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How to Deal with Patronizing and Condescending People

by Erika Nicole Kendall
How to Deal with Patronizing and Condescending People

In the Washington Post, this story appeared:

On a bright spring day last month, I completed the 5K Color Run in Baltimore. In just over an hour, I walked the entire course while my friend, a longtime pal from college, joined the runners. She waited for me at the finish line with a smile. We took pictures of ourselves covered in glitter and a veritable rainbow of chalk dust.

“I’m proud of you!” she said. And I grinned.

But then she kept saying it. Over and over and over: “I’m so proud of you for doing this.”

I flinched with each of her cheery repetitions because I knew what she was getting at, even if she didn’t say it explicitly: “I’m proud of you for exercising while fat.”


I don’t think my friend set out to hurt my feelings with her comments. But her words hit at my most fundamental insecurities — my fear that when people look at me, they see a problem body in need of solutions, someone who requires all of the extra exercise she can get. [source]

The entire essay is worth reading, and not just because I’m quoted in it. As good as Allison’s essay is, the private interview between the author and I was even better. We discussed so many different components of what I consider to be “social exercise” – being active in public. It’s fraught with so much anxiety, not just for people who are visibly overweight, but for anyone who feels shame in their bodies who still decides to venture out to do the damn thing.

One of my quotes in the essay specifically states that “as a woman in public, they will never leave you alone. It will always be something.” And, it will. You’ll be too skinny for someone, and they’ll feel inclined to tell you. You’ll be too chubby for someone else and they, too, will feel inclined to tell you. Sometimes, these two will happen to you on the same day.

However, what I wanted to talk about is how to best handle situations where you feel like the people around you are being less than respectful or considerate of your feelings, no matter what size you are. I’m not even concerned with whether or not what was said was actually offensive; it doesn’t matter. What matters most, to me, is that it can shake ones confidence and leave them feeling shamed to the point of quitting, feeling left to believe that this exercise thing “isn’t for me,” when sometimes the communal nature of social exercise can be the thing that keeps you going.

One of the things I talked about in my interview was how people tend to believe that “fat people are always these self-loathing, very shamed into silence kind of people who need that support to pull themselves out,” but as we all know here, that’s not always the case. Many of us grew up without someone pressing upon us the importance of fitness, and it never becomes a “thing” for us to feel bad about not doing… which means, when we finally do begin exercising, it’s not because of someone else – it’s because of something inside of us that finally said “Alright, let’s try this thing out.”

And, as we are beginners, we don’t always know what we’re doing, or we feel afraid to “own” our activity and our potential to excel at it. It leaves you feeling vulnerable and insecure, grappling with a heightened sense of insecurity. When you feel this way, it is absolutely possible that even the slightest thing can feel like an attack.

That being said, some statements are plain old attacks – not just on your appearance, but your intelligence or your capabilities. Some people are jacka– uhh, simply insufferable human beings. Sometimes, they say things that cut right at the core of your insecurities about being active in public.

How do you handle that?

I’ve been in this situation countless times – sometimes I truly needed to be corrected (either my form sucked, or my weights were so heavy that they were affecting what would otherwise be great form) or supported further, and it is from those instances that I learned the most, as a trainer and as a fellow gym goer, how to handle situations where people insist upon saying the wrong thing to you.

When I’ve been corrected, the people who did it recognized it was a sensitive situation, and that their mission of merely helping and being supportive would be better served by being polite. One man, who was a trainer at a well-known gym, was so polite to me that I was inclined to hire him to work with him, and that taught me a lot about trainer-to-client interaction. If the goal is to empower instead of embarrass, politeness only gets you farther.

When a friend says (or, as was the case here, insists upon saying) things to you that are rubbing you the wrong way, you have every right to let them know, being just as sensitive to their feelings as you wish they were to yours. If they take the title of “friend” seriously, it is their obligation to listen to you when you tell them something they are saying to you leaves you feeling uncomfortable or, yes, insecure. Only a frenemy would use that as an opportunity to further rub salt in the wound by telling you to get over it, deal with it, or any other number of phrases that dismisses your concerns.

Should an acquaintance say something to you that leaves you with a side-eye, it depends on whether this is someone you actually care about, in my mind. They don’t know you well enough to know how to talk to you, but you know them well enough to not regard them as a stranger. Sometimes, a simple “don’t do that,” followed up with a “say that to me. I don’t like it” with a “Ahh, you clearly washed the reds with the whites this weekend, didn’t you?” or “there was too much lemon in that” face when you’re inevitably asked “don’t do what?” makes for a great way to see whether the person on the other end of the convo is actually interested in learning more about you. If not, then…they’re an acquaintance. No loss there.

When a stranger approaches you, however, it’s a bit more complicated. I’ve had a reader share, before, how a gym goer bullied her until she actually physically left an area, and I told her to take advantage of the gym staff and let them know what’s going on so that they can handle the offender appropriately. If you’re in a space regulated by supervisors, report them and let the people who are paid to handle it deal with them. When you’re on the street, though? Keep. Moving. Never stop to interact with a stranger – they’re strangers. They don’t know you from Annie, they don’t care if you’re okay. They don’t care what you think, or how you feel, they just want to say what they want to say often to either make themselves feel better or because they have an audience they want to impress. These are people who are putting other things in front of your right to exist unbothered. Why waste your precious time on them? Don’t. (Also? Safety issues earn an honorable mention, here.)

Ultimately, the goal is to not let the unpleasant feelings disturb you to the point where it shies you away from being active. People will always come and go, bringing their baggage and social awkwardness with them when they arrive, and dragging it out with them as they leave. Do what it takes – both mentally and emotionally – for you to be strong enough to withstand the potential for rudeness. After everything is said and done, the main person hurt by you potentially withdrawing from active living… is you. And we can’t have that!

What did you think of the WaPo essay? What would you have done? Have you ever experienced condescension or rudeness in public? How did you handle it?

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Milaxx June 2, 2015 - 9:23 PM

You have to pick you battles. If this is a true friend and not a person that’s keeping you around as “the fat friend” then tell her she’s over doing it. You may even be able to make a joke of it by telling her she’s short bussing you. Either way if it’s a true friend let them know they are being condescending. A trued friend should be able to getting checked. In fact of the small group of close friends I have, it’s a requirement. If you can’t call me out and vice versa, we aren’t being real with each other. Acquaintances or not so close friends, just re-access the type of interactions you have with them. For example, I have friends I like to hang with, but won’t go out to a restaurant with mostly because of their tipping policy but that’s another discussion for another day.

Tee June 3, 2015 - 10:38 AM

I’m pretty much that lady in so many ways.

I try to eat clean. I cook mostly because I have a stressful fairly sedentary desk job and I like the relief cooking something from scratch gives me.

Sometimes I get compliments. Sometimes I get backhanded ones. Fake wonder wrapped in condescension can’t always be read but there’s a tone that comes with it. “Do you eat like that all the time? Really? Really really?” “YOU made that? By yourself?” Watch out y’all, I can make salads by myself.

Or when I ran a 5k a few years ago and this girl kept asking if I ran. “The whole thing? Did you stop for breaks? Was this the first time ever running that far?” Even though I’d explained I had been running 5ks all summer that year.

Am I always 100% confident? No. Does that mean that I need to handhold you through your Aladdin whole new world moment that fitness and health is complicated and different for everyone? Nope. I have done better with all of this knowing I’m accountable to myself first because I live in this body.

Annette June 7, 2015 - 12:56 PM

Yes! Great advice. I am usually stunned into silence cause it come about so unexpected and so rude. Don’t want to major confrontation, yet that is what it turns into.

“People will always come and go, bringing their baggage and social awkwardness with them when they arrive, and dragging it out with them as they leave. Do what it takes – both mentally and emotionally – for you to be strong enough to withstand the potential for rudeness. After everything is said and done, the main person hurt by you potentially withdrawing from active living… is you. And we can’t have that!”

So true this a major for me. Thank you.

Charlotte June 7, 2015 - 7:07 PM

I typically don’t care about a stranger’s negativity, or an acquaintance for that matter. What hurts more is when so called “friends” ( and I use the term friend loosely here) are condescending. I once had a friend who would say, that looks nice on you, but at your size it must be hard to wear this, or do that. She would say it in such a sweet, concerning way, it was bizarre. Although she found pleasure in sugar-coating her jabs.
These people are concerns, and why I have no problem cutting people off.

Courtney January 8, 2016 - 10:05 AM

This was a great post, and I enjoyed reading the article as well. The topic really hit home for me. I will be 30 this year, and I have been struggling with becoming active, weight loss, discipline etc., since my early twenties, and I recall several unpleasant remarks concerning my up and down weight. I think for me, this article is helping me to reflect on better ways to handle this situation when I come across it again. Another thing the article has helped me to consider and reflect on, if whether or not I have actually presented my comments to others in a condescending manner or un- genuineness. I really don’t want to be that person at all. Thanks for the post! 🙂

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