“It’s hard to be receptive to the moralistic scolding and patronizing encouragement offered endlessly by the allegedly well-meaning.”Tom Shales, American critic
Just the mere mention of the word “patronizing” gets my hackles up.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word “patronize” as “to speak to or behave towards someone as if they are stupid or not important.” Similarly, Oxford Languages defines it as “to treat in a way that is apparently kind or helpful but that betrays a feeling of superiority.”
Am I Stupid, or What?
I’ve certainly felt patronized before. “Mansplaining,” in particular, annoys me. It irks me if a man speaks on my behalf. It’s even worse if he does it because he assumes that I don’t know anything about cars, electricity, tools, or technology, and that his knowledge is superior. And worse still is when a man lies to me because he thinks that I won’t know the difference anyway.
Recently, we had a solar power system installed at our house. While I was busy downloading the app that you need to manage the system, the project manager literally took my phone out of my hand and said, “Let me do it, I know how.”
After a moment of stunned silence, I asked him to give me my phone back, and added that I found his behavior disrespectful. He quickly mansplained, “Most women struggle to do it, so I thought I’d save you time.” In his mind he was being kind. In my mind he was completely out of line.
The next day the electricity started tripping. So I phoned the project manager, explained the issue, and said that I thought something wasn’t earthed properly. Mr Project Manager offered a number of ludicrous explanations, such as that the pool pump had suddenly developed a fault. I knew that couldn’t be the case by a process of elimination, as I’d already tested all the switches on the distribution board.
After a visit from the electrician, it turned out that it was indeed an earthing problem. And the apology from Mr Project Manager? Well, let’s just say I’m still waiting.
Mental Health and Being Patronized
My friend Bobby lives with PTSD. In his own words, “I couldn’t stop crying! I had no reason to cry, but the tears kept flowing. I had to leave my office. I was worried and scared. I felt like I was going crazy. I headed for an empty boardroom where I wouldn’t disturb anyone else, and I could try to think of what I should do.”
While he was making calls to mental health associations to find help, his manager came in and asked what was wrong. Bobby didn’t know. The manager, trained in mental health, started to empathize with him. She asked what she could do to help.
He recalls, “I said I didn’t know. Her concern was palpable. Then the patronizing started. She began to tell me everything would be OK, and that I just needed to get ahold of myself.”
She wanted to maintain a businesslike workplace, and it wasn’t a priority to help Bobby. To make matters worse, she went and told everybody that he was dealing with “personal issues.” Until then, they hadn’t noticed he was gone.
“Patting me on the back and offering ‘there, there’ is not a solution, and just made me feel worse.”
He manages his PTSD well now, but he’s learned who to trust with his illness, and who will simply pat his back and tell him that “everything will be OK.”
Being Patronizing Toward an Addict
Mandy’s a recovering alcoholic. Her account of how she’s patronized is jarring.
She explains, “Even after all these years, I still find it annoying when people ‘do my thinking for me.’ As a grateful recovering alcoholic, I appreciate the support and encouragement I have received (and still do) from others. What I do not appreciate is when people try to manage me or the situation when I am around. That does not feel kind or supportive. It feels controlling and patronizing.”
She says that people assume they know what’s best for her and attempt to control things, all by way of “protecting” her. She’s had experiences where people either hid the fact that they were drinking alcohol or did not drink in front of her. And that was even when she’d explained to them that it’s her responsibility to manage herself, and that she would remove herself from the situation if it became uncomfortable.
At other times, people have insisted on her drinking the nonalcoholic version of something so that she doesn’t feel left out. She says, “What I find patronizing is their insistence for me to drink something just so that they feel as if I am part of the group. It is for their benefit and not mine. Even if the drinks do not contain alcohol, they still taste like the one that I used to drink.”
Being Patronizing in an Organization
The organization Dulcie worked for was planning to launch a new product category into their stores. She had to manage the training and change management for their frontline associates for a product that most of them knew nothing about, and one that was governed by strict government regulations.
Dulcie had to build the project and change-management plan, as well as lead the learning design and execution (which were not her boss’s strengths). As a senior manager in HR, and with years of experience in designing learning programs, the project was an excellent fit for her particular skill set. On this project, she reported directly to her VP.
He had no background in learning, yet insisted on being present when she met with the learning vendors. When discussing objectives and design elements with vendors, Dulcie’s boss often challenged or overruled her. He blocked her from engaging other project stakeholders, and didn’t invite her to key project meetings. She had to find other ways to get the critical information that she needed.
She recalls, “When members of the senior project team asked why I wasn’t at the meeting, what was I to say? Meanwhile, I was the one who prepared the project updates and executed the administrative details. This is what my role on the project had become, at least from my boss’s perspective. The whole experience was demeaning.”
The #BLM movement has done much to drive forward conversations about race, equality and equity over the past year. But this has also opened up discussions about “savior behavior.”
This is behavior that might seem kind, but can also be (and often is) patronizing. It’s the “you won’t survive if it wasn’t for me” or “you will never get this right without my help” type of attitude. It’s insidious, and does nobody good apart from the “savior” for whom it’s often just an ego-boosting exercise.
The stories above clearly illustrate that patronizing behavior can take many different forms. We don’t all experience it the same, it doesn’t always present itself in the same way, and people’s sensitivity to specific issues can differ significantly.
Are You Kind or Patronizing – and How Do You Know?
During the #MTtalk Twitter chat last Friday, we talked about the difference between being kind and being patronizing. Here are the questions we asked and some of your most insightful responses:
Q1. What does it mean to be patronizing?
@PdJen For me it’s to talk to someone in a tone that suggests they don’t understand something as well as you do, even though they do. Sometimes the person being patronizing is actually the one who knows less!
@Jake_pryszlak You think you are being really nice but actually you think you are bigger than someone else. I feel like you typically see this when the younger generation can think of cool and new ideas, but someone else may want to show superiority.
Q2. When do you experience an action as “kind,” and when do you experience it as “patronizing?”
@JKatzaman An action is kind if it feels like both parties are on equal footing. Patronizing makes you feel like you’re back in kindergarten.
@SustainedLeader Kind people act from their heart without any expectation in return; in fact, they often give knowing the other person cannot reciprocate. Patronizing people expect a parade & great public recognition for their supposed kindness, like getting their name on a building!
Q3. When was the last time you felt patronized? What happened?
@llake This question hits a hot spot. I am patronized frequently in higher education settings. As though a PhD in a specific topic trumps my knowledge & expertise in the topic we’re together to discuss. They aren’t even cognizant that they do it.
@bluesummitsupp I recently felt very patronized in a professional roundtable on Zoom – I shared something I was working on, and was shut down with a lengthy list of reasons why that was a waste of time. This came from people who didn’t know anything about my business or goals.
Q4. How does it feel when you’re being patronized? Why does it make you feel that way?
@ZalkaB Usually like a child scolded or a toddler that needs to be put in his/her space. It’s usually connected to the fact that it’s humiliating, especially when it’s done publicly or in front or a bigger audience.
@lg217 The feeling sucks when you are patronized. I feel like people take what I am saying and either dismiss it or turn [it in] a negative way. It’s never good when you speak your mind and people don’t take it seriously and just push it aside like it’s nothing.
Q5. Do you think that some people are more likely to find something patronizing? And if so, why?
@Yolande_MT Yes, and I’m one of them. I’m very sensitive to being patronized by men who think women know nothing about technical, electrical or mechanical subjects.
@sentientones Comments on complexion and abilities are more likely to be found patronizing.
Q6. When have you caught yourself being patronizing toward someone else? What happened?
@MicheleDD_MT With a person who was much younger than I & with little experience. As soon as the words came out, I apologized.
@DhongdeSupriya Under the pretext of help, the tendency to rescue.
Q7 Why is “savior behavior” patronizing? How can you still be helpful without falling into the trap of “savior behavior”?
@HloniphileDlam7 Savior behavior can make it difficult for those being helped to make [their] own decisions.
@ColfaxInsurance The idea that the other person can’t handle their own problems/life and that you are sacrificing something to help them – in a lot of cases time or money. Let the other person come to their own rescue first – a lot of times we have to hit bottom before going back up.
Q8. How does patronizing behavior affect employees in the workplace?
@Dwyka_Consult If someone patronizes me I find it very difficult to trust them. Without trust, the workplace becomes harsh terrain.
@Midgie_MT It undermines their abilities. Plus, detrimental to the morale by always telling people how to do their jobs, which they already know how to do.
Q9. What could you do to avoid being patronizing when delivering feedback or advice?
@TwinkleEduCons Pose it as a question (“Have you thought of… ?”) and be mindful of manner, tone and approach. Often if we are clear about our intention when we communicate something, we won’t come across as patronizing. Communicate without ego or a need to “prove.”
@SustainedLeader A leader always builds their team up and gives them challenging assignments that might well be above their current capability level, but you have to let them grow. Delegating to others shows your confidence in them and helps them grow. Patronizing kills that.
Q10. How can you deal with someone who is being patronizing toward you or others?
@SizweMoyo I usually respond by questioning the parts I find patronizing – “what do you mean by __?” Sometimes, we don’t even realize that we’re being as toxic as we are.
@bluesummitsupp At our company, it’s baked into our culture that patronizing is not ok, and we have written documentation of expected behaviors with examples. In our culture of transparency, when you make someone feel less-than, you’re going to hear about it immediately.
To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat here.
People sometimes unintentionally patronize others. The same thing happens with the language we choose to use. Some words and phrases have connotations that are divisive – yet we don’t always realize it.
In our next #MTtalk chat, we’re going to discuss language that divides, and how to become more aware of it. In our poll this week, we want to know which examples of divisive language you’re most aware of. To see the poll and cast your vote, please click here.
In the meantime, here are some resources to explore strategies for communicating better. Some of them may only be available in full to members of the Mind Tools Club.