Who hasn’t bridled at being spoken to condescendingly? A subtle form of bullying, being patronised can leave you feeling infuriated and impotent. It’s a type of behaviour that cuts across generations. An older person can talk down to a younger colleague, but it can just as easily happen the other way around. Men can patronise women at work and vice versa. But what they have in common is power play, with one individual exerting their authority or seniority over another.
What does condescending or patronising behaviour look like in the workplace? Aggression such as shouting, yelling and belittling comments are all obvious signs of condescension. However, people are sometimes condescending in more subtle ways, such as talking about people behind their backs or making fun of colleagues in the form of jokes. If this is happening regularly, point it out to the person. You can also help to avoid it by fostering an environment that discourages gossip, making jokes about coworkers, etc.
So how do you deal with it?
Although it’s tempting to give the offender a piece of your mind, remaining calm is the best response. Flying off the handle only makes the other person believe that their behaviour is justified. Also, be careful not to reply to a condescending person with more condescension. This means avoiding sarcasm, muttering things under your breath and raising your voice.
Ignoring the perpetrator is often the best approach. If you don’t give them the satisfaction of knowing that they have irritated you, they might simply stop being condescending. Selective deafness is always an option. One suggestion made to an online forum was to ask the offender to repeat themselves over and again. Each time they do so, they sound more and more ridiculous.
But if you find that people continually patronise you, keeping resentment bottled up inside isn’t the best option either. Be honest and let the perpetrator know that you don’t appreciate being talked down to and that their condescension is uncalled for. They might not even be aware they were doing it. Watch your body language when confronting someone: finger pointing, crossing your arms, rolling your eyes or standing over the person while they are seated won’t do you any favours in resolving the situation.
If the belittling behaviour continues, however, it’s best to seek advice from a supervisor or another HR professional. Ideally, you will have supporting evidence such as condescending emails to back up your claims. You might want to set up a face-to-face meeting to address the issue, with a supervisor there as a mediator.
Here are some useful comebacks. Like so many things in life, the context is all-important.
- “Are you done? Can we move on?”
- “If you continue to insinuate that I am unintelligent, we won’t be able to work together.” (And then follow through on your warning.)
- “Grow up”.
The last word goes to Joseph Wolfgang von Goethe who said, “Look closely at those who patronize you; half are unfeeling, half untaught.” Make sure you’re not among the unfeeling or clueless and help educate – and reign in – your colleagues who are.