Whether it’s someone talking down to us when we ask a simple question or long-winded bout of “mansplaining” we have to sit through or even our grown children treating us like we’re losing our marbles…women have to deal with a lot of patronizing behavior.
We’ve all encountered people whose condescension and sense of superiority have made us feel bad about ourselves, but that’s especially true as we get older: A recent study in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior reveals that younger people tend to speak slower to those over 65 and that makes us feel insecure and question ourselves and our capabilities.
Here, top women communication experts share their proven ways to gently push back on patronizing behavior — and boost your confidence every step of the way.
1. Spot the signs of patronizing behavior
Patronizing behavior is often so jarring, it can throw us for a loop and leave us unsure how to respond. “It feels very confusing because patronizing people often appear to be kind while also acting superior, so it creates a disconnect in our mind,” says psychotherapist Oona Metz, LICSW, CGP. “Just ask yourself: Do I feel confused, belittled or minimized? Unimportant, invalidated or not seen?”
She adds that patronizing behavior can be both verbal, like someone calling you “Sweetie” or “Hon,” and non-verbal, like someone rolling their eyes or looking at their watch distractedly while you’re talking. The takeaway? While it’s easy to rationalize or dismiss what your gut is telling you, listen to it. Metz adds, “If someone makes you feel ‘less than,’ chances are they are patronizing you.”
2. Cue inner calm
Being condescended to is so frustrating, it’s easy to let our irritation boil over into full-blown anger. But this roiling emotion short-circuits our rational mind, making it hard to think and even harder to act. “When we’re upset and want to be heard, our instinct is often to yell, but just taking a moment to breathe and calm your nervous system will help you decide how you want to express yourself,” says licensed mental health counselor Nirmala Bijraj, LMHC, NCC, adding that you may even take a moment to go to the bathroom or excuse yourself to collect your thoughts.
Once you feel more relaxed, you’ll be able to put into words what exactly it is about the situation that’s bothering you. For example, you might tell yourself, “I feel frustrated that my plumber is ignoring me and only talking to my husband.” This helps you get clear on what you want to say, like, “Thank you for coming out to the house, but I’m actually the one who called you and I have a few questions…” Bijraj adds, “Deciding how you want to communicate puts you back in the driver’s seat.”
3. Respond to patronizing behavior with curiosity
Sometimes the best way to diffuse patronizing behavior is deceptively simple: “Just listen to them,” suggests Kimberly Key, PhD, author of Ten Keys to Staying Empowered in a Power Struggle. “Listening is very powerful, because a lot of times, the person is projecting their own issues or insecurities onto you.”
She explains that when you respond with curiosity by saying something like, “Can you tell me more about that?” they will often feel heard and will calm down — and their words will become less biting or critical. Key says, “The simple act of listening can be incredibly deescalating because you’re not reacting to them.”
4. Remember your wealth of wisdom
Metz admits that when she gets frustrated trying to teach her 83-year-old father how to use his smartphone, she nips even the inadvertent urge to be patronizing in the bud by reminding herself just how knowledgeable her dad is.
“He may struggle with a smartphone, but he knows the name of every tree in the forest,” she says. This helps her shift her perspective and instantly become more patient. “Simply reverse this strategy if you’re the one being patronized: For example, if your adult child tells you, ‘Why don’t you know how to do X or Y?’ you might remind them how much knowledge and life experience you do have — you could be a master gardener, a great chef, a teacher and the list goes on.” This gentle reminder helps reset your dynamic on a more respectful footing.
5. Take control with non-verbal and verbal cues
If you find younger generations talking down to you, you’re not imagining it — research proves this is a very real ageist phenomenon. And it’s especially hard to take at the doctor’s office. “If you bring your adult son or daughter to your appointment and the doctor ignores you, gently reassert control,” advises Metz. She suggests doing just that with body language: “Rather than sit in a side chair, for example, indicate that you’re in control by sitting directly across from the doctor.”
After you’ve set the stage with confident body language, “You might say, ‘Thank you so much, Dr. Smith, for giving the two of us this information. It’s really helpful to have my daughter here because I brought her to take notes. So, one of the things I was wondering about is the treatment plan.’” Your doctor may have the best intensions and may not even realize he’s being patronizing, so reminding him of the role your adult child is playing — and that you’re the one he should be addressing — will help stop patronizing behavior.
6. Take the opportunity to be a role model
When a young person is patronizing, an empowering way to flip the script is to turn it into a “teachable moment.” “For example, if someone tries to tell you how to do something you already know how to do, you might simply say something like, ‘Yes, I remember learning that when I was your age,’” says Key. When we react with patience, grace and self-respect, our inner strength sets a positive example. This way, younger folks are less likely to strike a patronizing tone with older generations in the future.
7. Sidestep patronizing ‘know-it-all-itis’
We all have someone in our life who can’t help but give us advice or let us know of a “better” way of doing something. “If this is a person you value and want a long-lasting relationship with, you might say something like, ‘I appreciate you letting me X or Y, but sometimes I don’t need advice, or I just want to share something without you giving me advice,’” says Bijraj.
And don’t be afraid to clarify your needs: “You might say, ‘I’ll check in with you and tell you when I need your advice or if I just need you to listen — right now, I just need you to be my support system.’” When it comes to stopping patronizing behavior within our inner circle, it’s a work-in-progress, Bijraj says. “Continue to communicate openly about your needs and expectations in a kind way — it’s about how we say it sometimes and not what we say.”
8. Hold onto your worth
It’s easier said than done, but the adage, “No one can make you feel inferior without you consent,” holds true. “In the end, we have to keep reminding ourselves, ‘This isn’t about me, it’s about them. I do have value — even if they don’t see me, I see me,’” says Key. A strong inner core of self-esteem starts with having firm boundaries, she notes. “If someone is talking down to you, you don’t have to take that in. To deescalate the situation, you might say, ‘Thank you for that info; I’ll consider it,’ and then move on.
Or, if someone is telling you that your way of doing something is wrong, you could say, ‘That’s not true for me, yet I appreciate your advice.’” When we advocate for ourselves, we give ourselves the powerful internal validation that not even the most patronizing person can diminish.
Want to learn more expert-approved strategies to boost your mental health? Read on: