Nobody enjoys being condescended to. Having someone try to make us feel small or inferior is an awful thing to experience, especially because it’s almost always unwarranted.
Being on the receiving end of belittling comments, sarcasm, or the implication that you’re incompetent can make anyone feel angry and want to retaliate.
That said, once you understand where this condescension comes from, you’ll be able to see through that behavior so it doesn’t affect you anymore.
Why are people condescending?
When dealing with a condescending person, the best approach is to consider why they’re being that way. Understanding the cause is key to dealing with the symptom (or behavior, in this instance).
In most cases, condescending people are deeply insecure. Often, this is due to an abusive upbringing in which they were mistreated and made to feel insignificant or not good enough. As a result, they have abysmal self-esteem and desperately try to feel valid and important by any means necessary.
This may include putting down anyone whom they consider to be a potential threat. Some of them might develop narcissistic tendencies to overcompensate for their inner self-loathing, and they’ll put down and insult those who embody traits they despise in themselves.
It’s a self-defense mechanism geared toward detracting from their shortcomings by shifting attention (and negativity) onto someone else, while making themselves feel better.
Some might become hardcore overachievers in order to gain recognition from their peers. They feel that by winning that medal, earning those degrees, or attaining that professional level, they will have finally earned the respect that was denied to them by their friends and family members. Then they’ll turn around and put down others who haven’t attained the same things they have.
As you can imagine, this creates a vicious cycle of abuse. Those they put down often end up having low self-esteem, and they may be awful to others in turn to make themselves feel better.
This kind of situation is particularly heinous in families, as children end up feeling disrespected and unseen by their parents. Then they feel the need to dominate and insult their own offspring in turn.
A misplaced sense of superiority.
Some people believe themselves to be better than everyone around them for various reasons. For some, it might have to do with heredity and lineage. Others may feel that their education or belongings are “better” because they’re more expensive. They may believe their life experience gives them insights and abilities that their peers don’t share.
They rarely consider the possibility that just because their peers don’t brag about their experiences, doesn’t mean they don’t have reason to. That also goes for one’s bloodline, education, age, and so on.
For example, my partner often had coworkers condescend to her because they thought she was significantly younger than her actual age. Then they became embarrassed when they discovered she was older than they were.
Sometimes it’s unintentional.
No two people will experience the same situation in the same way. This is because we all have different formative conditioning. So what’s pleasant or comfortable to one person might be construed as insulting or damaging to another.
In some cases, what you assume to be condescension might simply be someone being passionate about a topic and not realizing that others might know just as much as they do.
For example, someone who’s obsessed with mushrooms (mycology) might go on tangents about super cool species they’ve been studying, without bothering to ask anyone whether they’re already familiar with them or not.
In situations like this, they aren’t trying to be insufferable know-it-alls. Rather, they are so swept up in the awesomeness they’re trying to share that they don’t realize that they’ve gone into lecture mode.
In a case like this, once they’ve finished blathering on, let them know that, while you’re interested in discussing this with them, you’d prefer if they were more respectful. Request that they ask you if you are familiar with the topic before talking about it in detail.
Another unintentional cause of condescension is if someone is dealing with difficulty in their personal life. If they are under a great deal of stress at home but can’t express their pain or frustration to those around them, they might unintentionally take out those frustrations on others.
For example, a parent who’s dealing with a difficult teen might inadvertently unleash their hostility on a coworker who exhibits similar behavior to their child.
Alternatively, someone may be upset with their partner’s lack of consideration but has to remain quiet to keep the peace or to avoid abuse. As a form of pressure release, they’ll use their children, siblings, parents, or peers as emotional punching bags.
As with other examples of condescending remarks and behavior, it likely stems from their own issues; it has nothing to do with you.
9 Tips For Dealing With Condescending People
There are several different ways that you can deal with condescending people, depending on the circumstance as well as the people involved.
1. Remember that how you respond to others is your choice.
A lot of people respond to unpleasant experiences by being offended, but keep in mind that taking offense is a choice. You can choose to be upset and offended by that condescending prat, or you can recognize that their words and opinions don’t carry any weight in your life.
2. Respond with humor.
Earlier, we touched upon the fact that most condescending people either have an overblown sense of their own superiority or are so deeply insecure that they overcompensate with condescension and arrogance.
Being amused by their behavior rather than being upset with them is like bursting their holier-than-thou-ism bubble with a spear. Nobody likes it if they are not taken seriously, and being laughed at while someone is trying to lord their superiority over you is even more distressing.
3. Call them out on their behavior.
One trait that many patronizing people have in common is that they’ll respond to you with a belittling pet name or moniker.
This behavior usually pops up when the person doesn’t have a strong argument or evidence to back up what they’re saying. Since they’re not standing on firm ground, they have to try to make you feel small or inferior in order to establish a position of power over you.
As such, they might call you “sweetie,” “honey,” “pet,” or something similar; usually in a tone of voice that they’d reserve for a small child or a lap dog.
In a situation like this, it’s important to call them out and stand your ground. For example, if someone responds to an email or text by calling you a pet name, you can respond with something like the following:
My name is James. Not “honey” or ”sweetie.” I didn’t invite you to address me by a pet name, nor do I consent to you doing so. You may address me as “James” or even “Mr. White,” but those are the only options available to you. I show you professional respect by addressing you by name, please grant me that same courtesy.
If this person is a coworker, then feel free to CC your boss or the HR department in your response as well. They’ll take note of how this person is behaving toward you and will file it away as a precedent they’re setting with their behavior.
If they’re a family member, they’ll likely complain to other relatives that you were hypersensitive or inappropriate toward them. It’s up to you how you choose to respond to that, if at all. That will depend on the rapport you have toward various relatives and whether others like or dislike the belittler.
Be aware that the one you’re putting in their place is likely to respond defensively. Those who start off as aggressive or quasi-charming usually turn things around and play victim as soon as things don’t go the way they want them to. It’s the “kick, kiss, or cry” technique.
They’ll likely imply that they’re “just trying to be friendly” and that you’re not behaving like a team player. At this point, stand your ground and reiterate the titles that you will accept in a work environment. End of discussion.
4. Ask them to clarify what they’ve said, or explain what they’ve done.
Another technique that many condescending people use is to tell others to “relax” or “calm down,” especially if those people disagree with what they’re saying.
Those speaking might be perfectly calm and articulate, sharing perfectly valid viewpoints, but the condescending one wants to maintain a position of power. As such, they’ll imply that others are somehow being hysterical or otherwise emotionally unbalanced.
This implication is aimed at invalidating what the others have to say. When and if this happens, stay calm. Hold their gaze without speaking for a few seconds, and then (calmly) ask them to please explain to you why they felt the need to tell you to calm down.
Keep questioning them. They might say that you seemed to be acting emotionally, at which point you can ask them to point out what it was you said or did to give them that impression. They’ll likely get upset and go on the attack, so make sure to maintain your calm at all times.
The same thing goes for if they do something physical toward you, such as patting you on the head and saying, “good job!” In a case like that, respond (calmly!) immediately. Ask them why they just did that.
They might try to dismiss their behavior by saying that they were “just trying to be friendly.” At which point you can let them know, in no uncertain terms, that you did NOT give them permission to touch you.
If they do it again, you’re well within your rights to grab their hand or wrist, look them in the eye, and say, “NO. Don’t touch me.”
They’ll likely try to vilify you and make it seem like you’re histrionic and unreasonable, but don’t accept that.
5. Give them the opportunity to learn from their own behaviors.
As mentioned, many condescending people have an overblown sense of their own superiority. This doesn’t just apply to their lineage or schooling, but also their skillset. A perfect example of this is a backseat driver—someone who’s constantly questioning the driver’s abilities, mocking perceived missteps, and so on.
In situations like this, it’s best to give them the wheel to show how much better they can do it. At this point, most of them will panic because they know full well that they’re crap at what they’ve been criticizing. In fact, they’ve likely been mocking perceived micro-errors because they’re so fiercely insecure about their own lack of ability.
They’ll make excuses as to why they can’t drive at that moment (or take over cooking, baking, or formatting that spreadsheet). Don’t accept the excuses. Insist that since they have been so very vocal about everything you’ve been doing wrong, they’re obviously an expert, and you’d like them to show you exactly how things **should** be done.
Then, once they’ve driven the car into a tree or created a small disaster, you can take a photo of their obviously superior talent. This way, the next time they start getting condescending toward you (or anyone else), you can show them that picture and ask if they really want to go down that road again.
Rest assured, they’ll clam up very quickly after that.
6. Don’t retaliate, but stand your ground.
Many condescending people think far more highly of themselves than they should. For example, someone who speaks a few words (badly) in another language may lord that over another who only speaks English.
But if another person speaks that other language more fluently than they do, they’ll either try to redirect attention elsewhere or turn things around and disparage what they were just feeling superior about.
For example, let’s say you’re in a meeting that Dan has been dominating. He’s been an utterly arrogant prick the whole time, trying to justify various actions, and ends his presentation with a common Latin quote such as, “Quod erat demonstrandum” (rough translation: “This completes the proof”).
If you respond by asking him (in Latin) if he speaks that language, he’ll turn around and laugh at you and tell you that it’s a dead language for a reason and serves no purpose unless you’re a brown-nosing nerd.
He’ll do that to deflect the fact that you know more than he does. He immediately feels inferior, and thus has to put you down in order to puff himself back up again. Even though he’s the one who established the precedent of using that language to make himself look smarter.
At this point, you can ask him why he would use a quote in a language he didn’t actually speak, especially one that’s only usable by the aforementioned nerds. He likely won’t be able to answer and will get even angrier when other people present start to smile or laugh at him.
Mockery or pity are the worst things in the world for condescending people, as those behaviors reinforce their insecurity.
7. Behave as though they didn’t say or do anything at all.
In addition to being mocked or pitied, being ignored is anathema to the condescending.
If someone is being condescending toward you, act as though they haven’t said anything whatsoever. In fact, you can either interrupt them with a subject change or pretend that you can’t hear them.
Whatever they’re burbling about isn’t even worth acknowledging. Remain calm and civil, but make it abundantly clear that you’re not interested in anything they have to say.
This may enrage them, and they might switch from condescension to downright abuse. They might get belligerent and demand to know why you dared to interrupt them. At this point, you can respond (neutrally, civilly) that you didn’t hear them say anything of worth, so you redirected the conversation to something that had actual value.
By simultaneously switching gears and also displaying little emotion, you’re sending a clear message that their superior attitude means absolutely nothing to you.
8. Stay calm, no matter what.
One of the worst things you can do when dealing with condescending people is to lose your composure with them. If you get upset and start yelling, or retaliate in a similar fashion, they’ll feel that their behavior toward you has been validated.
The most important thing here is for you to behave with far more grace, dignity, and integrity than they are capable of exhibiting.
These people want to make you react and get upset because they’ll feel superior if you react negatively. If their first attempt doesn’t knock you off balance, they’ll likely try to change tactics by moving to insults. This simply reinforces how pathetic they are.
If they truly were superior, would they be behaving like that?
9. Stand in your power.
Remember that those who are condescending toward you are usually terribly unhappy and insecure to the core. They are lashing out at others in a desperate attempt to stop feeling so awful inside.
Earlier on, we mentioned that these people often try to belittle those whom they feel insecure around. It’s important to note here that they’ll only try to do so if they feel that the other person isn’t an actual threat to them.
For example, an administrative assistant won’t be condescending toward their boss, but they will belittle the receptionist or intern. Basically, anyone who’s either younger, smaller, or lower on the totem pole and thus doesn’t pose any real danger to them.
Many people are cowards, so maintaining an air of strength, power, and confidence will prevent most of them from giving you a hard time.
Maintain a straight posture and move with grace and purpose. Speak clearly and articulately, while maintaining eye contact. Pause frequently when you speak, including taking a moment after being asked a question to consider what you’re going to say.
Conduct yourself like a king or queen and you’ll be treated as such. In essence, you’re dealing with a schoolyard bully who just happens to be taller and older.
This technique works on anyone who is being condescending toward you. Abusive parents or siblings generally pick on the chihuahua of their litter, not the mastiff. Furthermore, that mastiff doesn’t have to bark and snap in order to show his or her strength and dominance in a situation.
He or she will just stand quietly, wrapped in an aura of confidence and power, and give others the opportunity to walk away with their pride (and hide) intact.
Ultimately, when dealing with condescending people, see them as wounded, petulant children who feel so weak and powerless that they’re using the only technique they have available to them to make themselves feel less pathetic. They can’t raise themselves up properly, so they try to cut others down.
Once you’ve recognized why they behave the way they do, their actions will stop affecting you. In the same way that you won’t be hurt or offended if a small child tells you that you’re a stupid head, condescending adults won’t have any effect on you either.
Between understanding where they’re coming from and pitying them for their behavior, you’re shielded from any negativity that may come flying from them. And though they probably won’t listen, you could always point them toward our article about how to stop being condescending – maybe 1 in 100 will actually recognize what they are doing and want to do something about it.
You might not be able to control how other people behave toward you, but you can absolutely control your responses to them. Keep your dignity and grace intact, offer them a wall that brooks no egress, and they’ll stop being condescending toward you very quickly.