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Volume 20, Issue 9;   February 26, 2020: Unintended Condescension: II

Unintended Condescension: II

by

Intentionally making condescending remarks is something most of us do only when we lose control. But anyone at any time can inadvertently make a remark that someone else experiences as condescending. We explored two patterns to avoid last time. Here are two more.
The planet Earth on planet Earth on April 17, 2019

The planet Earth on April 17, 2019, as seen from a distance of 1.6 million km. One reasonable speculation is that the phrase "Earth to <whomever>" could not have gained popularity and wide usage before views of Earth like this one found a place in human consciousness. Image by NOAA/NASA.

In Part I of this exploration of unintended condescension, I provided two examples of phrases that carry a risk of being experienced as condescending. In those two examples, the risk results from the judgments the phrases imply. In this Part II are two more examples, but these carry no implied judgment. As in Part I, I'll use the name Charlotte (for Condescender) to refer to the author or speaker of the condescending remark, and the name Edgar (for Experiencer) to refer to the person to whom Charlotte addresses the remark.

But first let me address an issue raised by several readers who asked about the distinction between condescending remarks and patronizing remarks. The two are very similar, and some people regard the two words as synonyms. Indeed, in terms of their effect on other people, there isn't much difference, but it's worth understanding how patronizing remarks differ from those that are merely condescending.

Briefly, patronizing Patronizing remarks are
condescending, but not all
condescending remarks
are patronizing
remarks are condescending, but not all condescending remarks are patronizing. Two factors can make a condescending remark patronizing. One factor is the relative power relationship between Charlotte and Edgar, as viewed by Charlotte. If she regards herself as more powerful socially, or more knowledgeable with respect to the issue at hand, her remark is more likely to be regarded as patronizing, even if Edgar disagrees with her as to her assessment of their relative power or knowledge status.

A second factor is Charlotte's intention to protect, teach, instruct, advise, improve, or guide Edgar. To the extent that her intention is benevolent, even if misguided, her remark is more likely to be regarded as patronizing rather than condescending. When relative power status, knowledge status, and benevolence aren't factors in the scenario, the remark is more likely to be regarded as condescending, and less likely to be regarded as patronizing. Admittedly, this is a general observation; you might encounter different views in your travels.

With that clarification, and that caveat, here are two more patterns of remarks that carry a risk of being experienced as condescending.

Hello Edgar…
Used as a greeting in person or in voicemail, this phrase presents no problems. In person or in voicemail, the speaker can control voice tone, which can effectively prevent unintended condescension in this simple construction. But in text messages or in email, the recipient is in charge of interpreting tone, and some recipients interpret hello greetings as sarcastic.
Sarcasm is a risk because of the common use of the Hello construct as in, "Hello Edgar, this is planet Earth calling, what planet are you on?" Or "Hello, Earth calling Edgar, please acknowledge." Charlotte tends to use these sarcastic idioms when she wants to imply that Edgar isn't paying attention to the conversation, or that he has said something Charlotte regards as wrong or foolish on its face. There are dozens of these "earth-to-someone" variants. So many of them include the word "Hello" that the word has acquired an association that creates a risk when we use it in textual communication.
To be safer, Charlotte can use "Hi" instead of "Hello," or simply omit the "Hello."
It worked fine when I tried it
This construction is commonly used when Edgar has reported difficulty with some procedure, often involving electronic devices. Charlotte uses this construction, or any of its similar cousins, to convey the idea that she was unable to reproduce the problematic behavior Edgar is reporting.
The problem with this form is the phrase "when I tried it." Using this phrase risks having Edgar interpret the comment as equivalent to, "You idiot, *I* made it work — why can't you?" This happens because Charlotte is reporting her success, as compared to trying to understand why the device didn't work for Edgar. In other words, Edgar experiences Charlotte's report as if she were stating that she is superior to Edgar.
A safer alternative for Charlotte would be to report her failure to reproduce the problematic behavior: "That's weird, Edgar, I couldn't make it fail like that."

With these two patterns added, we now have four in our little catalog of comments that carry a significant risk of being interpreted as condescending. There are surely dozens more. One that comes to mind is what is commonly called "backdoor bragging." How many more do you know? Send them along and I'll post them. If you can't think of any right now, be on the lookout — they'll come along. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Workplace Remorse  Next Issue

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