A Guide to Condescending Behaviour & How to Correct It


Key Takeaways

  • Condescending behaviour means feeling and acting superior to others
  • The root of condescension might be insecurity, narcissism, and/or competitiveness
  • Correcting, interrupting, and using overfamiliar nicknames are all examples of condescending behaviour

In the office and at home, you’ll encounter an array of personalities. Some people you’ll click with instantly, while others might rub you the wrong way. Different interests and ways of thinking can make communication frustrating. This leads to misunderstandings and ineffective collaboration. If your behaviour has been labelled condescending, it’s time to make a few changes. But, what is condescending behaviour? And, what can be done about it? Keep calm and read on.


What Is Condescending Behaviour?


Condescending behaviour is showing an attitude of superiority toward your peers. It often implies that you consider yourself more intelligent than others. In most cases, it is meant to make people feel bad about not knowing or having something.


The Psychology Behind Condescending Behaviour

Psychologists have come up with various explanations for condescending behaviour. Often, the root of condescension is insecurity. Those who aren’t confident in their abilities will look for opportunities to prove their superiority and take comfort in it. 

People who condescend might also be narcissistic: they have exceptional regard and interest in themselves. So, condescending others is a way to make themselves the center of attention. Likelier than not, it is still a defence mechanism meant to draw attention away from any of their insecurities.


Any other possible explanation?

For aggressive, Type A personalities, the world is one big competition. In every situation, they want to come out on top. This attitude is likely a reaction to environmental factors, like upbringing. For them, interpersonal interactions are all about achieving and maintaining control. Condescending others is an easy way to accomplish this goal. 

To better understand your own personality and how to interact with those around you, take our free DISC personality assessment!


Examples of condescending behaviour and a kinder alternative


Condescending Behaviour Kinder Alternative
Explaining Things People Know:

If you find yourself frequently explaining things to your peers, this is a bad sign. While training employees or teaching children might be necessary, applying this habit to other scenarios is problematic. When you explain something, you assume the other person doesn’t know about it.

Instead of assuming that another person is ignorant, stop and ask them, “Are you familiar with….?” Alternatively, proceed with your story and assume that they’ll ask for an explanation if they require one. It’s better to assume their knowledge than ignorance. 

And, anyway, even if they require an explanation, knowledge comes in many forms.

Correcting Pronunciation:

When someone mispronounces a word, it’s tempting to correct them right away. But interrupting someone to correct pronunciation can embarrass them and mess with their flow. It’ll also make you seem like a know-it-all. 

If it’s a casual conversation and a minor mistake, let it go. However, if the mistake might be consequential, it’s worth correcting. Wait for a lull in the conversation, or a private moment, and ask them something like, “Is that how you pronounce……? I always thought it was pronounced….”

This is a gentle way to hint at their incorrect pronunciation. Without a larger audience, they hopefully won’t feel that your correction was mean-spirited.

Overusing the Word “Actually”:

If you’re starting a sentence with actually, you’re probably correcting someone. For example, “Actually, it was 1492, not 1493.” Unless you’re an expert being asked to share your knowledge, there’s probably no need to make this minor correction. If you’re a stickler for facts, 

The word can also be condescending when giving a compliment. For example: “Wow, that’s actually a great idea.” See how it implies that you’re surprised by the other person’s intelligence?

Whether you’re an expert in your field or a stickler for facts, it might feel wrong to let mistakes go uncorrected. Well, if that’s the case, there are gentler ways to do it. Cut out the “actually” and try posing the correction more gently: “Hm, I think it might’ve actually been 1492, but I know it’s not that important.” As with correcting pronunciation, avoid doing this in group settings where you might embarrass the other person.

The same goes for compliments— cut out the “actually” and just say you like an idea. 

Avoid Compliment Sandwiches: 

The compliment sandwich is a popular feedback method. You start with a compliment, give a critique, and end with another compliment. In the wise words of Mary Poppins, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

At the same time, the pattern will be familiar to employees. It might feel forced and fake. Peers might feel coddled and  prefer direct communication 

Instead of following compliments with “but” phrases, just give your critique. Give encouragement when it occurs to you instead of forcing it out to soften a blow. This way, it’ll feel more genuine. When giving a critique, offer suggestions on how to address the issue. In other words, constructive criticism is the way to go.
Overfamiliar Nicknames:

We spend a lot of time at work, it’s natural to become familiar with coworkers and employees. But, to create a respectful environment, it’s important to maintain professional boundaries. Avoid calling employees “chief” or “honey”. You might be attempting to create a warm environment, but others can feel condescended to. Plus, these nicknames are often gendered which can feel exclusionary. 

Avoid offending anyone by simply using their names. When in doubt, check in with people to see what they preferred to be called. Just because others call them by a nickname, doesn’t mean they want you to too. Plus, remembering a person’s name makes them feel respected and recognized.
Know When It’s Appropriate to Make Jokes:

Humor is a great unifier— it gets people to loosen up and bond through joy. But, there’s a time and place for it. In work and personal life, there will be moments when people feel comfortable sharing emotional stories. This vulnerability might make you feel uncomfortable and one natural response to this is cracking a joke. However, doing this can trivialize the person’s experience and make you seem insensitive. 

When in doubt, listen. Pay attention to your peers’ body language and tone of voice to get a better sense of how serious the conversation is. Save your jokes as an icebreaker at the beginning of a meeting or, better yet, for out-of-office gatherings. Also, when in mixed company, keep your jokes G-rated to avoid offending anyone. People have different senses of humor and you don’t want to offend anyone in trying to make them laugh. 


No one likes a know-it-all. Therefore, even if you’re eager to share your knowledge, there are sensitive ways to do so. Next time you’re tempted to interrupt or start a sentence with “Actually…”, take a step back and remember a little restraint goes a long way.



Professional Leadership Institute (PLI) is an educational website providing professionals from all types of businesses with practical education in human resources and leadership. To keep evolving your leadership toolkit, additional PLI resources below will be useful:


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