A Quick and Easy Way to Tell if Something You’re About to Say is Patronizing

January 31, 2006 | 32 comments
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If you’re speaking to two people, or to two groups of people, ask yourself: if I switch the subject and object of the sentence I’m about to utter, would the result be a horrifying gaffe?

For example, from the pulpit: “The Valentine’s Sweetheart Dance will be held at 7:00 on February 10 at the Stake Center. Brethren, consider yourselves warned. Wives, you have my permission to beat up your husbands if they’re not ready to go at the right hour.”

Bonus: A Quick and Easy Way to Tell if You’re Being Oversensitive to Paternalism

If a failed attempt at humor worked in as a tagged-on patronizing comment provokes much more than a subtle roll of the eyes, a stifled sigh, and a throwaway blog post.

32 Responses to A Quick and Easy Way to Tell if Something You’re About to Say is Patronizing

  1. Boris Max on January 31, 2006 at 2:42 pm

    Rosalynde–

    I’m with you, my sister, but doesn’t this have larger implications? You seem to indicate in your last paragraph that you are just blowing off steam, but perhaps there is more here. Let’s leave behind that obviously tasteless comment and look at this hoary old piece of cultural mormonism:

    Women are more spiritual than men.

    Now let’s perform your operation on it:

    Men are more spiritual than women.

    Does this bit of folk wisdom thus fit into your formulation? Is it a horrifying gaffe? Does any gendered comment since that pesky bifurcated audience is usually present? If so, a whole lot of “discussion” in Sunday School should generate eye rolling, snarky blog comments, etc.

  2. Julie M. Smith on January 31, 2006 at 2:50 pm

    Does this bit of folk wisdom thus fit into your formulation?

    Yes.

    Does any gendered comment since that pesky bifurcated audience is usually present?

    Yes.

    If so, a whole lot of “discussion� in Sunday School should generate eye rolling, snarky blog comments, etc.

    Yes again.

    :)

  3. Keith on January 31, 2006 at 3:01 pm

    Traditional fireside intro: “Sister ______________ is our speaker tonight. She is here with her handsome husband Bill.”

  4. Kaimi Wenger on January 31, 2006 at 3:10 pm

    It’s a good thing we have Rosalynde and Julie here to answer your question, Boris. They’ve probably got better answers than I would — after all, women are more spiritual than men . . .

  5. Rosalynde Welch on January 31, 2006 at 4:09 pm

    Boris, as Julie suggested, yes, I think unsupported platitudes about women’s superior spirituality are patronizing. (If there were any way to conduct reliable social scientific measurements of the comparative spiritualities of the genders, it might be a different situation—a tricky one, to be sure, but not precisely a patronizing one.) But not all observations about the genders are patronizing: for example, in a discussion of church service, “Wives should support their husbands in their callings.”

    Keith: Ah yes, the ever-hot topic of the speaker-spouse intro! I personally don’t get too hot or bothered by the “and his lovely wife”—I think there are bigger fish to fry, namely the fact that those lovely wives tend to shy away from serious doctrinal engagement when they’re the speakers themselves. (Your own perfectly lovely—and exquisitely brainy and gracious and generous and insightful—spouse being an inspiring and exemplary exception!) But to the extent that “her handsome husband Bill” sounds like it would have to be spoken in irony, yes, the “lovely wife” is mildly patronizing.

  6. Mike B on January 31, 2006 at 5:42 pm

    How can anybody really know which gender is more spiritual? And what do speakers mean when they use that word? Do they mean “more committed”? Do they mean “more willing to do their visiting/home teaching”? Do they mean “more willing to magnify their callings”?

    All my life I’ve heard that the women are more spiritual. That may be true, I don’t know. What I do know is that when my wife served as ward relief society president, there was a whole lot of eye opening on my part to what many sisters weren’t doing that patronizing priesthood leaders were implying they were doing.

    Women may be more spiritual, but who really knows? And if they don’t really know, it strikes me as a little patronizing to say so. Even as a man.

  7. Mike B on January 31, 2006 at 5:51 pm

    Sorry this may be a bit off topic, but I must be missing something on the Valentine’s Day thing. I never hear the women urged to remember it. I haven’t taken the opportunity to research the history of this lovely day, but was it always intended to be a “men giving women something” occasion?

    I’m happily married. The last two years we’ve actually taken the boys with us out to eat. Is that my fault, or hers? (BTW, we’ve both been fine with that).

  8. Tatiana on January 31, 2006 at 6:05 pm

    Great idea, the switcheroo test!

    Whenever male bosses say things to me like “Sweetie, would you mind doing this?” I usually answer something like “Sure thing, sugar-puddin!” with a big grin, making sure that my endearment is sillier than theirs. At first they’re quite surprised, then they get the joke, then they stop addressing me like that. It doesn’t seem to cause any hard feelings, either, since I’m just poking good-natured fun at them about it.

    Once I had to sit in the office of a coworker for an hour to do something on his computer, and he had one of those pinup calendars with an SI-swimsuit-issue level softcore porn picture on it that was in front of my face the whole time. At the bottom of the note I left him about what I had done on his computer, I wrote “P.S. Your calendar has caused me to lose all respect for you. :-)” And the next time I stopped by it was gone.

    I don’t know if that sort of brother-sister style banter and teasing would ever be appropriate at church. It seems to work well for me when dealing with gender issues in my nearly-all-male work environment. I take plenty of teasing as well, believe me, but it’s all in good fun.

  9. Julie M. Smith on January 31, 2006 at 7:45 pm

    Whenever male bosses say things to me like “Sweetie, would you mind doing this?�

    /drops dead.

    (Which, I suppose, means that your approach is better.)

  10. Tatiana on January 31, 2006 at 8:55 pm

    Seriously, Julie, do you never get that? Maybe I’m too approachable or something. Maybe I need to cultivate more of an air of haughty reserve. ;-)

  11. Julie M. Smith on January 31, 2006 at 9:11 pm

    Well, I haven’t worked in many (any?) office-type jobs. And I do convey more of a salty spirit than a sweet spirit (I borrowed that line from one of Z’s daughers–suits me nicely). And I snarl.

  12. Jonathan Stone on January 31, 2006 at 9:13 pm

    This just goes to the general social problem that is is perfectly acceptable to insult and make fun of men as much as you want, but if you turned it around on women, you would be condemned as a sexist.

    Think of the last ad you’ve seen where the man wasn’t portrayed as a beer-swilling frat boy or an incompetent-but-well-meaning husband/father. I was speaking with an ad agency executive the other day. He showed an ad with precisely such a father, and afterwards I asked him why husband/fathers were always portrayed that way, while wives/mothers were always portrayed as intelligent, organized, and competent. He said, “Because nobody complains. Men are the perfect foil for advertising. If women were portrayed like that, complaints would flood in. But when men are, nobody says a thing.”

    I wonder why that is.

  13. Rosalynde Welch on January 31, 2006 at 9:31 pm

    Because women are being constructed as the consumers in the ads targeted at them, Jonathan. The gender dynamic you describe may well operate in some regions of cultural representation, but I think ads are a bad place to go looking for supporting evidence. Ads are first, last and always about transforming the viewer into a consumer.

  14. Elisabeth on January 31, 2006 at 10:59 pm

    So the question on everyone’s mind – are you going to the Valentine’s Sweetheart dance, Rosalynde? I’d love to see pictures!

  15. Kaimi Wenger on January 31, 2006 at 11:03 pm

    If she does go, E., I hope John asks her using one of the wonderfully awful Law and Order Valentines cards.

    Myself, I definitely plan on sending one of these to Mardell!

  16. Jonathan Stone on January 31, 2006 at 11:27 pm

    Rosalynde, that may be true, but that doesn’t change the point made by the ad agency executive. If the situation were reversed, and it was the woman instead of the man who was acting like a moron, and the man instead of the woman who was always saving her from her mistakes, then the complaints would flood in.

    My point isn’t about the attitudes in society reflected in the ads, but rather the attitudes in society reflected by the public’s response to the ads.

    And, to be honest with you, I haven’t written in to complain. It simply doesn’t bother me that much. But I do believe it is a good illustration of your point about swapping the roles and checking one’s comfort with the reverse situation.

  17. Julie M. Smith on January 31, 2006 at 11:41 pm

    “If the situation were reversed, and it was the woman instead of the man who was acting like a moron, and the man instead of the woman who was always saving her from her mistakes, then the complaints would flood in.”

    There is one common ad format where this happens: the woman is very distraught over her inability to (stop her headache, get her whites their whitest, etc.) and a male announcer provides the solution to her ills.

  18. Rosalynde on January 31, 2006 at 11:52 pm

    Ah! I take your point, Jonathan.

    Oh dear no, Elisabeth, I’m afraid a mere beating couldn’t get my sweetheart to the dance. That would take something really brutal, like threatening a “Sex in the City” marathon at home.

  19. Kaimi Wenger on February 1, 2006 at 12:23 am

    If it will help any, Rosalynde, I’ve got some DVDs you can borrow to make your threat more credible.

  20. Russell Arben Fox on February 1, 2006 at 12:24 am

    John doesn’t dance?

  21. annegb on February 1, 2006 at 3:02 am

    I hate these stupid holidays. They are an excuse for card companies (oh, and my gosh, candy companies, I am so sick of sugar, I have scanned candy all day) to make money. They just give us one more thing to do. I wish we could outlaw all holidays except Christmas and Thanksgiving.

    I guess we could do Halloween since it doesn’t involve getting all warm and fuzzy.

    I would be the one waiting at the door for Bill to get beautiful for a dance. He’s the sentimental one. I’m annoyed with the whole thing.

  22. Rosalynde on February 1, 2006 at 10:08 am

    Russell, let’s just say John is a maniac on the *hospital* floor. The dance floor, not so much.

    Kaimi, I’ve actually never rented the “SitC” DVDs: I’m a little nervous that I’d be turned off by the spice and steam. I watch the edited reruns on television. Yes, the episodes are mangled and butchered, but they adequately follow the progress of Carrie’s hair, which is the story line I’m most into anyway.

  23. LisaB on February 1, 2006 at 1:18 pm

    Darn it! I thought this post was going to be about when we realize we’re being condescending like when we snub someone who doesn’t understand a term we use, or try to tell someone else what they should do with their lives. For instance on the LDS homeschool listserve when I said I’d prefer to have a planning meeting in the evening, and another commenter responded with all the righteous reasons she couldn’t meet except during the day (FHE M nights, Mutual T, W, or TH, “we SHOULD be spending Fri eves with our husbands”…, no additional meetings Sunday so we can have family time, etc.) Good grief. Just say you’d prefer daytime!

    At any rate, I don’t really have anything to say about sexist announcements except that they’re usually funny to most people ’cause most people can relate to them, and serve to get people’s attention. I know, doesn’t mean they’re appropriate. Guess I don’t really call that condescending.

    Here’s condescending. An uncle of mine was visiting when I was high school age. I joined in a conversation about American culture and commented that I’d been wanting to read Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind he said something like “That’s a rather heady book for a young lady.” Yeah, right. Okay, one more. Several years ago, an older (40-something, I’m 30-something) male member of the ward and I were both called to teach gospel doctrine. I simply wanted to trade off lessons. He had to travel some for work so said it might not be every other week, and I was fine with that, but he said he would go ahead and prepare every lesson just in case I needed help on mine. Hee hee. When he moved away a year later, he said he was surprised how much he’d learned from me about teaching. Okay, now I’m bragging. But it was funny given his initial attitude.

    Okay, now, examples of when I’m condescending? Oh, you’ll have to get those from my victims. (Jesse, don’t you dare!)

  24. Jesse on February 1, 2006 at 3:08 pm

    I would only note that the thickness of our dictionary is a measure of what it takes to correct you when you are asserting that I have incorrectly used some obscure word.

    Phlbtbtbt!

  25. LisaB on February 1, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    :-)

  26. Kaimi Wenger on February 1, 2006 at 7:43 pm

    Rosalynde,

    You ought to think of how this post would sound if you had titled it “A Quick and Easy Way to Tell if Something You’re About to Say is Matronizing” . . . :P

    Tatiana,

    I’m still upset that you messed up my favorite calendar!

    Rosalynde again,

    There’s not _that_ much spice in the DVDs; it’s a show marketed towards women, not men.

    Grumpy Anne,

    I doubt that you’ll find much support for holiday banning, but good luck! I’m going to be picturing you as the grinch from now on.

    Well, a nice grinch. Who makes good blog comments.

  27. Mark IV on February 1, 2006 at 9:00 pm

    Tatiana # 8 said,

    “Sweetie, would you mind doing this?� I usually answer something like “Sure thing, sugar-puddin!�

    Tatiana, that is something I find endearing about you Souther’uns. Women call me sweetie or sugah at work all the time. Sugar-puddin wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow.

  28. srb on February 2, 2006 at 2:41 pm

    >If there were any way to conduct reliable social scientific >measurements of the comparative spiritualities of the genders, >it might be a different situation—a tricky one, to be sure, but not >precisely a patronizing one.

    It’s interesting that you say this. A colleague and I are actually conducting research on this topic as we speak. Not exactly as you state it, but we’re examining our hypothesis that women are less morally plastic than men. Said another way, we think that men evidence greater variability (relative to women) in their moral behaviors as a result of contextual factors. I’ll have to let you know how it turns out.

  29. Jesse on February 2, 2006 at 2:42 pm

    I once attended a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee where Sen. Clinton called the Deputy Secretary of HHS “Honey.” He didn’t respond well.

    Today, I attended another hearing where Sen. Smith (he’s LDS) was recognizing members of his subcommittee for opening statements and after Sen. Clinton got done, he said, “Thank you sist… Senator Clinton. Sen. Talent, you’re recognized for an opening statement.”

    I think I was the only person in the chamber who found that particular slip of the tongue to be rather funny, or who even recognized it, for that matter.

  30. Jim F. on February 2, 2006 at 3:26 pm

    I bet everyone else thought merely that his tongue had become tied.

  31. Jesse on February 2, 2006 at 4:18 pm

    Yup. :-)

  32. Mark IV on February 2, 2006 at 4:52 pm

    Jesse, that is funny. At least he didn’t “turn the time over” to her!

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