fine, thank you, feels patronizing. If I were close to you and wanted to be a supportive friend, would I be able to tell when my reassurance is welcome and when it's not?

You mention that one approach is developing more self-confidence, but an additional one might be trying to vocalize more when you're seeking reassurance and when it's unwelcome. If some of those patronizing comments could be reframed as clumsy attempts at support, can you help give the people around you better insight into how to support you well?
posted by Ausamor at 6:43 AM on December 10, 2021 [23 favorites]

I love the advice here. But I’m going to encourage you to consider doing a year or so of martial arts at a non-competitive academy. The physical training (including traditional bowing etc) is super likely to change your body language. After a year or two of training I was in a very toxic workplace where the CEO yelled at everyone in my department - but me. And I’m not an expert (although full disclose, I now work in the back office.)
posted by warriorqueen at 8:01 AM on December 10, 2021 [6 favorites]

For handling things in the moment, any strategies for handling offensive remarks might work here as well, so asking them to repeat themselves, or explain what they mean, or just look baffled and not say anything, or ask them why they would say this, or just say "what a strange thing to say", or raise an eyebrow, basically signalling that you don't understand why they would address you this way.

For mansplaining or other patronizing behavior, the attitude of just being baffled why someone would do that and resulting reactions can work here as well, in my unfortunately extensive experience as a woman in STEM but at least it doesn't occur often with people that I've had more interactions with; it's mostly with those I've not met before and they only have the schema of what a knowledgable and capable person looks like, apparently my apparent demographic properties are not congruent with that, and that's all the info they have about me at that point. In some contexts it takes some dropping of evidence of competence to speed up the process.

Besides the patriarchy, I've also noticed that incompatible sense of humor can lead to the same effect, also varying with cultural context. In some settings, my communication style of sometimes exaggerating or twisting statements slightly to squeeze out a drop of joy in the absurdity of life gets interpreted as me misunderstanding reality and I get reality explained to me quite patiently. Same for any ironic or sarcastic touches, if they don't arrive it's clearly because I need an explanation of how things actually are. YMMV.

Also, many instances of being condescended to don't actually add up to better self-esteem, but being able to distance myself a bit and observing the dynamic actually does, as it has nothing to do with my qualifications. Note that the example strategies I listed don't actually have high self-esteem as a prerequisite, just acting puzzled.
posted by meijusa at 9:55 AM on December 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

Given your assessment that "I think people are generally well-meaning when they do this, I don't think they're trying to be mean." I'm seconding mskyle and Ausamor. People get things wrong about other people all the time, and if we are defaulting to being kind and supportive and nurturing, then we'll get things wrong by over-explaining, over-sympathizing, and so on, especially if in general we think we are giving you reassurance and support that you need or want. So here are some thoughts in case they help you deal with other people's clumsiness.

Your question leads me to try to define what it means to patronize -- I would usually use the phrase "condescend to". To me, it's condescending if someone who knows or ought to know that I am capable/knowledgable regarding something, or who ought not assume that I am incapable/ignorant, treats me as though I am incapable/ignorant, or is perceptibly surprised when I am capable/knowledgeable. So, for instance, given that I am an expert in my particular field of open source software, if someone was talking with me and already knew that I'm experienced in this field, it would be condescending for them to suggest that I take an introductory class in contributing to open source. Depending on their tone and phrasing, it might be condescending for them to directly ask whether I have a particular skill, so it might be incumbent upon them to either avoid making an assumption and proceed regardless, or to find a courteous and inclusive way to inquire -- one that neither insults me through condescension, nor overwhelms/intimidates me if it turns out I don't have that skill. And condescending to someone is an insult, and insults are worse when they're in front of other people, especially people in whose perception I wish to have status.

Does that kind of definition work for you and cover the kinds of interactions that are bothering you? Or is there something else bothering you here?

I think it might help you to try to think systematically about instances when you had an interaction in which you felt patronized, and then think deeper about what bothered you. And consider how the other person could have acted in a way that would have felt more respectful to you, given what they knew, should have known, or should/should not have assumed about you.

I think it might also help you to get concrete about what "basic" and "shocked" mean in "People are often shocked when I know basic things" -- it could be that you're misunderstanding how skilled and knowledgable you are relative to local averages, and it could be that you're reading a mild "oh I need to update what I'm saying per the Gricean maxim of quantity" course correction as shock. Or you could be right and your local environment has people who make a lot of poor assumptions and don't seem to learn to stop doing so!
posted by brainwane at 10:51 AM on December 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

There’s a great new series called “Sort Of” with a trans nonbinary queer lead character who gets patronized a lot, partly because of other people projecting their gender confusion / gender aggression (race also plays into the dynamic). You may enjoy seeing it for validation and to get ideas for responses.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 12:12 PM on December 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

I am a woman, and used to be a young woman, so I have been patronized a lot over the years. I love it. It makes me laugh, though sometimes I try to hold that in, if it's a senior work colleague or boss, for example. I think, in the words of Bugs Bunny, "he don't know me very well, do he?" I think, in the words of Jesus Christ, "What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter." Even Bugs and Jesus were underestimated, and so am I. So much the better!
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 12:23 PM on December 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

I was shocked in my 30s to find that even people in fields where "professional looks" aren't supposed to be important... totally subconsciously respond to professional looks. After an Ivy-league PhD friend (also a woman) got hugely different results when she changed a few things, like her briefcase/purse and clothing, I started doing a bit of that, too. And people who should Absolutely know better (myself included!) will react differently when you look a bit more like a boss.

And I, by no means, look or act like a boss. I was a dumpy, kinda butch, insecure young woman, and aged into mostly dumpy and middle-aged. But! Having some of the accoutrements of bosses (I specced out a few women in senior leadership and tried to be a Little more like them, looks and voice-wise) made me have more confidence when speaking at work, and made others listen more attentively/respectfully.

Not unrelatedly, I also lifted a bunch of weight, got therapy, and got more self-confidence in other ways around the same time. In the meantime, faking-it-till-you-make-it can make other folks respond to you in Such better ways, which can be a positive feedback loop of confidence and respectful treatment.
posted by ldthomps at 4:46 PM on December 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

And people who should Absolutely know better (myself included!) will react differently when you look a bit more like a boss

...because that's the rule.
posted by flabdablet at 6:05 PM on December 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

"Sort Of" is a wonderful show. It's sooo good. Queer non-binary BIPOC as the main character of a show living their life, that isn't ALL about their identity, shot in Toronto, my hometown? Hell yes! Everyone should watch this show.

people who should Absolutely know better (myself included!) will react differently when you look a bit more like a boss.
This reminds me a lot of the show What Not to Wear on TLC. People would get wardrobe makeovers and once they were shown that they could look really good, they felt better about themselves, had more self-respect and confidence. Other people did react to them in a more positive way. The outward transformations were quite remarkable, but maybe more so were the internal ones. It was quite inspiring. Caveat: the vast majority of people on the show were women and the stylists, Stacey and Clinton were pretty heteronormative in their approach to dressing the women.

In a similar vein, I like this thinking from Sikh-Canadian politician, Jagmeet Singh: "I realized that people would stare at me because I stood out... Being stared at makes you feel self-conscious. I felt that if people are going to stare at me, I might as well give them something to look at. [laughs] I saw it as a chance to transform an awkward situation into an opportunity to show people who I really am. I wanted to show that I was confident and sure of myself—that I wasn’t afraid of who I was. That confidence fought off some of the stereotypes and prejudice I encountered."

Anyway, about this: "I'm a bit hesitant and timid and need reassuring a lot." It would be worth digging into this and figuring out where it comes from, in which situations you feel this, with whom, etc. I can imagine that this type of energy *could* attract the bullies, or maybe result in the patronizing attitudes you see from other people. Dealing with people who have low confidence tends to create more emotional labour for people, in terms of having to reassure you, and not knowing what you need to feel better. The world benefits from you having more self-confidence, so don't be afraid to have confidence. Easier said than done, I know!

Also, in terms of building muscle - don't workout for the sole person of building muscle. Workout so you can feel better about yourself and be healthier.
posted by foxjacket at 6:12 PM on December 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

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