Complaining. Bragging. Saying “natch” instead of naturally. There’s a long list of irritating behaviors. But there is perhaps none that can boil the blood faster than condescension. Talking down to someone immediately makes a person seem arrogant and, frankly, assholish. Even if it’s unintentional, patronizing or condescending behavior just has a way of setting off our internal triggers like no other because it can make us feel silly or inferior.
“When someone demonstrates a pattern of condescension, it’s showing a need for power, to keep people feeling small so they feel bigger,” says Joni Siani, a communications and media professor at Manhattanville College. “It stems from that person’s insecurity.”
It’s easy to sense when someone is being condescending. It’s much harder to sense when we’re doing it ourselves. Whether we realize it or not, we’re all guilty of acting superior from time to time. It might stem from an excitement in knowing an answer. It might come from the fact that you’re used to explaining things in very simple terms to children. It might come from a fear that not being able to explain something makes you seem out of place at your job or within your family. It might be your tone of voice, body language, or tendency to insert the words “actually” or “just” into sentences. And, actually, you might just do it on purpose to feel superior to someone. (See what we did there?)
Since it can really, really, rub people the wrong way, it’s good to be aware of some habits that make you seem patronizing or condescending.
Using the World “Actually…” Too Often
When at the beginning of a statement, “actually” portends an uninvited correction, as in, “Actually, it’s pronounced es-press-oh — no ‘x.’” Unless you’re being asked to provide expertise, it’s good to be aware of when you insert your insights. However well-intended that may be, they come across the wrong way.
“The motivation for ‘actually’ is, ‘Look at me, I’m smarter than you,’” says John Crossman, CEO of Crossman Career Builders who coaches job-seekers and companies on hard conversations. “The exact details of what someone says in most conversations don’t really matter, so let them talk. It’s not the time to nit-pick.”
Raising Your Voice
The volume or pitch of our voice drastically changes how we are perceived. Saying “Aha!” when you figure out something on your own? That’s much different than saying, “Typo!” at a louder-than-normal volume when you’ve found a mistake in a co-worker’s email. “Any level of heightened speech — loud or higher-pitched — can be off-putting,” Crossman says. It’s good to show enthusiasm. But it’s good to be aware of when you might be modulating your voice in a way that sends the wrong message.
Using “Yeah, Right” And Other Sarcastic Phrases
It’s simple: Making sarcastic comments like “yeah, right,” “whatever,” “really,” and “pfft” are subtle, condescending ways to say, “You’re lying” or “I don’t believe you know that.” “It’s very cutting,” Crossman says. Not to mention they offer no insight.
This is a hard habit to break, particularly for men. While interrupting someone might be appropriate in some contexts— say, asking for clarification on a point — butting in with comments is often unwelcome. By doing so, you’re telling someone: what I have to say is more important than what you have to say.
“When you cut someone off, you’re squashing that person’s enthusiasm,” Siani says. “The worst thing you can do to someone telling a story or getting ready to tell a joke is say, ‘I heard this already.’ Even if it’s something you’ve heard before, exercise patience and allow them to tell it.”
Using the Word “Just”
For some of us, “just” is the text or email equivalent of “um” in spoken communication — a subconscious tic to pad what we’re saying. But like “um,” adding “just” undermines the intent of your message. Consider “I’m writing to check in on you” versus “I’m just writing to check in on you.” Worse, using “just” to belittle someone’s feelings or experience — as in “Its just a minor setback” — is a classic for of invalidation. “That’s very hurtful,” Crossman says. “’Just’ doesn’t take in the loss that someone feels.”
Saying “I’m Sorry You Feel That Way.”
Empathizing and validating someone’s feelings can be a thoughtful thing to do in conversation. But saying something along the lines of “I’m sorry you feel that way” is unhelpful and condescending.
“It’s very dismissive,” Crossman says. If you’re telling a carpenter you’re not satisfied with how he put your cabinets in, and he responds, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” the underlying message is he’s not going to work to rectify the situation. Instead, Crossman suggests saying something like, ‘I’m sorry to hear that. How can I help?’ “The difference is that you’re allowing them to have their feelings, but indicating that you’re also willing to work together to make it right,” he says.
Saying “Lighten Up”
As with “just,” “lighten up” and other similar phrases negate the feelings of the person attempting to communicate with you. “It may seem benign,” Siani says, “but what you’re saying is, ‘Your feelings are unimportant to me. I’m not honoring how you feel. I have no time for your thoughts.’”
Texting During a Conversation
The way to avoid being condescending is by paying attention. It’s all about ensuring the person you’re with feels understood. There is no way to do that if you’re distracted by an incoming text, especially if you’re replying to said text. “When someone’s speaking and you’re not giving them your attention, that’s condescending,” Siani says. “Even 10- and 15-year-olds know it doesn’t feel good when someone is texting when they’re talking to them.”
Cracking Jokes At the Wrong Time
There is a time and place for humor—most times and most places, in fact. But there are times when making a joke is uncalled-for—not inappropriate, per se, but unnecessary and potentially condescending. “Men don’t have always have the skillset to sit in their feelings,” Crossman says. “When things get deep, they’ll make a joke.”
Crossman attended an event to honor his old running coach, and one of the runners—who went on to be an Olympian—was telling an emotional story about how important the coach had been to him. The old coach, made uncomfortable by the tale, blurted out a joke. “He couldn’t handle how heavy the story was,” says Crossman. Be aware when someone’s trying to make a statement and deal with the emotions rather than make a joke to distract yourself.
Condescension is about trying to demonstrate some power over others, whether intended or not, and ultimately shows insecurity rather than strength. Regardless of your word choice, it’s crucial to be mindful of the real goal of conversation: to understand and to be understood.
“People don’t remember the words you use,” Siani says. “They remember how you make them feel.” If you are often accused of being condescending or simply recognize some patterns and trying to change that and build relationships, you must make a conscious choice to understand the people you are around.