Am I Being Patronized?


Patronized:  “To treat with an apparent kindness that betrays a feeling of superiority.”   by Rosanne Morse

I began working in the late sixties and early seventies.  Feminism was just rearing its ugly head but I didn’t know it.  We must wear dresses, not pantsuits.  Dresses should be flirty, but not vulgar.  We must serve coffee at meetings, we must be sweet and ladylike at all times.  We must not have an opinion unless asked. Of course, men will take sexual liberties, it is up to you to contain it “we’d hate to have to let you go”.  We must accept that we might be replaced at any moment by a man who needs a job.  And so on …

Mansplaining:   You may be unfamiliar with the term, but chances are you’ve experienced it. It’s basically the act of a man explaining something to a woman in a very condescending, patronizing manner. It usually involves talking over her. On the internet, it often involves insulting her.  You may not even know what is happening, because it is insidious behavior by definition. Anyone can be patronized – but women and African Americans are particularly experienced in this subject.  It’s important to recognize that being patronized  is tone of voice more than anything. Often, the words aren’t the problem. It’s an overall sense that you are being spoken down to—as though you are unworthy.

Here are a few forms of current day patronizating:

  • Addressing someone by their first name when others are addressed more formally
  • Patting a person on their head – ever
  • Addressing the person with a term of endearment such as “sweetheart” or “honey”
  • Giving excessive praise for a fairly routine or simple assignment
  • Assigning someone menial tasks beneath their station, famously “grab me some coffee, darling”.
  • Speaking slowly or excessively loud to anyone you perceive to be disabled
  • Talking “down” to people
  • And, in the South, my personal favorite is the disingenuous, overly sweet, “bless her little heart”. Which apparently means:  “You poor little idiot, you just don’t know any better”.

Even objects can be perceived as patronizing.  An ad agency found that many of the women they surveyed felt patronized by the “abundance of pink objects” in the technology category, click the preceding link and see what comes up as “pink technology” LOL!  Whenever we clump people into a stereotype, we are being patronizing.

Being on the receiving end of this behavior is more than just insulting and frustrating. It can lead to issues with self-esteem or can negatively affect your performance. Bosses who patronize their employees undermine performance by offering praise, but no raises or promotions.  Women in particular have been socialized to accept that it is unseemly to ask about compensation or promotion.

Why People Patronize Others:  Generally people patronize others because of their own insecurity and self-doubt. They feel the need to show that they are the superior one, because feel inferior or sometimes, they truly believe they are better than everyone else and enjoy the power.

What to do if You’re Feeling Patronized:

  • First, recognize that it is happening.
  • Stay calm and listen to be sure you understand the full message.
  • Jot down a note or two to mind you of both the points being made and how you felt.
  • Stop the conversation by acknowledging you heard them and want to process everything.
  • Thank them and say you’ll get back to them.
  • Step back from the situation and look at it with an honest, unbiased point-of-view. If this occurs in an email or text message, give the person the benefit of the doubt. It is very easy to misread intent even when you know someone very well.  Follow up with a face-to-face.
  • Is this really a problem…or should you build a tougher shell?
  • Call Attention to It. Sometimes, even the most self-aware people in the world are completely unaware of the impact they’re having on others. Perhaps your boss is so wrapped up in his own world, he doesn’t hear the condescension in his voice. Sometimes a tactful, non-confrontational discussion can help call attention to the matter. Practice what you’ll say ahead of time so you don’t find yourself getting emotional. Be specific about what’s happening and how it’s impacting your work. Then, ask for the specific change you’d like to see.

Remember: It is Probably THEIR Issue, Not Yours: Often it isn’t really about you. Consider what’s going on for others.  What’s causing this behavior? Does he perhaps feel threatened by you in some way? Does he have a self-esteem issue that causes him to put others down so he can feel better about himself? You might uncover something that makes the behavior a little easier to put up with or just ignore altogether. Sometimes people just have annoying character traits that don’t serve them well, but there is nothing you can do to change them. Take comfort in the fact that, if you see it, others see it too. This kind of behavior will eventually hold them back, but don’t allow it to hold you back.  Move on before it destroys you.

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