10 phrases that usually come across as condescending (even if you’re not)

Nobody likes being talked down to.

Being condescending or patronizing can make people feel stupid. It can also make them feel like you are arrogant, rude, and intentionally trying to belittle them.

So if you want people to like you (and who doesn’t?), being condescending is one of the last things you want to be.

However, it’s possible that you come across as condescending without even realizing it. There are certain phrases that can make you seem like you have a low opinion of the people you are talking to, even if that isn’t the case.

Banish these phrases from your vocabulary to help you avoid coming across as condescending to other people.

1) “Actually” and “just”

Admittedly, these are more specific words than phrases. But they have a way of making anything you say sound condescending.

Think about it.

“That’s actually a really good idea.”

By itself, this phrase would sound like you’re praising someone. But by adding actually, you make it sound as if you are surprised that that person had a good idea. 

It’s a very easy habit to slip into that can make you sound like you being condescending, even if that wasn’t your intention at all.

The word ‘just’ is the same.

“You just need to do it like this.”

Note how adding the word just this phrase makes it seem as though what you are explaining is obvious, and only a fool would not understand it. 

That’s probably not your intention when you use this phrase; you’re just trying to show how simple something is. But to other people, it can come across like you think they are stupid.

2) “That happened to me” 

When someone is sharing a difficult experience, it’s easy to think that you can empathize with them by talking about a similar experience you had.

And sometimes, that’s true. However, often, it can come across as condescending.

When a person shares a difficult problem with you, comparing it to your own problems can seem as if you are minimizing theirs. 

This can easily make you seem condescending and as though you are not really listening to their problems.

Instead, it will seem like you are just waiting to talk about yourself.

3) “Take it easy”

Along with phrases like, “chill out” or “relax”, telling someone to take it easy is an almost guaranteed way to make them even angrier than they were before.

Look, you may think that somebody is overreacting. You may even be right. But that is very rarely a helpful thing to point out.

In fact, it’s far more common that by telling someone to calm down, you will actually make them even more angry and emotional than they were before.

Phrases like these are a great way to invalidate someone’s feelings. 

No matter what your own thoughts are on how someone feels about something, it’s never helpful to criticize those feelings. And it can very easily make you seem extraordinarily condescending.

4) Nicknames

This one is an absolute minefield.

Personally, I’ve never been the sort of person who gives other people nicknames, but for lots of people, it’s second nature.

And often, it seems as though using nicknames with people is a good way to make yourself seem friendly and closer to them.

However, this can often backfire badly.

First of all, nicknames for women such as sweetie and honey when used by another woman can seem extremely patronizing. 

When used by a man, especially in the workplace, they can seem like outright sexual harassment.

The same applies when it comes to nicknames for men.

Therapist Alan Smiler points out that relationships between men are often hierarchical, and so men often call each other things like “boss” or “big guy” to be more familiar with each other. But this can often backfire, seeming condescending or even sarcastic.

In the workplace, nicknames are often best avoided completely. And if you’re going to use nicknames with your friends, make sure you know they will respond positively to them first.

5) “Yeah, right”

Even if you don’t mean it that way, there’s really no way to say this phrase that doesn’t sound sarcastic and as if you mean the opposite of what you’re actually saying.

Phrases like, “yeah, right” and “whatever” do more than simply say that you don’t care about what another person is saying. They call into question that person’s honesty and intelligence.

This probably you didn’t mean it that way. It’s possible you’ve just gotten into a bad habit of saying these phrases. 

But it’s best to lose the habit as soon as possible if you don’t want people to see you as a condescending jerk.

6) “I’m sorry you feel that way”

things youll never hear a truly empathetic person say 10 phrases that usually come across as condescending (even if you’re not)

This non-apology is more than likely to make people even more angry than just saying nothing.

A well-worded and sincere apology can do a lot to smooth over tension between different people. But a phrase like this is virtually the opposite of an apology.

That’s because you’re not apologizing for your own actions. Instead, you’re focusing on the feelings of the person who feels you ought to be apologizing to them. 

Although you are technically saying sorry, you are criticizing the way the other person feels about what you’ve done rather than your own behavior.

If you don’t feel you need to apologize, you shouldn’t have to. But a phrase like this will only make things worse.

7) “That’s so cute”

This is another one you need to be very careful of.

You might get away with it if you’re complimenting an item of someone’s clothing. But calling other people cute is often more of an insult than it is a compliment.

Saying someone is cute makes it sound like they are a little child or an adorable animas like a puppy. This is especially true when someone has introduced an idea or thought, and you then call them cute for it.

Using the term cute makes it sound as though they are too silly to be taken seriously. It’s a guaranteed way to make yourself sound condescending, even if you didn’t mean to be.

8) “I thought you would have figured this out by now”

Phrases like this often crop up in the workplace, but they can also appear in more social settings too.

The thing is, everybody learns at different rates. Just because you were quick to master a specific task doesn’t mean the next person will be. 

And just because you figured something out quicker than they did doesn’t mean that they don’t have skills and knowledge you don’t.

If someone is taking a long time to learn something, don’t make them feel worse by using phrases like this. 

Instead, it’s more helpful and less condescending if you try to help them learn what you know instead of focusing on how long it’s taking them.

9) “I understand why you feel that way, but…”

Again, this is a way of minimizing other people’s feelings. And nobody feels good when other people invalidate their emotions.

The word ‘but’ can often be a dangerous one. That’s because it changes the sentence and allows anything that comes after to invalidate what you said before.

Using ‘but’ in this way basically negates what you said about understanding someone’s feelings and sets you up to dismiss them. 

That’s why phrases like this come across as so condescending.

It’s the same with phrases like, “I see what you’re saying, but…” or, “I understand what you’re getting at, but…”

People don’t remember the first part of phrases like that. They only remember what comes after the ‘but’, and that’s what makes you seem condescending when you talk this way.

10) “I’m not so sure”

If you’re someone who is secure enough in themselves to admit when they don’t know something, congratulations! You are an emotionally mature adult.

But there’s also a phenomenon called false uncertainty, where someone pretends to be unsure of what they’re saying when really, they are totally convinced.

You see it in phrases like, “I’m not so sure that’s the best idea,” or, “I’m not sure that jacket goes with those shoes.”

You may genuinely have doubts about what you are saying, but more often than not, it will seem to be the person as if you just don’t have the confidence to express a negative opinion.

It’s a condescending way to talk that almost always backfires.

Don’t be condescending

Unfortunately, we can’t see ourselves from the outside. So we don’t always know when we are being condescending or irritating to the people around us.

But keep an eye out for the phrases mentioned above to avoid condescending the people around you. You’ll find people have a much higher opinion of you when they don’t think you are talking down to them.

Picture of Clifton Kopp

Clifton Kopp

Welcome to my writings on Ideapod! I'm a bit of a "polymath" in that I like writing about many different things. Often I'm learning from the process of writing. I hope you enjoy, and please leave a comment on one of my articles.

Enhance your experience of Ideapod and join Tribe, our community of free thinkers and seekers.

Related articles

Most read articles

Get our articles

Ideapod news, articles, and resources, sent straight to your inbox every month.