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7 Patronizing Phrases at Work To Avoid—And What To Say Instead

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Korin MillerJuly 21, 2020

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It’s easy to know if someone has directed patronizing phrases at work toward you. Being talked down to can leave you feeling hurt, confused, and understandably annoyed. But while it’s not hard to spot a patronizing comment when it’s handed to you, having the awareness that you’re the person doing the patronizing isn’t necessarily so clear-cut.

This is an example of when “intention” and “impact” may not line up. That’s because even if you go into work situations with the best of intentions, the impact of your words on others may not reflect that intention and may actually cause harm to them. So, it’s possible you’re using patronizing phrases at work, even if it’s not your intention at all.

“It’s a general issue of what we call ‘the ego-centric bias,’ which reflects our confidence in our own good intentions but our constrained ability to recognize that others don’t have access to our intentions, only to our behaviors.” —organizational-culture expert Jennifer Anna Chatman, PhD

“It’s a general issue of what we call ‘the ego-centric bias,’ which reflects our confidence in our own good intentions but our constrained ability to recognize that others don’t have access to our intentions, only to our behaviors,” says organizational-culture expert Jennifer Anna Chatman, PhD, a professor of management and associate dean for learning strategies at Berkeley Haas.

So even when there’s no intention to patronize a colleague, certain words and phrases have the damaging potential—especially if you’re a manager. “These words and phrases can lower morale and impact performance,” says career consultant Alexandra Levit, author of Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future. If you use these words and phrases often, Levit says the best next step to take is to learn about and work to understand how they can be misinterpreted. From there, you can work to amend your message in the future.

With that in mind, find 7 common patronizing phrases that are used at work

1. “Never” and “always”

While these words might sound perfectly reasonable and perhaps even factually true in your head, saying things like “you’re always late” or “you’ve never gotten that right” tend to not sit well with others—at work, in romantic relationships, or anywhere else. That’s because, as Dr. Chatman says, “these extreme qualifiers are never 100 percent true, and using them can evoke a sense of exasperation.” Beyond the extreme nature of the words sounding annoying and patronizing to people, they can “also make you sound childish,” says career coach and talent manager Phyllis Mufson.

What to say instead: If you need to talk to someone about how they’re often late or messing up on a particular task, Levit recommends using words like “frequently” or “regularly” instead.

2. “Relax”

Instructing others to “relax” or “take it easy” is not only patronizing, but it also carries “the psychological connotation that a person is getting all wound up over something that is not that big of a deal,” Dr. Chatman says. Furthermore, Levit adds, using this phrase often yields the opposite effect of the intention.

What to say instead: So instead of telling someone to relax, Mufson recommends validating their feelings with a phrase like, “that’s rough.”

3. “I actually like that idea”

When you say this, it can land like a patronizing backhanded compliment. “It sounds like you’re surprised that the [person] had a good idea or thought, like you generally undervalue them,” Mufson says.

What to say instead: Simply saying, “that’s a good idea” is better, she says.

4. “You know better than that”

This phrase can stir up regressive memories of being disciplined as a child because it might as well be coming from an angry parent, Mufson says. “Most people will meet that with defensiveness.”

What to say instead: If you want to talk about a work-related issue, she recommends just stating your view objectively, without your personal judgments of the other party’s skills or intelligence, and leaving it at that.

5. “I hear you, but…”

This is “very invalidating,” Mufson says. People typically only hear what comes after the “but,” which is often how they really feel anyway, she says, adding that “it sounds like you think that your idea is better than their idea.”

What to say instead: Dr. Chatman recommends making a simple tweak by swapping “but” with “and.” So, say, “I hear you, and,” and then share your point of view.

6. “Does that make sense?”

This one can be a little tricky to navigate, given how ubiquitous the phrase is. To decipher whether you’re using it in a patronizing manner, Levit suggests analyzing the tone you use when you say it. While you may lean on the phrase as a way to ensure everyone involved in the conversation is up to speed, in effect “it can sound to people like you’re questioning their ability to understand,” Mufson says.

What to say instead: Something like “how does that sound to you?” is better, she says.

7. “As a millennial…”

Generational perspective can be helpful in some situations, but it’s usually best to reserve leading with this unless the specific perspective is asked for, Mufson says. Interjecting your viewpoint and bringing your age into it as an unsolicited and perhaps unnecessary point of difference is “labeling the person you’re talking to, rather than accepting them as a unique person,” she says.

What to say instead: Levit recommends just giving your opinion, and leaving your generation out of it.

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