There’s a lot of people out there who want to give you advice. There’s a lot of people out there who have got feedback for you- how you speak, how you stand, how you react, how you fuck, how you spend, how you earn, how you listen.
If you’re female and you look a little young people telling you how you should live can be every conversation you have in a day.
I’ve tried every strategy for avoiding condescension. I’ve been mean, I’ve been nice. I’ve been loud, I’ve been quiet. I’ve been good, I’ve been bad. I’ve been butch, I’ve been femme. None of these ever made a difference in how other people felt they could talk to me.
Here’s the only strategy that comes close to working: have the power. Be able to make a consequence happen for someone who chooses to condescend to you. This actually will not prevent the condescension entirely, because the expectation that it is appropriate to condescend to young female people is that strong. It just limits the amount of condescension you receive, and gives you a plan of action when it does happen. It will happen. The dream of not encountering condescension is just a dream.
Often you will be condescended to by people who, in a just world, would understand there is no hierarchy on which they occupy a higher rung than you. When I was doing comedy, it was very normal for me to be given advice by men who were not good at comedy and had less experience than I did. That was an every night experience. Of course being a legal assistant or a waitress is all about getting condescended to constantly. Someone speaking to you as if you are a person with a brain who perhaps has abilities they may not have is totally unheard of.
Professionally I don’t encounter much condescension right now. My supervisors certainly challenge me but I never experience disrespect in their expectations for my abilities or intelligence. I encounter more of it when I interact with people who know me because of being public about detransition. Someone making the choice to transition and detransition is so threatening to people’s schemas that they often need you to either be a fragile, broken innocent or a deeply sick crazy. Both of these projections protect them from identifying with you. What if it’s actually kind of rational to want to escape being seen as female? That’s not a possibility most people feel safe considering, because if wanting to escape being seen as female is actually a pretty sane thing to want, then what’s going on with how we’re living? Detransitioners being rational, sane people would mean that something is very sick about how we’re all agreeing to live.
Condescension can make me feel like I want to rip my skin off. It’s a mystical phenomenon that if you experience a lot of it in one context, like work, there’s a higher likelihood you’ll get it in other contexts the same day. Your boss puts on a show of how he’s smarter than you, than a friend will need to put on that show, than the rando at the bar needs to stage that same production that night.
Here is the one question that helps me not sit in that ripping my skin off feeling: what power do I have in this situation?
I don’t believe we are limitless in our power. I don’t believe in the law of attraction. I do believe that in different emotional states we have varying levels of insight into the power we’re holding.
Often we have less power than we’d like. When a boss is putting on a little show about how smart they are, your options may not include what you’d really like to do. I know I really resent when people use me in those little shows, and so my ideal reaction would be to openly mock them in a pretty vicious way, but that reaction wouldn’t be self-serving.
When you’re getting condescended to, I think it’s worth it to get very self-serving and very interested in your power. Tap into your inner Machiavelli. What do you need from this person putting on this little show? Where do you want to go and what role does this person play in getting you there?
Oftentimes the most self-serving response to condescension is putting on a shit-eating smile. But sometimes not. Sometimes if you get too good at your shit-eating smile you will over-rely on that response, and you’ll forget it does not have to be your go-to. Each situation of getting condescended to is different, and the power you hold in each situation will be different.
“What power do I have in this situation?” reminds me that I exist. That it certainly is not the fault of my skin that this person is putting on their show. I exist, there are various hierarchies I’m navigating, I have insight into the motivations of the people around me in those hierarchies, and I can strategically move through those hierarchies to make the stuff I want to have happen happen.
Now, just to say- if you ever straight up call out condescension, usually the person you call out will try to tell you you’re nuts. So, if that’s the response you choose just steel yourself for being told you’re crazy. My general rep in the Cleveland comedy scene is as a crazy woman, and it’s largely because of appropriate reactions to very disrespectful behavior. That’s kind of how it goes with communities where the community is invested in certain types of disrespect being allowed- such as sexual harassment. In toxic contexts (especially families) being the person who displays an appropriate reaction to disrespect will net you a lot of punishment. But if you display the coping mechanisms the rest of the community is using, like substance use, you’ll be approved of. For your long term self-interest, being approved of by a toxic community is a sort of negligible benefit, especially compared to the cost of a substance use disorder. So be mindful of whose approval you want and whether the actual value of that approval is worth what you’re investing.
So a lot of the time an indirect strategy is best. A lot of the time your shit-eating smile will actually serve you. But you need to remind yourself- I’m a person with choices who is making this specific choice for this specific incentive. Then you have to make some decisions about the costs and benefits to your choice. Because it’s bad for your soul to put a shit-eating smile on your face. So you have to weigh what it does to your soul against what it does for your bank account and what that does for your rent.
Don’t be ashamed to be the person who has had to endure condescension. That’s not on you. You didn’t put on that show. I don’t think there’s anything shameful about enduring what spiritually weak and situationally powerful people put other people through. Hell is often other people. The test is how good can you get at remembering who you actually are while they’re putting on their shows. Then when you are at the top of a hierarchy, you will not be the asshole putting on that show, and people do pay attention when a situationally powerful person has mastered the art of not being an asshole. I believe in your potential to be a powerful non-asshole. I look forward to the day I get to experience what your power creates.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.