Has everyone ever told you that you’re condescending or patronizing? Have your coworkers, classmates, or friends remarked that you treat them as inferior or talk down to them? Do you feel like you’re not coming across the way you want to? Or perhaps you’ve very aware that you have a tendency to correct people or make snarky comments but don’t know how to stop.
This article has everything you need to know on how to not be condescending.
The definition of condescending is “having or showing a feeling of patronizing superiority.” If someone thinks that they are better than other people, it will come out in their behavior in some way.
Common condescending behaviors are interrupting others when they speak, speaking in a condescending tone, pointing out others’ mistakes, offering unsolicited advice, and dominating the conversation. Portraying your hobbies and interests as better than other people’s (“Oh, I never watch those types of shows” or “I only read non-fiction”) can also give an impression that you’re condescending.
Any behavior that comes from a superior point of view may leave you looking condescending. Intent matters, and seemingly small behaviors can make others feel like you’re talking down to them.
For example, when someone says something, replying “Sure” can come across as friendly or condescending, depending on your facial expression, tone of voice, and body language.
If people say you’re condescending, it’s a good sign you’re coming off that way, even if you don’t intend to.
Keep in mind that if just one person has told you that you’re patronizing or condescending, it may just be their perception or a one-time occasion that you don’t need to take too seriously.
But if you have a nagging feeling that they’re right, or you’ve gotten this type of feedback from more than one person, it may be something you want to work on.
You can figure out if you’re showing condescending or demeaning behavior by asking yourself questions such as:
- When others are wrong, do you feel the need to correct them?
- Is sharing fun facts a hobby for you?
- Are “actually,” “obviously,” or “technically” some of your most commonly used words?
- Do you often find yourself using phrases like, “everyone knows that”?
- When you win a game, do you tend to say something like, “that was easy”?
- Is it very important to you that others regard you as impressive, unique, or highly intelligent?
- Do you tend to think that everyone you meet is stupid, boring, or shallow?
If you answered “Yes” to these questions, it’s likely that you tend to be condescending. Don’t worry: you can work on it.
- How to stop being condescending
- How to stop using condescending language
- What causes a person to be condescending?
- Common questions
There’s a difference between hearing someone and listening to them, and mastering the difference can help you across many avenues in life.
Truly listening means focusing on their words and what the person is trying to convey instead of thinking of how you’re going to respond.
To improve your listening skills, work on focusing your attention on the person speaking. Assume the other person has good intentions, and try to recognize what the other person needs and what they are trying to say. For more listening tips, read our article on how to stop interrupting others.
To avoid sounding condescending or superior, work on staying humble.
If someone gives you a compliment, smile and say thank you. If you win a game, you can say, “You win some, you lose some” instead of gloating. Even better is to praise the game-playing skills of your opponent or just say that you enjoyed the game.
People usually value sincerity. When you catch yourself talking down on someone, or someone calls you out for being condescending, apologize sincerely. You may even choose to share that this is something you’re actively working on.
Remember that there will always be someone more skilled, more intelligent, more experienced, sensitive, and so on. You can’t be the best at everything, so don’t try to come across as if you are. Read more on how to stop bragging to come across as more humble.
Some people are great at noticing things that can be improved. A critical or analytical mind can be a great skill, but it can also create problems for us socially. Criticizing and nitpicking others’ actions can leave us looking arrogant and people around us feeling drained and discouraged.
Make a point to comment on the positive aspects of what people are doing. Let’s say your friend or classmate started going to an art class, and they show you your work. Now, if you don’t really like what they’ve painted, you may feel an impulse to say something like, “Anyone can draw that,” or make some type of joke.
How can you handle this situation? You don’t have to lie and say, “That’s a masterpiece” to be encouraging. Instead, you can praise effort rather than focusing on results. To your newly artistic friend, you might say, “I think it’s super cool that you’re trying out new hobbies,” or perhaps, “It’s inspiring how dedicated you are.”
Remind yourself that everyone is doing their best and that we are all works-in-progress. Maintaining a generally positive outlook on life can help you be more encouraging to others. Check out our article, how to be more positive (when life isn’t going your way) for more on increasing positivity.
When someone is complaining or sharing a problem, we may slip into giving advice automatically without even noticing. Giving advice is usually well-intentioned. After all, it’s not that strange to assume that if someone is dealing with a problem, they’re looking for solutions.
We may also subconsciously feel that others’ feelings are our responsibility. So if they seem sad or angry, we feel like we need to find a way to help them feel better. The problem is that sometimes people aren’t looking for advice. They may be venting, looking for emotional support, or just want to connect by sharing about their lives.
Giving unsolicited advice can make others feel that we’re patronizing them and treating them as inferior to us. As a result, they will likely feel discouraged and hesitant to share personal information in the future.
Get into the habit of asking, “Are you looking for advice?” when people share something with you. That way, you have a better idea of what their needs are.
Sometimes, someone will say they want our advice even if they don’t, just to be friendly or polite. Or perhaps they feel so confused that they just want someone to tell them what to do.
It helps to ask yourself if the other person wants or needs your advice before you ask them. Is this an issue they really can’t figure out for themselves? Do you have knowledge that they don’t otherwise have access to? If the answer to these questions is “no,” it may be better to refrain from giving advice unless they specifically ask for it.
Often, people talk about their problems not to gain advice but to feel heard and validated. We usually don’t even know our intention in doing so. Sometimes we think we need guidance, but in the process of talking, we can figure the solution out ourselves. (Web developers call this “rubber duck debugging,” but it can work for “real life” problems, too!)
Empathizing with someone can help them feel supported in figuring out their own solutions. Some phrases you may use to empathize when someone is sharing with you include:
- “It sounds like that’s really weighing on you.”
- “I can understand why you’re so frustrated.”
- “That sounds very difficult.”
If you’re having trouble empathizing when someone is sharing, remember to give them time to talk about their feelings. Imagine how you would feel in their situation. If you feel uncomfortable, try to calm yourself down by taking deep breaths instead of changing the topic.
Avoid saying things like, “What’s the big deal?” or “Everyone goes through this,” because it feels dismissing and invalidating.
Go into every conversation with the idea that you can learn something new. When someone voices an opinion you dislike or disagree with, try asking a question instead of making a joke about it.
For example, if someone says they like pineapple on pizza, instead of letting them know that you find it disgusting and childish, you can ask, “Why do you think pizza toppings are such a divisive topic?”
Our body does a lot of our talking for us. We take in others’ body language so quickly we don’t even notice.
Sighing, yawning, tapping your fingers, or shaking your feet while someone else is talking may make you come across as impatient and rude. If it seems like you are looking down at what the other person is saying or just waiting for your turn to speak, others will likely think that you have a condescending attitude.
For more on how to use your body language to your benefit, read our guide on how to look more approachable.
If your ideas were inspired by someone else or if you notice them working hard, give them credit. Saying something like, “I couldn’t have done it without Eric’s help,” can let others know that you value the contributions of others and don’t look down on them.
Make sure to give credit wholeheartedly. Giving passive-aggressive compliments, such as “I know praise means a lot to you, so I thought everyone should know,” can leave people feeling worse than if you’d said nothing at all.
When you find yourself having conflicting opinions than others (this will happen a lot in life), try looking at the situation differently. Instead of trying to convince the other person that your opinion is correct, try to understand their perspective. Consider that their opinion may be just as valid.
Even if you can’t see yourself agreeing with them, consider setting a goal of understanding their perspective better. Why do they think the way they do? What values are behind their beliefs?
Sometimes we can get caught up in thinking in legalistic terms. For example, “It’s not my responsibility to deal with this, so I won’t.”
This type of “me first” behavior gives the impression that you think others are inferior to you and that their needs aren’t as important.
Let’s say your coworker is struggling because they have a big project at work, and their kid is sick at home. It’s true that it’s not your problem or responsibility. But covering their shift or staying overtime to help them complete a task can demonstrate that you want to help others and don’t think you’re superior to them.
Don’t go overboard with this. Don’t attend to the needs of others at the expense of yourself. For example, you don’t need to stay up late every night talking to a friend in crisis when you’re behind on sleep. But once in a while, if someone needs you, picking up the phone is the best thing to do, even if you have something else planned.
Everyone deserves respect, no matter their profession, salary, or position in life. Do not treat anyone as inferior.
Saying please and thank you is always appreciated. Bus drivers, janitors, wait staff, other service personnel, etc., are indeed “doing their job,” but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be polite and show appreciation anyway.
Saying things like “If they want better conditions they should find a better job” can also come across as arrogant and tone-deaf. Try to acknowledge that luck and privilege play a part in what people are able to achieve in their lives. Take the time to read up about how different types of privilege play parts in social mobility.
If you work to find things you have in common with other people, it may be more difficult to be condescending towards them. Focusing on your similarities will remind you that we’re all just people who are more alike than different.
Don’t stay surface-level in your conversations. Having superficial interests and hobbies in common is one thing, but if you’re able to find similarities in your values or things you struggle with, you’re more likely to bond and feel like equals.
1. Adapt your choice of words to fit your audience
Some people state that they don’t want to change or adapt to other people, but the fact is that we do need to adapt to others, and we usually do so naturally.
Imagine a young child who is just learning how to count. Would you talk to them about algebra? Or would you try to give them elementary problems to solve, such as “How many is this? What if I add one more?”
Similarly, it makes sense to adapt your words even when your audience is adults.
Whether you’re using simple words when your audience is just as knowledgeable as you or complex terms when your audience has an entirely different background, it can come across the wrong way.
Does your eye start twitching when someone writes “their” instead of “they’re” or says “literally” when they are speaking figuratively? Language mistakes can be annoying, and many people get the urge to correct others.
Correcting other people’s language is one of the more common condescending habits. It often has little benefit and leaves the corrected person feeling bad. The people you correct may not remember your correction, but they will remember how the interaction made them feel.
Unless you’re editing someone’s work or they asked to be corrected if they made a mistake, try to let these types of errors slide.
If correcting others is a recurring problem for you, read our guide on how to stop being a know-it-all.
Speaking very slowly to someone may feel like you’re patronizing or talking down to them like an adult would speak to a child.
On the other hand, if everyone is having a slow-paced conversation, speaking very quickly may also come across as rude or condescending.
Try to match your speaking pace to other people when possible.
Referring to yourself in the third person when speaking to others (or on online profiles) can come across as arrogant. Using “he,” “she,” or your name when talking about yourself can come across as strange to others around you.
Try recording yourself speaking and playing it back to yourself. Do you use “my,” “mine,” and I” a lot?
It’s generally a good idea to speak from our own experience. However, overusing these words can give the impression that you only care about yourself and that you look down on others.
You can still talk about yourself. Just notice how much emphasis you place on these words and how often you use them.
For example, “My opinion is based on the extensive experience I have, and the years I spent in school where I myself completed my thesis on…” could be turned into, “I’m basing my opinion on my research and work experience.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines arrogance as a “high or inflated opinion of one’s own abilities, importance, etc., that gives rise to presumption or excessive self-confidence, or to a feeling or attitude of being superior to others.” But where does this type of belief or behavior stem from?
Early psychologists such as Alfred Adler believed that superior, condescending, and arrogant behavior may be an attempt to cover up insecurity or low self-esteem.
The thinking behind this theory is that a secure person who believes that they are equal to others doesn’t feel the need to talk down to others or try to show that they are smart. However, someone who has low self-worth may feel the need to try to make themselves seem impressive out of a fear that people won’t see them that way naturally.
These patterns may go back to childhood. For example, someone who grew up with a lack of discipline at home may grow up with an inflated sense of self. Over-involved parenting, which often comes with high expectations, may also teach children that they need to seek approval from others.
To patronize someone is to treat or talk to them as if they were a child. Patronizing behavior is often outwardly masked as kindness, but it comes from a place of superiority. Condescending behavior, which can be overtly rude, is any speech or action that implies or displays a superior attitude.
Remind yourself that your partner is on your team. When you have a conflict, address it as a problem you need to solve together, rather than assuming that your way is the right way. Work on forgiving each other for past mistakes.
Assume that you can learn from everyone in one way or another. Try to help others if they ask for it, but don’t swoop in to do things for others on your own accord. Remember that everyone has a different skill set, background, and knowledge as valuable as yours.