What Is Patronizing?

It Takes One to Know One

The modern usage of the word "patronizing" only only occurs as a present participle, that is, it is an adjective intended to describe who the person it is applied to unalterably is, not what they do. And because the presumed quality is unalterable, there is no point in seeking reconciliation or remediation. The accusation is only made in the context of "unspeakable anger" so the accuser never even discloses the cause of their anger (that's the "unspeakable" part), and the poor victim of their rage has no hope of repentance -- to "repent" means to change one's behavior and do something different -- for how can you repent of what you have no idea what you did? (See my longer treatise on forgiveness "As God Forgave Us").

If this first paragraph offends you, it might be because you are patronizing and hypocritical. If your own prejudice and behavior is unalterable, STOP NOW and don't waste your time reading about how to fix the problem you don't want to change.

This essay is necessarily about me, because I don't read minds, and most of the people I know admit to (or else can be seen as) not telling the truth all the time, so I can never know what they are actually thinking (see my "BS Detector") except when they lose their temper (see "Not Angry"). I can see how people behave, and I can draw inferences, but these inferences are based on incomplete data, so they could be wrong. Everything Robert Fulghum needed to know he learned in kindergarten, and I didn't go to kindergarten, so I didn't learn those things. Maybe other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) people -- especially the guys -- think the same way as I do, maybe they don't. I can only guess. But it looks like they mostly do.

Me, it is a matter of my religion not to cause unnecessary offense. If somebody is angry at me because I follow and obey God, they are really angry at God, and it is not my problem. Jesus promised that kind of anger, and I wear the badge with honor. Everything else, if I know about it, I can do something about it, but you must not assume I know what nobody has told me. If you assume you know what I'm thinking when it is different from what I say, then you are calling me a liar, and it is extremely patronizing (yes, that word: read on) and insulting, because lies are also forbidden by my religion. Not quite 27 years ago (see "It Takes One to Know One") I learned that the best way to understand bogus accusations about my inner thoughts (which obviously I know better than anybody) is as a confession of their own inner thoughts and motives. So if somebody is accusing me of "patronizing" it most likely means that is what they are doing. Assuming I understand the word well enough to know I'm not doing it.

The word "patronizing" is not in my vocabulary (except when discussing people who use the word, like today). My dictionary defines it as behaving in an offensive condescending manner. Condescending it defines as "to behave as if one is conscious of descending from a superior position." Hmmm, at my age, I would say my education and experience is superior to most people, certainly those who use this word, but "descending"? I am an educator in this situation, and the point of education is to lift the other person up, not to "descend" to where they are. So if I am to have any idea what this word means in this context, I need to infer the mental state of the person using it. I have two unusual data points.

I was telling my woes to a family member, and she was a bit more kind and generous than other members of her demographic, and she told me that I had been "patronizing" her daughter because I quite reasonably (and accurately, as it turned out) supposed she needed instructions how to use the water faucet. She said this with her face contorted they way it is when people are angry. She obviously did not feel like she was being kind and generous.

The next day this same person came to me and apologized for her remarks the previous day. She wanted to attribute my previous "woes" (the event that triggered this conversation) to hormone dysphoria in the person she had not met and only heard my second-hand report. It made no sense at all to me. She had done me a benefit, what was there to apologize for?

Today I have a hypothesis that seems to explain all of it. It also is consistent with a 40-year policy I have adopted for dealing with Feelers. And probably also Feeler-wannabes (Thinkers who got brainwashed in Kindergarten or church, so they carefully behave like Feelers everywhere except at work where such a policy is deadly, as in "people die if you do that"). And I read the book that tells how to determine quickly if a person is a Feeler (The Art of Speed Reading People by Barbara Barron). It was an eye-opener when I read it, back in 1996.

The world is divided into (MBTI) Thinkers and Feelers, where the Thinkers create wealth and the Feelers only imagine it and are insulted if you say so. It's about what they value most: Thinkers value Truth, Justice, and Duty above affirmation, and Feelers value affirmation highest. It's that simple. In order to create wealth you need to understand How Things Work In The Real World. The Real World is what it is, and we do not "create reality" by imagining it, we adjust our thinking to what is Out There, and only that way can we devise inventions that adapt that reality to what we want it to do. And maybe we can't, because it is what it is. The point is, you must value Truth above feeling good (affirmation) or you cannot succeed at making inventions that Make the World a Better Place, that is, create wealth. That does not make Thinkers better Persons than Feelers, only better at doing the things that create wealth. Feelers are better at making people feel good, so they can do what God made them good at. Depression spoils a lot of things, and we Thinkers need to be careful not to propagate lies like assuming Feelers are Bad People. Just different. Even Feeler-wannabes can get depressed by the Lie. I know one who committed suicide because he believed the Lies. Don't go there.

Thinkers have the same number of brain cells as Feelers, only they are wired up differently. Some of those connections are made in Kindergarten, and some Thinkers never recover from it (like my suicidal friend). Me, I didn't even get those connections, so my brain cells were available for other things, like figuring out How Things Work. And because I didn't go to Kindergarten, I never learned how to give unearned affirmation. I didn't learn how to give affirmation at all. People think that because I have a PhD, I must be smarter than other people, but I'm not. If I can write better computer programs, it's because I cannot do the stuff that lubricates interpersonal relations. I suspect most guys who do well in STEM have the same problem. And the Feelers who make better bank managers and pastors and grade-school teachers and mothers, they cannot excel in STEM. We all have the same number of brain cells, just wired differently. Some women are Thinkers, and they can invade traditionally male-dominated domains and do reasonably well. Some guys are Feelers, and they can cross over the other way. But nobody has a red "S" on their blue tights, nobody leaps over tall buildings in a single bound, we all have strengths and weaknesses, and we do best when we exercise our strengths and and step around our weaknesses.

The idea of "patronizing" comes from the fact we have our individual strengths and weaknesses, and some of those strengths have higher social approval than others -- that is, they create wealth in a culture where money is power and people want power. That's not particularly good (the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil) but we live in a Fallen world. There are evil people. We should not envy them. We shouldn't even envy the good people who have different God-given strengths than we ourselves do. Bloom where you are planted.

Anyway, if you imagine another person to be "better" than you are -- that would be False, but Feelers care more about affirmation than Truth, and money is imagined to confer affirmation (another falsehood) -- then you might imagine that person to be in a higher status than you are -- maybe he is a supervisor, or a teacher where you are the student, or just richer or older than you are, or something like that -- so you might also imagine (because we Americans have good imaginations) that that other person is looking down on you and "condescending" (which is nonsense: if he is higher, he wants to stay there, not move down, but again, Truth is less important to a Feeler than being affirmed). In particular, the Thinkers who find themselves in that position don't give a rip about -- indeed they don't want to be -- wasting their time insulting (disaffirming) people who might imagine themselves to be lower rank, because they have a God-given (if they are atheists, then they are their own god, so they spell it "god-given" or "self-appointed" but it's the same thing) job to do, and their focus is on that job and nothing else. There is no intentional disaffirmation going on, it's not about affirmation or disaffirmation at all, it's all in the imagination of the Feeler who cares about such stuff, and nowhere else.

There's more. Now that the Feeler has imagined this supposedly intentional disaffirmation, their instincts and compliance with the Golden Rule (not having been there I can only suppose it was taught in Kindergarten) compel them to refuse to disaffirm the other party by telling them about the problem. Or maybe it is fear that the other person might ridicule such a ridiculous notion, which would amount to more disaffirmation, or perhaps they imagine that such evil and anti-social behavior is intractable, so saying anything would be futile. In any case they say nothing, so the hurt and hard feelings fester and grow. And the next opportunity to imagine intended insult where there is none becomes easier. Until it exceeds their "not-angry" threshold and Kaboom!

When I first started to understand this Thinker/Feeler distinction (see "Thinker-Feeler Differences"), I saw this explanation a Thinker might give his Feeler wife:

If something we said can be interpreted two ways and one of them makes you sad or angry, then we meant the other one. And if it can be interpreted only one way and it makes you sad or angry, then we still meant the other one.
That works the other way too: If something a guy might say can be interpreted two ways and one of them can be understood as affirming, then the Feeler is inclined to choose the other one. And if it can be interpreted only one way, and it is affirming, then the Feeler will still choose the other one. Don't go there, the bridge is out.

OK, this is how (I suppose) it happened. The guy part, I was there, I know that's what is going on. The Feeler part, I know they think I'm "patronizing" (disaffirming) them, they said that much (and they said it in anger, so I know it's true). I know that they have imagined multiple offenses, they both said that too. I'm trying to put the best light on what they did, not to assume anything more negative than the facts compel.

What do I do with the apology (above)? The only way to make sense of it is to see the "patronizing" attribution as a disaffirmation, and therefore contrary to her (Relationshipist) religion. It was important to her that she did not intend to insult me, but she did not expect me to believe that (because they, as one of them said in my hearing, "lie a lot," and they cannot imagine anybody who doesn't expect it), so she added the supposed explanation that the previous party was subject to hormonal imbalance and therefore also not intending to insult me. That's just a guess, but she's a smart person (not usually illogical), and it makes sense.

The important thing to remember here is that (in the mind of the Feeler) the sole purpose of disaffirmation is insult. If it had any redeeming social value, if it served any valuable purpose other than insult, they could dismiss it as necessary for that purpose, and not be accumulating silent rage. If there was even the slightest possibility that this remark taken as disaffirmation had a positive value, would they not prefer the ease of mind that the positive intention gives?

Therefore if "patronizing" (disaffirmation) can only be intended as insult, and if even telling somebody what they are doing that constitutes "patronizing" is so hostile and negative that it requires an apology, then it follows that the telling is futile, with no redeeming social value (other than expressing rage and hate, requiring an apology), which means that the behavior deemed to be "patronizing" is incurable, and therefore the person doing the patronizing is somehow "evil" and "below" the person expressing that rage, that is, the person attributing this behavior is condescending to the level of the person they are saying it to, and even more so if they don't say anything (and therefore pointedly remain morally superior). Isn't that what "patronizing" is all about?

Building on this logic, it follows that even thinking that some other person is patronizing, is patronizing and hypocritical. But, you might reasonably ask, isn't that what I'm doing here in the previous paragraph? No, because the whole thing is a crock of baloney, there is no such thing as patronizing. But if there were such a thing, then the person imagining it -- and not bringing it out into the open to be cured -- is as guilty of it as the person they imagine it of. In other words, they are a hypocrite.

Jesus did not have a very high opinion of hypocrisy, and neither do I.

Now What?

Where do we go from here? I never in any of these situations intended to give offense, but it happened anyway, like the joke above. I can reasonably infer that it cannot be prevented. At all. Ever. Well, both of those situations involved my giving instructions for doing something. OK, I can cut that part out. Never EVER give instructions to a Feeler how to do something. If you need to give them instructions, they will understand that it means they are incompetent or are doing it wrong, or some such disaffirmation. The girl was old enough to know how faucets work, so therefore she knew how this faucet worked, and the fact that it was a false supposition and I had reason to know ahead of time that it was false was irrelevant, I was disaffirming ("patronizing") her. The other situation I was in authority and in a position to know how I wanted things to be done, and they weren't being done that way, but the very fact of giving instructions was disaffirming ("patronizing"). From that day I never gave any more instructions to that person, ever, for any reason. I can do that.

Except there's a problem. I am responsible for the product we are producing, and if I cannot specify how it is to be done, then the responsibility is vacuous, and my title there is a lie. I cannot live a lie.

That's a problem "above my pay grade."

Bottom line: Never offer help or instruction of any kind to a Feeler, it insults their high opinion of themselves. And don't get into a position of authority over Feelers, because that necessitates giving them instruction, which is already forbidden.

Tom Pittman
Rev. 2022 June 9

Postscript. After I wrote this page, another guy (obviously a Thinker who had experienced the same problem as I) confirmed this conclusion. "They don't want help," he said. Weird. Guys are the ones with the reputation of refusing to stop and ask directions. Not me. My father advised me not to make that mistake, and all my life I mostly tried to follow that very good advice (see "Experience is a hard school" not quite 20 years ago). Isaac Newton quoted some 12th century monk, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." Same thing. Still good advice, disregarded at their peril by those affecting the word "patronizing."

One more thing: I'm not taking up any unearned guilt, I have enough of the Real Thing, which I understand enough to repent and receive God's forgiveness. If you don't want to add yours to the list, that's your problem, not mine. Jesus said so.