WHAT DOES “PATRONIZING” MEAN?
Patronizing is the act of appearing kind or helpful but internally feeling superior to others. Patronizing behaviour is a subtle form of bullying and can take many forms in social contexts. The six most frequent signs are:
- Interrupting people frequently
It is patronizing because when a person interrupts someone, the message they are sending out is “What I have to say is more important than what you have to say.” This leaves the other person feeling unimportant and like their voice doesn’t matter. Another variation of this could be interrupting people to correct their pronunciation. This is patronizing since it doesn’t allow the person to finish their thought. The patronizing person totally dismisses the value of what they are trying to communicate and instead makes them self-conscious about how they pronounced a word.
- Telling someone that they always or never do something
Saying things like “You always make that mistake” or “You never do things properly” is extremely patronizing. It makes the other person feel like a complete failure and by putting them down like that, they are actually more likely to act in that way.
- Telling someone to “calm down” “take it easy” or “relax!”
These are all forms of patronizing language. If a person repeatedly tells people to “calm down” and never offers them a real solution to fix their problem, then all they’re really telling them is “keep being upset because I’m not going to help you solve that problem, but just don’t express that you’re upset.” This makes the other person feel like their feelings are invalid and confuses them into thinking that they should keep things bottled up when talking to them.
- Giving too many compliments to get something!
It is patronizing since it assumes that if you tell the person exactly what you want them to do, they will get upset. Which is exactly the opposite of the truth. Most of the time, people want to hear exactly how they can improve and are annoyed if people feel like they have to lessen the blow.
- Using patronizing nicknames
Nicknames like “big guy” and “chief” are seen as patronizing. This is because even though are used to “compliment” the person, what is actually being done is belittling them by exaggerating the magnitude of their role. Nicknames like “hun” and “sweetie” are also patronizing, but in a different way. When someone is called by these nicknames they are actually being minimized and their intelligence is downplayed. This is because these nicknames are usually reserved for children.
- Using patronizing body language
Looking down on people is an instant sign of patronizing behaviour. Other signs are: impatient body language, e.g. loud sighs, eye-rolling, constantly looking at own watch or phone, drumming fingers or yawning. Not maintaining eye contact when someone is talking is also a sign of a patronizing tendency.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I AM CONFRONTED WITH PATRONIZING BEHAVIOUR?
The first thing to do would be to notice how you feel in the presence of the person who is exhibiting such behaviour. When you are with them, do you feel:
- unimportant and like your voice doesn’t matter?
- being minimized?
- like your intelligence is downplayed?
- like a complete failure?
- like your feelings are invalid?
- like you should keep things bottled up?
If your answer is positive to most or all of these questions, you have been most probably dealing with patronising behaviour. Everyone knows what it is like to be around patronizing people, so a wise thing to do would be to take distance from them or, if this is not possible (for example in a working environment), you could let them know that their behaviour is not leading to constructive communication. All things considered, people act patronizing for different reasons, but usually it boils down to insecurity and arrogance.
WHAT IF THE PERSON EXHIBITING PATRONIZING TENDENCIES IS YOU?
If you feel that you have been displaying patronizing behaviour, then it is good that you are aware of it. The next step would be to watch out for the six signs mentioned above and try to modify them so that you can improve your communication with others. An expert in interpersonal communication can also guide towards the development of effective communication skills that can improve your relationships in social contexts, in your working and private life.
Article adapted from:
Gervais, S.J., Vescio, T.K. The Effect of Patronizing Behavior and Control on Men and Women’s Performance in Stereotypically Masculine Domains. Sex Roles 66, 479–491 (2012).