From calling people ‘chief’ to saying you ‘actually’ like someone’s idea, here are some obnoxious behaviors to avoid.
12 min read
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Everyone knows what it’s like to be around someone who just doesn’t make them feel great about themselves. There are all kinds of people who are unpleasant to be around—debbie downers, complainers, jealous green monsters, mean-spirited snarks, most anyone who wears neon sunglasses—but if you walk away from another person feeling worse about yourself, there’s a good chance you’ve been condescended to. People act patronizing for different reasons, but usually it boils down to insecurity and/or arrogance. You can definitely be arrogant and insecure at the same time.
Here, we point out some behaviors people say or do that others find snooty and generally obnoxious. But it’s important to keep in mind that studies suggest 75 to 90 percent of communication is nonverbal. So when people feel like someone is talking down to them, it usually has as much to do with what they say as how they say it. Still, if you’ve been told you have a condescending streak, here are some eye-roll-worthy behaviors to stop doing.
1. Explaining things that people already know
We’ve all been in a conversation that’s moving along just fine, when suddenly you find yourself whisked off on an unexpected detour, riding out someone’s impassioned explanation of something that you already know. They’re talking at you, wide-eyed, offering each key point like a gift —“so after almost 30 years in prison, he won the Nobel Peace Prize” — and you hardly have the heart to derail their monologue and say, “Uh yeah, I know who Nelson Mandela is.”
Finding yourself in this situation is annoying, because the other person has, for whatever reason, assumed that you don’t possess the same knowledge they do. Chances are they haven’t actually weighed the likelihood that you do or don’t know what they’re explaining—they just know that they know it, and that’s enough reason for them to expound. This behavior is often referred to as “mansplaining,” but the occasional woman is guilty of it too. The important thing to remember is that respectful two-way conversations involve reading cues from the other person. If you’re not certain they’re following what you’re talking about, you can always ask, “Are you familiar?” But most of the time, it’s safer to give them the benefit of the doubt.
2. Telling someone they “always” or “never” do something
No one likes to be put in a box. When you make broad generalizations about someone else’s behavior, that’s a quick way to make them feel judged and misunderstood. Whether you’re having a casual conversation or trying to offer meaningful feedback, the person you’re talking to is way more likely to shut down and react defensively if you claim they “always” or “never” do something.
For example, were you to tell someone, “You’re always late,” or, “You never clean the toilet,” they’re likely to feel as if you’re making a definitive statement about who they are and will almost certainly rack their brains for contradictory evidence. Whereas, if you were to say, “I’ve noticed you’ve been late a lot recently,” or “It’s been a while since you cleaned the toilet,” the person you’re criticizing will still probably get defensive, but they won’t feel like you’re suggesting they’re fundamentally flawed, or bringing down the gavel on their entire personality.
Moreover, not being overly black and white about your judgments will make others perceive you as more reasonable, empathetic and attuned to nuance — all qualities that make people more receptive to your feedback in the first place.
3. Interrupting to correct people’s pronunciation
If someone is in the middle of a thought, you should definitely not interrupt to correct their pronunciation. There is no faster way to break someone’s momentum or crater their confidence than to interrupt and say, “Um, it’s actually ‘essss-presso,’ not ‘ex-presso.’” Not only will you embarrass the person speaking, but everyone else listening will think you’re a know-it-all jerk for putting someone on the spot in an unnecessary, uncomfortable way.
If the conversation is casual, and someone mispronounces a name or a word, chances are that it’s not worth correcting them at all. You’re not saving lives here. But if you feel the mistake was so glaring that not correcting it would be the equivalent of letting someone walk around with a giant piece of spinach in their teeth (like, perhaps they’re mispronouncing the name of a client), it’s best to wait until they’ve finished their thought entirely. Once they are no longer the center of attention, you can say, discreetly, “Do you say it ‘New-tell-a?’ I always thought it was ‘Nuh-tella.’” Anyone with a shred of self-awareness will take that cue to track down the right pronunciation, and if they don’t bother, then going forward, it’s not worth your time to correct them anyway.
4. Saying “Take it easy”
For women in particular, being told to “Take it easy” is peak patronizing. Adjacent, equally aggravating directives include “Chill out,” “Calm down,” and “Relax!” No matter who you’re speaking to, when you tell someone to “Take it easy,” you’re suggesting that their excitement, concern or general response to something is either excessive or invalid. People are entitled to their feelings, and their reactions.
Men might get this sort of response on occasion, but it happens more to women. Most women have had a man tell her to “relax” because he perceives her reaction as inappropriately emotional—when in fact, she doesn’t feel she’s responding emotionally at all. Many studies have shown that men tend to perceive more “shrillness” and emotion in women’s voices. A Fortune study found that women were 17 times more likely than men to be described as abrasive. So when someone tells a woman to “Take it easy,” she’ll likely feel like that person is saying she’s “over the top” or “dramatic.” This minimizes her experience and presents her response as petty.
5. Saying you “actually” like an idea
This is the much subtler way of saying, “Wow! You did something smart, and I never expected that from you!” Many of us have received a critical email from a boss that lists all the things you did wrong, and then ends with, “but I actually thought this thought was great.” This kind of backhanded compliment can feel worse than getting no praise at all. If you offer a solution to a problem in a meeting, and someone says, “Hey, that’s actually a pretty good idea,” it sounds as if they’re surprised by your intelligent contribution, and they generally expect little of you. If you “actually” like something, you can just say you like it.
6. Doling out compliment sandwiches
Many bosses swear by this feedback method, which involves starting out with a compliment, giving a critique, and then ending with another compliment. It’s seen as a way of cushioning criticism. And it’s true that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down sometimes, but at this point the formula is pretty easy to spot, and often the praise on either side of the critique—the real point of feedback, typically—can feel forced. Many people see a compliment sandwich and think, Just give it to me straight!
You don’t have to give a compliment to give a critique. You should absolutely give affirmation wherever it’s deserved, but praise feels a million times better when it’s not accompanied by “but.” Instead of compliment sandwiches, you could try a feedback method like the one Pixar has developed, which they call “plussing.” Leadership expert David Berkus has written that the technique is pulled from the improv comedy tradition, where the rule is never to say “No,” but always, “Yes, and…” At Pixar, practicing “plussing” means that when offering criticism, you do it in a direct way, but always follow with a constructive suggestion on how to remedy the issue.
7. Demeaning nicknames like “Chief” or “Honey”
Overly familiar, one-size-fits-all nicknames—especially for people you interact with in a professional capacity—are generally not a good look. This is particularly true for people in positions of authority. While a male boss might think calling his subordinate “chief” is a way of showing he’s chummy, or rubbing elbows with the little people, it tends to come across as patronizing. A woman boss might think she’s being approachable or motherly by calling her female employees “honey” or “sweetie,” but that can lead to a sense of false familiarity that makes it difficult for employees to speak frankly. Plus, those nicknames are almost always gender-exclusive; a male boss isn’t going to call his female employee “chief” (and hopefully in 2020 he knows not to call any woman aside from his wife “honey”). So the chummy nicknames most people find condescending end up being pretty exclusionary, too.
When it comes to interacting with people who are providing you with a service of some kind—whether it’s the custodian in your office building, a server at a restaurant, your housekeeper or your cab driver—nicknames are especially risky. Calling other men “Chief,” “Boss” or “Big Guy” is a weird sort of faux-submission posturing. In a 2019 poll taken by Men’s Health, 43 percent of respondents said that when another guy calls him “Boss,” he thinks that guy is a “condescending asshole.” Those odds aren’t probably worth going up against. Luckily, the alternative to one-size-fits-all nicknames isn’t too hard to implement, and works every time. You can just learn people’s actual names.
8. Patting people on the head
This might seem like a no-brainer, but it happens more often than you’d think! In general, it’s not a great idea to touch people who aren’t family members or close friends. That said, in the repertoire of touching methods, “patting” acquaintances is a better option than say, “stroking,” “smacking” or “pinching,” and there are certain scenarios in which patting someone on the back or shoulder is entirely acceptable. But head-patting is never okay. If you pat someone’s head they will invariably be forced to look up at you—in confusion or possibly an attempt to displace your hand—and then you’ll find yourself in the literal predicament of “looking down on them.” So if someone’s head is within patting reach—perhaps they are much shorter than you, or are sitting in a wheelchair, or an office chair—and you feel the urge to pat coming on, remove yourself from the situation immediately.
This is an ancient and highly transparent method for communicating superiority. Whether you’re talking about how Jack Dorsey was at your yoga retreat last weekend, or how you’re on a first-name basis with Ariana Huffington’s daughter’s husband, you’re always going to come across as seeming like you think famous people are pretty important. It’s fine to be excited that you found yourself in the presence of a celebrity or powerful figure, and to share the story accordingly. The issue is when you go to the trouble to name drop, but then act it’s no big deal, which suggests that you consider these people important enough to mention, but also consider yourself among their peers. To whoever you’re speaking to, the implicit message is, I know important people, ergo I’m important, unlike you. Others are likely to find this behavior condescending and a bit pathetic.
10. Telling someone, “Come on, you know better than that”
This sort of “sigh, shame-on-you” comment can be used in all kinds of situations, but is almost always experienced as condescending. It’s the the sort of thing an exasperated parent would say to their child, so when one adult says it to another, they sound like a scold. Say you’re having a debate over politics and someone says, “Come on, you know better than that.” You can’t help but feel like they’re belittling your perspective as short-sighted and childish. Even if you’re doing something objectively bad for you—say, smoking a cigarette—when someone says, “Come on, you know better than that,” it’s such a parental rebuke that you’ll probably relapse into adolescent “don’t tell me what to do” mode and want to smoke more cigarettes just to spite them. If you disagree with someone’s opinion, there’s no problem with saying that directly. If you disagree with their lifestyle choices, it’s usually best to mind your own business.