22 Jan 2024

Don't Patronise Me

It’s hard to be patronised. Being condescended to, made to feel stupid, incompetent or inadequate, is a form of bullying. It can happen socially, in the workplace, in relationships. It frequently happens when we have dealings with professionals, such as doctors or lawyers, who feel that their specialised knowledge gives them a measure of superiority. Older people, especially if they are frail and vulnerable, are patronised on a daily basis because their carers make assumptions about them and consistently underestimate them, which can be very demeaning.

‘Talking down’ to other people from a position of perceived authority, presuming to ‘explain’ when no explanation is needed or sought, can make targets feel that they are not worthy of respect. This undermining behaviour can very quickly poison the atmosphere in a workplace or sour a partnership and turn it toxic.

If you feel you are being patronised, stay calm and collected and don’t react emotionally. If the behaviour persists, explicitly call the offender out – if it helps, you can use a semi-jocular tone. Or you could, in a tone of disingenuous curiosity, try saying “I’m not sure what you’re trying to tell me. I already understand xxxxxx. Is there something else you want to say to me?”

Are you Patronising?

Look out for these tell-tale signs:

•Do you feel an irresistible urge to correct people who you perceive to be wrong, whatever the circumstances?

•Do you often preface your sentences with the following: “Technically”, “In actual fact”, “I think you’ll find”, “Obviously”?

•Are you an inveterate interrupter, who interjects with their opinions and tends to take over the conversation?

•Do you enjoy bombarding people with obscure facts and nuggets of information because you think it will make you appear knowledgeable and well-informed?

•Is it very important to your sense of self that you come across as highly intelligent, impressive and super-competent?

•Do you tend to make the assumption that most people you meet are less intelligent that you, and much more shallow and ineffective?

If you are beginning to recognise some of your traits, then it is time to think about ways of amending your behaviour. Being patronising is never going to make you popular socially or in the workplace. Any behaviour that focuses on highlighting other people’s inferiority is the antithesis of good manners, which are all about nurturing the people around you and making them feel good about themselves.

How to Stop Being Patronising

•Hone your listening skills.

If you actually take the time to really hear what people are saying to you (rather than distractedly rehearsing your next remark), you might actually realise that there are signs of intelligent, well-informed life out there, and even come to the realisation that most people do not need your condescending assistance and explanations.

•Practise humility

Instead of gloating about your superiority, revelling in your success and being smug about positive feedback, try and be a bit humbler. If somebody compliments you, don’t complacently take it as your due; try and show genuine pleasure and thank them warmly. If you succeed at a competitive game, or achieve an outstanding coup at work, don’t revel triumphantly in your victory, try and adopt more of a “you win some, you lose some” or “I was really lucky” attitude.

You will soon find that being self-deprecating is a good way of winning friends and admirers.

•Cut the criticism

You probably find it all too easy to pick holes in other people’s work or achievements, but you may have noticed that this leaves people feeling deflated and discouraged.

Instead, try and concentrate on always finding something positive to say. If somebody bakes you a cake that has collapsed, don’t say “well you obviously took it out of the oven too soon” (patronising); instead say “the icing is delicious!” (positive).

•Up the encouragement

Try and get behind other people’s aspirations. Even if you think that they are deluded and are destined to fail, consider that you may well be wrong and, in any case, they are trying to achieve something, which should be applauded.

So don’t spell out all the ways in which you think they’re likely to fail (patronising); praise the effort, rather than focusing on the results (positive).

•Ask before you advise

If somebody comes to you with a problem, you may well see the solution with the utmost clarity. But don’t just launch into a lecture about the “obvious” ways in which they can help themselves. Always politely ask people if they would like your advice and listen attentively to their response (sometimes people say they want advice just to be friendly and polite). They may have come to you for emotional support and a sympathetic listening ear, rather than pragmatic problem-solving.

All too often unsolicited advice will come across as patronising – you know what should be done and are condescending to share your insight, which reinforces your own sense of superiority. Remember, not everyone is seeking enlightenment when they talk about their problems with you. They may well find that talking about their problems is all that is necessary – solutions often emerge from this process.

If you do offer advice, try and come up with tentative suggestions (“have you thought about….?” or “do you think it would be a good idea to?...”), rather than peremptory statements (“Obviously, you should….” or “The best idea is to…”).

•Give credit where credit is due

It’s not all about you, and you will come across as much less pleased with yourself and self-satisfied if you openly acknowledge the role other people have played in your success. So, resist the temptation to simply revel in praise and approbation and think carefully about the crucial ways in which other people have helped you.

If colleagues and friends feel that you have truly accepted their contribution, and that you value it, they’re much less likely to feel patronised by you, or resent the fact that you’re lording it over them.

•Don’t make assumptions

A lot of patronising behaviour has its roots in a tendency to make belittling assumptions about people’s experience, capacity and expertise. Under-estimating people or assuming they’re ignorant will lead you into very dangerous waters. You might, for example, find yourself painstakingly explaining a subject to an author who has just written an authoritative book on the subject or giving DIY tips to someone who has been a builder for the last thirty years.

This is both embarrassing and insulting and could easily be avoided if you just politely ask, “do you know about X?” first. Alternatively, you could remind yourself that launching, unprompted, into impromptu lectures and haranguing audiences about subjects in which you feel you have expertise, are not really very effective ways of engaging in the give and take of conversation.


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