Recently, a marketing firm called to solicit my business. They wanted me to sign up for their services, which included an online forum to produce and market classes based on my content. The young marketing rep was explaining all the features and benefits to me. Among them was a commitment to help produce social media posts, he explained, asking me in a rather condescending tone, “Do you know what social media is, Lea?” Could he have been more patronizing—or less informed about his potential customer?
It was a good reminder that unfortunately we don’t always get to collaborate with people who have mastered the nuances of communication in the workplace. Maybe you know a colleague who regularly employs a similar kind of verbal smackdown. This type of passive-aggressive behavior is meant to put you in your place, even though it’s often disguised as reasonable or friendly. Think of it as sugarcoated antagonism.
Patronizing people talk down to you. Their goal is to feel superior at your expense, resulting in you feeling belittled and inferior. You need a good game plan to defend against this type of behavior—or else your self-confidence is going to take a big hit.
Try one of these strategies to keep your cool and not sink to the level of the offending party.
1. Don’t Take it Personally
First and foremost, keep calm and carry on, as they say. If you take things personally, it’ll feel like this person is attacking you, and in turn, you’ll trigger a fear response mechanism in your brain.
When that happens you tend to make less clear and logical decisions, and you resort to more emotional ones. Remember, this person might be trying to provoke you. And if you let her, say, by lashing out to defend yourself and telling her what a jerk she is, you’ll just be playing right into her hands. Be calm, positive, and never underestimate the power of kindness in a negative situation.
2. Call Him on It
You can address bad office behavior by telling people when their actions are not OK with you. Calmly and professionally call out the patronizing person without making a scene or being dramatic by pointedly yet politely saying, “Gee, that comment sounded a bit condescending to me. Mind dropping the attitude?” Hopefully, he takes you up on the do-over opportunity.
If you’re feeling defensive and as though you might react emotionally, the best thing might be to walk away and not deal with this person right now. You can say something like, “When you’re ready to speak to me in a less condescending tone, I’ll be at my desk.” This gives you a chance to breathe, decompress, and gather your thoughts before speaking to this person again.
3. Neutralize Your Body Language
Assuming that the annoying co-worker is trying to provoke you, it’s best to respond as neutrally as possible. That means maintaining positive body language and non-hostile expressions. Avoid pointing fingers, rolling your eyes, invading the person’s personal space, and crossing your arms. Those are signals that tell her she nailed it—if, in fact, she was trying to piss you off.
Do your best to maintain a calm and neutral demeanor. Stand up straight, take up your space, don’t shrink back in offense, and hold your ground—both physically and mentally.
4. Ask for Clarification
Some colleagues may come from a different workplace culture or be accustomed to speaking to others in a certain way that they don’t recognize as being inappropriate. Your co-worker who asks if you understand the boss’ memo in a tone that you find reproachable? He may literally be clueless, completely unaware of how he’s offended you. If your co-worker has other recognizable good traits, and the occasional dip into this kind of rudeness is rare, you might want to focus on the context of what he’s saying and not the tone.
If you need to, ask for clarification. You could say something like, “I want to make sure we're on the same page and what you're saying now is throwing me off. I understand [what your co-worker's being condescending about], is there anything else I'm missing?"
Depending on your comfort level with this colleague, you could consider letting him know how you (and possibly others) are perceiving the message based on tone of voice. He may appreciate the heads up.
Remember that other people’s behavior is always more about them than it is about you. An excerpt from Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, explains this idea well: “What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering.”
You may not be able to change the behavior of others, but you can at least learn to effectively deal with them to minimize the impact and suffering on you, your confidence, and your work.