There is a female freelance writer and blogger by the name of Kat Boogaard.
5 Ways You’re Being Condescending at Work (Without Realizing It)
She divided her article with the following headings:
- You Aren’t Choosing Your Words Carefully
- You’re Always Putting Yourself First
- You’re the Master of Backhanded Compliments
- You’re Always Equating Your Experiences
- You’re a Conversational Steamroller
Although her article is about workplaces, I would like to add some of my own thoughts and make some corrections about condescension, rudeness, and anger which equally applies to Internet interactions.
I agree with some things that Boogaard said and I agree with the overall gist of her article: we all have to be careful how we communicate with others in person or in writing to avoid sounding condescending. Her article, however, is not so much about actually being condescending, but about, “sounding as if you are condescending even if it’s not your intention.” She even adds some kind of a subtitle, “You might mean well, but other people aren’t always going to view it that way.”
I received clarification from Kat Boogaard herself via email that her article is about “sounding condescending”, and thus her examples target what other people may think is condescending, not necessarily what she actually believes is condescending. Nevertheless, I find that some of the examples she uses can hardly be identified as condescending and, at other times, she seems to misidentify condescension all together in the sense that condescension is nowhere to be found in her example(s), even if other people can perceive it that way. In all, I think that judging other people for being condescending can easily end up being highly subjective to perceptions—it’s usually not a very objective assessment from one’s part. Therefore, my recommendation is that we all ought to learn how to interpret how others communicate with us far more than how we communicate with others. It’s not very helpful to tell others how not to sound condescending when the very practice of the identification of condescension is not rightly done by other people out there! It would be more beneficial to share with others on the proper identification of condescension, rudeness or anger for everyone to avoid accusing others of condescension when there might not be a single trace of condescension, to begin with. So, my critique (not of Kat Boogaard’s article) is aimed towards people accusing others of condescension, rudeness or anger when there is not a shred of evidence of any of these attitudes in any one particular situation.
What is condescension? It’s defined in many dictionaries as displaying superiority to others; making other people feel smaller. But then condescension gravitates more towards attitude, not a one-time occurrence or a set of words used in chat, email or text message. Otherwise, it can easily amount to all of us being condescending many times on a yearly basis—even the very people that accuse others of condescension! It would be very easy to [mis]identify condescension every time there are disagreements among two individuals or a group of people. Since condescension can become very subjective to one’s feelings, it’s not a proper practice to start identifying and accusing others of condescension, especially when there is no evidence of condescension at all!
I will use Boogaard’s headings to add my own thoughts. This is not a direct critique of her article but more of a corrective voice towards people out there that might misjudge others for supposedly being condescending.
You Aren’t Choosing Your Words Carefully
While discussing the usage of the adverbs “actually” and “just”, Boogaard says:
“Inserting these words into your sentences immediately makes you sound condescending. “Actually” indicates surprise–as if the fact that your colleague made a decent suggestion managed to knock you back in your chair. And, “just” implies simplicity–as if your coworker is a total moron for not coming to that solution on his own.”
If some people out there do believe that using these adverbs in these sorts of ways could be interpreted as condescension, then I find it unreasonable that the usage of these adverbs should “immediately makes you sound condescending.” Maybe the identification more properly comes from the voice tone (which requires interactions in person) as opposed to the very usage of these words (adverbs) themselves during any particular situation. It’s also far more subjective in writing than in person—it’s rare to find a voice tone in writing especially when none is displayed at all in a text. Some people, unfortunately, inject emotions into texts. It bears no sense to me that using these adverbs in these ways display any kind of condescension. To jump to the conclusion that, “just” might infer simplicity and, therefore, that the other person is a “moron” is truly a tremendous logical leap. Again, I understand that Boogaard is addressing how other people might perceive condescension as opposed to what she actually believes about condescension. But if any error is to be found in these kinds of examples, it leans more on the identification of condescension than using these adverbs in these ways! There is also a lack of context in her examples, which is acceptable given that this article is not meant to be a book on the matter. Therefore, context would matter as well. The words by themselves do not mean much or, actually, they could mean a great variety of different intentions and attitudes other than condescension itself.
You’re Always Putting Yourself First
I’m surprised that Boogaard documents this as identifying condescension even if she meant to represent what others perceive as condescending. Re-reading her paragraphs under this heading, it seems to me that this could be identified as being selfish, or something different. But even if Boogaard is correct on this being identified as condescension in whatever particular example she might have had in mind when writing this, it remains subtle and subjective to identify. It must be interpreted—and not only slightly!
You’re the Master of Backhanded Compliments
Here, Boogaard identifies the following examples as having the potential of being identified as condescending:
“This presentation turned out way better than your last one.”
“I could tell you didn’t have a ton of time, but that project still looked good.”
The examples she provides do not seem to display any kind of condescension at all. I have a hard time understanding how these examples can be identified as such by other people. First, people have to learn how to interpret better. If someone tells me that my presentation this time was better than my previous one, I will not in my right mind conclude that it’s condescending. I can conclude that I improved. I can also conclude that the other person preferred this presentation more than the previous one. I can also conclude that it’s a very sarcastic and evil comment, but only if there are such a voice tone and attitude to be found—which requires a wider context between two individuals (or a group of people). Lastly, it can mean that the previous presentation was good, but this one was much better. That is, no matter how it sounds, it is not commenting on how the first presentation was, it is only commenting that this one was better! To infer the negative and to then conclude that it’s condescending is not very reasonable and it’s quite a logical leap. In the end, to conclude that these sorts of comments are condescending might turn out to be a wrong judgment after all.
You’re Always Equating Your Experiences
I also don’t understand how the examples she provides under this heading can be perceived as condescending. I believe condescension can only be identified properly when someone speaks up with a clear attitude of superiority to others, especially when that superiority doesn’t apply in specific environments. Conversely, when the supposed attitude is only indirect and there’s no direct confirmation that there is any kind of condescension, we should not jump to the conclusion that comparing your experiences with those others when trying to be comforting is condescending. This calls more for logical fallacies than the proper identification of condescension.
You’re a Conversational Steamroller
The same applies to this heading. Boogaard explains that she has the tendency of speaking a whole lot and doesn’t’ listen much, although she has been trying to improve her listening skills over the years. Yet, talking much and not letting others speak much doesn’t really amount to condescension. It can easily be identified as something else such as being a “talker”. But this is not properly identified as condescension. Even if it does, it would not be proper to start accusing others of condescension when the intention is clearly not condescending (Kat Boogaard herself)! Again, the identification of condescension in these situations might be more associated with attitude, that is, the non-verbal actions with eye contact and hand gestures, or a pompous look more than simply talking a whole lot.
Many years ago, I had a manager who gave me an example of a female manager that had accused him of being “rude”. He told me that she had asked him some things via text messaging. Instead of typing lengthy explanations via text message, he simply typed: “call me”. She later had accused him of being “rude,” and that he could have added “please.”
My manager at that time had told me to be more careful about how I communicate with others, especially higher management. Apparently, I had been impolite to higher management by having offered a correction, where I had typed something like: “well, not quite…”. After having been accused that same day, I had responded by email that it was not correct to jump to the conclusion that my response was “impolite”. In fact, the phrase “well, not quite…” is not impolite at all. I had not used any illicit words nor do I believe to have displayed any kind of pompous attitude. It was only an email, so no voice tone should have been injected into the text. But this is precisely what seems to have been done. The same applies to the text message between my manager and the other female manager he had dealt with via text messaging. There is no voice tone, so adding “please” can be more polite (or it can at least ensure politeness), but to conclude that it was impolite to have only typed “call me” is an improper judgment on her part. The correction, in this particular instance, should stand on her side, not my manager! This, of course, assumes that what my manager recounted me was, in fact, correct and accurate (I do not have her side of the story).
I repeat that we all have to be more careful about how we interpret others more than how we communicate with others. Yes, being careful and polite when communicating with others is very important; but I argue that it’s more important on how we interpret the intentions, wordings, and attitudes of others. We ought to be more forgiving, especially when there is not a scrap of evidence for one’s perception or impression. Impressions are, well, impressions!
How many times my mother and other people at work have not told me: “don’t be angry!” Yet I remember many situations where I was not angry at all, but I was only displaying a very expressive attitude about some disagreements. I very often notice how some parents accuse their kids about being “mad” when they are not; and then those kids end up responding: “I’m NOT mad!” (with an angry voice tone). As funny and contradictory as this may sound in person from the child, we should be more careful to distinguish between someone who is being expressive when clarifying some point as opposed to truly being upset, mad or furious.