how can I get my employee to stop condescending to me?

A reader writes:

I am a fairly easygoing person with one major weakness: I cannot handle it when men are condescending. After years of weathering many insufferable male friends, colleagues, boyfriends, and family members, I have simply had a lifetime’s fill of being condescended to. My tolerance has reached its limit. Now, when men in my personal life condescend to me, I get angry and fight back. Obviously, that will not fly in the workplace, and so far I have been able to hold my feelings back at work.

I have just become a new manager in higher education, and as one of your readers, I was sure that I would be at least somewhat equipped to handle tough situations on the job. Sadly, I’m finding out that I’m not a great manager. I hired a promising student employee who seemed polite and reasonable during his interview. However, now that he is my employee, he constantly condescends to me and says things that come across in a belittling way. Here are some examples:

Me: “Fergus, I was going to train you on how to groom llamas today.”
Fergus, with a dismissive laugh: “Yeah, I was wondering when you were going to get to that.”

Me: “Fergus, has anyone shown you how to boil water in the teapots yet?”
Fergus, with a dismissive laugh and a shrug: “I mean, how hard can it be?”

Me: “I just noticed an issue with my llama grooming documentation and wanted to make sure I corrected that so you have the right information.”
Fergus, with a dismissive laugh: “Yeah, I was wondering what you meant by that.”

I don’t know if the tone really comes across, but with everything he says, it feels like he’s trying to be smarter than me, or one step ahead of me, or wondering why I’m such a ditz that I haven’t already addressed something he sees as wrong. And he’ll always act like this stuff is easy and he’s the expert, but when he has to actually groom the llamas for the first time, he needs all the help he can get.

I cannot even explain how much this gets under my skin. It has been all I can do to contain my irritation, and I have started to respond by becoming irritable, which I know is not excusable. Recently, he gave me the “I was wondering when you were going to get to that,” treatment, and I snapped back, “I can’t download my entire brain to you in one sitting!” He laughed, as though it was a big joke, but I felt terrible because I knew I had spoken in anger. I didn’t apologize, though.

It’s gotten so bad that I don’t want to be at work while he’s working for me. I don’t think I can fire him over such a small thing (how could I explain it to him? to my boss?) and I don’t think it’s something I’m entitled to try to manage out of him, since he’s only a student employee, and I’m not sure it’s fair to nitpick someone’s personality just because it’s not compatible with mine. It’s not really a performance issue, because for the most part, he’s doing fine.

I’m guessing I just need some mindfulness classes, and some deep breathing exercises. But do you have any advice for this kind of conflict? I’m supposed to be the person in a position of power, but it simply does not feel that way. I’m very new to all of this, and probably more insecure and self-conscious than a manager should be, and everything he says undercuts my confidence, and feels unfair. As this is his first job, it’s possible he’s feeling insecure as well, but the way he’s expressing it is just not okay to me. What are your thoughts on this?

You’re right that you shouldn’t slam him down with all the accumulated fury of years dealing with male condescension — but it’s not true that you can’t address this at all.

This isn’t about nitpicking his personality! It’s about professional communication at work. That’s very much in your purview to address, and addressing it would be in his best interests — because what he’s doing sounds incredibly irritating and is bound to rub future managers and colleagues the wrong way, even ones who aren’t bringing your particular sensitivities to the equation.

It’s possible you’ll need a separate, sit-down conversation with him about this, but you might be able to solve it by responding in the moment each time he makes one of these comments. To do that, when he lets one of these patronizing comments fly, let yourself have a natural reaction of confusion or concern and make him explain what he means. For example:

You: “Fergus, I was going to train you on how to groom llamas today.”
Fergus, with a dismissive laugh: “Yeah, I was wondering when you were going to get to that.”
You, with a confused look: “What do you mean?”
Fergus: “Well, it’s taken long enough!
You: “I’m purposefully pacing out what you learn when, because different needs come up at different parts of our project cycle and I need to ensure you’ve learned the first pieces before we move on. Do you have a specific concern about the schedule I’m training you on?” (Or just: “What an odd remark. Do you have a specific concern about the schedule I’m training you on?”)

You: “Fergus, has anyone shown you how to boil water in the teapots yet?”
Fergus, with a dismissive laugh and a shrug: “I mean, how hard can it be?”
You (visibly taken aback): “Whoa. That’s an alarming comment to make. What do you mean by that?”
Fergus: “Well, I’m sure I can figure it out on my own.”
You: “No, we have a specific way of doing it because (reasons). When you make comments like that, you come across as cavalier about our processes, which really concerns me.”

You can also use one of these incidents to address the larger picture. For example:

You: “Fergus, has anyone shown you how to boil water in the teapots yet?”
Fergus, with a dismissive laugh and a shrug: “I mean, how hard can it be?”
You (serious tone): “Let’s pause here, before we get into the water boiling. What you just said is an example of something that’s concerning me about how you’re communicating in this job. You make a lot of joking comments that sound as if you feel you’re already an expert and don’t need guidance. It comes across very strangely, because anyone in your position should expect to need guidance. Those comments are coming across as condescending and disrespectful. I’m sure you don’t intend that, so I wanted to let you know so that you can stop doing it.” You could add, “I want to be clear that I need you to be respectful to all your colleagues here, not just me, just as I expect them to be respectful to you. That’s something any employer is going to expect from you, so this job is a good time to get a handle on it.”

And from there, if it keeps happening, you can pause in the moment and say, “This is the sort of thing we talked about. Can you say that a different way?”

For what it’s worth, I’d bet none of this is about actual disrespect for you, but instead is about Fergus’s own insecurities. When someone makes a point of trying to seem more in the know than they are (and especially when it’s obvious to everyone around them that of course they’re not in the know, and they’re not expected to be), it’s usually because they feel anxious and in need of proving themselves. (The irony, of course, is that this strategy does the opposite of what they intend.)

But knowing that doesn’t make it any less annoying, and you 100% have the standing — and I’d argue, as his manager, the obligation — to tell him to stop.

I think, too, knowing you have the power to address this firmly should help with some of the irritation you’re feeling. In fact, it’s similar to the advice I give to managers who yell — there’s no need to yell when you’re the person who has all the power in the situation. Yelling comes from feeling helpless and not realizing their role as a manager comes with built-in tools to change the situation. I see some of that in your letter — you’re looking at your options as “say nothing” or “fire him,” and forgetting about the vast middle ground of “direct, authoritative conversation.” Start there!

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 540 comments… read them below }

  1. Nep*

    Just here to provide all the sympathy to the OP because I understand this feeling. I understand it very very well. [sympathetic fistbump]

    1. rayray*

      Same. As a woman who also looks very young and youthful, I get it EVERYWHERE. All the time, in professional and in personal contexts. It’s incredibly frustrating to deal with.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        Oh, I empathize SO MUCH. When I was in my 20s, it was absolute hell trying to get taken the least bit seriously, and it was INFURIATING.

        1. Jennifer Thneed*

          That’s actually kind of the problem. I’m in my 50’s now, but when I was in my late 20’s I was seen as being in my late teens. When I mentioned it, I’d get all the “nice problem to have; you’ll be glad when you’re older” responses — and it was very dismissive of my concerns in that moment.

          As it happens, it was partly the braces and partly the personality. I’m still outgoing and can be excitable, but I’ve caught up with myself and I look my age now.

          1. NotATeenager*

            Ugh this. I get this *all the time.* Being assumed to be a teenager when you are trying to be taken seriously as a professional and competent adult is not actually a nice problem to have. Looking like a teenager now also does not mean I will have good skin when I’m older or whatever it is people who say this are wishing they still had. It invariably comes up in conversations where I am explaining exactly what kinds of problems I just encountered because someone thought I was 15 or something. It makes it very clear that the person wasn’t actually listening and it feels so condescending. I mean I literally just said “I hate being treated like I’m not an adult” and they basically responded “You’ll appreciate it when you grow up!”

            1. EinJungerLudendorff*

              They’re basically not taking you seriously on your problems with people not taking you seriously.

              It sounds absolutely infuriating to deal with.

          2. Snarkaeologist*

            Yeah I can understand that on a personal level, there’s a time in my life when I’ll be thrilled to look 15 years younger. But that doesn’t erase the trouble I’ve had professionally when people thought I was college-aged and not a 30-something with decent work experience and a masters degree.

      2. Wing Leader*

        Yeahh… I’m a professional woman and will be 30 in a few months, but I look young. I still get people calling me “sweetie.” Stahp.

        1. Rayray*

          I’m 30, look much younger. I could say I’m 19 and people probably wouldn’t bat an eye. When I say I’m 30, it’s all “*gasp* Whaaaaa??! No way!!”

          1. MCMonkeyBean*

            I’m in the same boat and I’ve mostly gotten used to it (though I absolutely hate when people say “you’ll be glad when you’re older” because it’s obnoxiously dismissive and also they don’t know it’s that true) but the thing that’s starting to really annoy me is that whenever I say I’m married people act like it’s the most *adorable* thing they’ve ever heard. Like when 7 year olds pretend to marry at recess or something.

            Sorry for the unexpected rant, I may have just had a particularly annoying encounter with a waitress a couple of nights ago lol.

          2. Tiny Soprano*

            Ugh me too. It’s so irritating. I’ve started saying completely deadpan that the ancient eldritch horror with which I cohabit this mortal form is preserving it for the Time of Bones. Usually makes people uncomfortable enough to drop the subject.

        2. Keymaster of Gozer*

          Last time someone at work called me ‘sweetie’ I said ‘unless I’ve got Starburst wrappers stuck all over me that’s not an appropriate description’.

          (I do let staff know what nicknames or casual names I’ll accept. Sweetie et al aren’t on that list. It’s so….demeaning)

          1. Anongineer*

            Yeah I had a male coworker (who’s overzealous in other areas of life because of “chivalry”) insist on opening my car door and said “Here you go sweetie” when a group of us were going to lunch. I’m surprised my head didn’t explode with how over the entire situation I was. I wish I had said something that clever though! I just told him I don’t do pet names, and especially not from coworkers.

          2. Working Mom*

            Years ago when I was fresh out of college I had a job where most of had 4-year degrees in this specific industry, as well as outside certifications. Then, there were a smattering of older folks – most where retired from their main career and were diving into a second career in retirement. These were the people who had zero experience in this field and just on a whim, go an online certification and then bam, we now work together. Sorry for the lengthy context, but it matters. One day after months of frustration dealing with one older gentleman in particular (at the time – he was about my father’s age, and I his daughter’s age), he did something that was flat out wrong and I professionally corrected him (I wasn’t snarky at that point). When I did, he came back with, “Young lady….” about to tell me my place. OMG I let him have it. Not anything wild and crazy – but I literally held up my index finger in his face and said, “STOP. DO NOT CALL ME THAT.” And proceeded to educate him that his 6-weeks of online certification does not equal 4-year degree and while he may be 30 years my senior – in this role I have more experience than him. Period. And then I walked away.

            Fast forward …. he apologized – and we developed a great working relationship. But good god don’t call me young lady!!!

        3. Kat in VA*

          I hear you. I will be 49 this year and I still have people who call me “young lady”. That’s not a humblebrag – I objectively look every inch of my age. Nor do I think it’s a compliment; it’s said almost exclusively by men in their late 60s-early 70s. *sigh*. Can I just, you know, do my job without all the extraneous BS?

        4. Emily S*

          Wow. How gross. I don’t care how young someone looks, “sweetie” is a pet name for dogs and romantic partners, not acquaintances or coworkers.

      3. Harvey 6-3.5*

        I have often imagined this would be frustrating. When I train newly hired colleagues, but particularly women, I try very hard not to minimize their previous (usually very high level) expertise, often in areas somewhat different from my expertise.

        I think I’ve been successful at doing that, but I totally understand how OP could be fed up by disrespect, because men (including me) are sometimes (perhaps often) this way unintentionally (not an excuse, just a statement of fact). And I don’t think there is an easy answer, but the scripts Allison gave are good starts and would probably be decent for use with managers of the same or higher level as well.

      4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I find even when you stop looking youthful, it continues. Still incredibly frustrating, though.

        1. Arts Akimbo*

          Right, because then you’re the cute older lady. Aww, look at her in the workplace doing worky things, trying to operate a computer!

          (I may be a bit raw about that one, LOL)

      5. DS*

        During my first few years out of college, it seemed like *everyone* was egregiously condesending – coworkers, doctors, aquaintances, people in stores – everyone. But now that I’m almost 40, it seems like it never happens anymore. Now I get respect everywhere I go. I honestly don’t think I’m *that* different from how I was then. I just look older. Its amazing how differently I’m treated beacause of it. I wonder if people will start being patronizing again once I start to looking much older than I do now, though.

    2. Tehanu*

      Me three or me four. I just turned 50 and it’s been a lifetime. Gets a bit better with having increased age/authority but it’s startling how it just keeps … on … happening …

      1. Whitewaterchica*

        Yes, so much yes I am 45 yo, spent several years working as an engineer, and now work as a technical project leader. I also happen to love hobbies that tend to be male dominated. My cup has been overflowing for years. No matter how much experience and skill I might have I have still have to prove myself over and over and over and over…it’s exhausting.

        1. Tinker*

          a r g h

          I have a somewhat similar history profession and hobby wise, and I’m a trans guy who has become casually read as male over the past couple years — though most of my current coworkers have known me for longer than that.

          It was striking to me how before I had top surgery it was an almost unremarkable feature of my life that I would have to step off the sidewalk fairly regularly to avoid being run into, and immediately after — it’s now been over a year — this stopped dead.

          For various reasons I’m getting to strongly suspect that I’m going to have similarly spectacular results regarding the rate at which people roll their eyes when I suggest that I have certain engineering and technical skills as soon as the people who I am discussing that with are all people who have met me in the past year.

          1. !*

            I often play a game in public spaces where I don’t move out of people’s way who are barreling towards me. I have been slammed into more than once, always by men! And I am not a small person! I like to think that for the very few who bother to apologize, I have made a difference in their level of awareness of the space they take up in the world.

              1. Kat in VA*

                Heeyyy I thought I was the only one who did this!

                However, I tend to have more people move out of my way than I thought would do so. I’m guessing that my rather severe mien has something to do with it.

                (Someone at work told someone else, “If Kat moonlighted as an assassin in her spare time, no one would be surprised.)

            1. GS*

              I do this. I find if I look folks in the eye with a raised eyebrow while I do it they don’t run into me as often.

            2. Artemesia*

              I do the same thing. My husband and I single file when we meet oncoming groups but expect them to do the same and more than once I have been rammed into by some jerk when I am in front.

            3. whingedrinking*

              When I’m on public transit I sometimes literally have to dig my heels in when some enterprising man-spreader sits down beside me. Much as I hate sitting thigh-to-thigh with a stranger, I refuse to shrink to accommodate someone else’s knees. On a good day, I’m amused by how many space invaders behave as if they’ve encountered an unexpected and puzzling obstacle, like a stuck door. On bad days, of course, it makes me extra grumpy that their response is not to think “oh oops, I’ve encountered another person, better stop pushing” but to keep nudging.

            4. Róisín*

              One of my hobbies is swing dance, and I’m learning Lindy Hop. My job is to stay on one line of dance, and the leads have to get out of my way. If they don’t? I’m just supposed to let myself run into them.

              It’s fun. It’s so fun.

          2. Michelle*

            Oh I hate having to dodge out of the way and the fact it’s dismissed as imaginary. My very domineering ex-husband suggested he watch me in a mall to see if it really happens. When the experiment was over, he was a believer and said that men would never do to other men what he saw happening to me. I’ll admit to sometimes making smart-ass comments when it happens now like, “Oh pardon me, your highness.”

    3. Minocho*

      More “I totally get how frustrating this is” vibes over here. As a woman in tech, I know I have something of a chip on my shoulder over things like condescension, interruption or automatic assumption of incompetence because I am a woman.

      It’s really good when we recognize that we have this thing, because it means we know we need to keep an eye on our reactions and try to evaluate when we’re taking out years of frustrations on a person that was just thoughtless, as opposed to regularly insulting.

      I appreciate the advice too!

      1. Artemesia*

        This. The key first is to get your own head in the game and not be intimidated by this little piss ant. You need to have the conversation about ‘professional communication’ and you need to be calm and authoritative to do it. I would have a general conversation rather than reacting to an incident when it is hardest to be ‘cool’ about it. Make it a talk using Alison’s language around ‘professional communication’. Calm, helpful, slightly condescending to him as he is ‘new to professional life and needs guidance on appropriate communication’. Reacting to an incident increases the odds of being flustered or showing weakness; a planned talk lets you get in the frame to deal authoritatively.

        oh and yeah it is so annoying.

      2. LabTechNoMore*

        Oh! Me! Pick me! Young(ish) man of color in STEM. Same damn thing, no one listens. (“Same” might be the wrong word choice here – don’t want to conflate sexism and racism – but similar phenomenon at play.)

        I got so sick of people assuming I didn’t know anything and blocking me at every turn, even when I was the actual friggin expert on the topic, that I changed careers to a higher paying STEM field, where at least I actually didn’t know anything know the topic, so all the talking down would be justified. That strategy … hasn’t really worked so far.

        To the LW: Since they’re a student worker, part of your responsibility is to help them understand workplace norms. That also means beating the smugness right out of them (figuratively!) by addressing their negative attitude and condescension, and going through formal discipline if they don’t improve to the point where you feel you can be around them without wanting to knock people’s hats off. (And this is pretty much just what Alison said, but I’m trying to have the thin veneer of being on topic with my rant of a comment :o) )

      3. Anongineer*

        Same same same! I’ve literally had people request that I help them with their work, then hand me a manual that shows how the task is done. THAT I WROTE. I found saying in a firm tone* something along the lines of “I’ve got this, I (literally) wrote the manual, I’ll be sure to come to you with any questions that I have.”

        *For me, it’s all about the tone. Don’t end sentences on a higher note! It makes it sound like you’re questioning yourself.

        1. Researchalator Lady*

          I’d ask “Oh! Did you want me to sign this for you after I finish?” as if they OBVIOUSLY knew that you wrote it and couldn’t possibly be offering it to you to help you do your JOB.

    4. portsmouthliz*

      SAME. The accumulated frustration from having to grit my teeth and let condescension and mansplaining roll off my back has me ready to burn everything down.

      One resource suggestion — “Feminist Fight Club” by Jessica Bennett. I love it because it gives really practical tips and scripts to counter office sexism.

    5. resting nice face*

      I also work in higher education as full-time staff, and get condescending comments from male colleagues at least once a week. It’s always from older professors, as well as a one other staff member who’s slightly older than me, whom I supervise.

      You’re probably like me in that you’ve been conditioned to be “nice.” I have a terribly hard time making even the smallest confrontations. But I’m working on it. “What an odd thing to say,” as Alison always recommends, is a good one. Another good response is “I don’t see what ___ has to do with anything.” (In case you get comments on your clothes or make up or hair or whatever else.)

      If you hold it all in and don’t say anything back, you’re going to stew in it and feel worse. You and I both just need to learn to address condescending, sexist comments right when they happen. It’s easier said than done, of course.

    6. Sled Dog Mama*

      Me too! I recently sat through a meeting where I got asked repeatedly “When will Dr. Taylor (male) be returning?” after about the 4th time I nearly fired back with Dr. Taylor is the owner of the whole darn company and he supervises six teapot painting specialists at 6 different teapot manufacturers in this state in addition to his work in teapot regulation and manufacturing setup. He hired me to be your teapot painting specialist. Everyone else at the table (who actually works here everyday and doesn’t just descend from the mothership to screw things up) is happy with this arrangement, you need to get over it.

      Of course I didn’t say any of that but i really wanted to. Especially since this guy (head of IT) had just decided to push back a major upgrade without consulting anyone due to his staff dropping the ball.

    7. Alicia Bumble*

      More fist bumps – I guess when you are not authoritative by nature, the whole “direct authoritative conversation” sounds/feels like just way too much and too harsh. I have come to realize, slowly, over the past few years after letting things fester and get out of control that some people need directness in ways I never imagined.

      Apparently, when to me it feels like I am whipping someone black and blue I am simply coming across as “clear and direct”. It just feels so unnatural to me and it is hard work.

      Also: How did I get to the point of being middle age (I mean a good old 40+) without ever encountering this problem in any of my interactions but now that I am the manager all of a sudden this is a thing and an issue?

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        Because you’re having different conversations with people? And different expectations of them?

    8. CastIrony*

      I, too, want to express my sympathies.
      I felt Fergus in my soul, and people like him make me cry. In fact, I’d call him a bully.

    9. Mr Cholmondley-Warner*

      I’m a man, but I’m quite small. (Short, thin, size 4 shoes) People have stepped on me and treated me like a child my whole life, and I got tired of it. Now when people give me crap, I give it back. I don’t care anymore. I still get treated like crap, but at least I stand up for myself.

  2. Amber Rose*

    “I have just become a new manager in higher education, and as one of your readers, I was sure that I would be at least somewhat equipped to handle tough situations on the job. Sadly, I’m finding out that I’m not a great manager. ”

    Reading about a thing is very different from doing a thing. Just remember the words of wisdom: “sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something.”

    You can do it!

    1. AnonEMoose*

      This. So much this. It’s way too much for you or anyone to expect to get managing right immediately. It’s a whole different skill set and mind set, and that doesn’t happen overnight, no matter how much prep you’ve done.

      I don’t have a ton of advice to offer, but one thing I will suggest: Think about the best manager you’ve had, and the worst manager you’ve ever had. What makes them stand out in your mind and why? What things could you consider incorporating into your management style?

      It takes time to figure out “you as a manager” vs. “you as an individual worker.” Is there someone you feel comfortable talking to about this stuff? It can help to talk through what you’re experiencing.

      1. BettyBrant*

        I spent six months managing a team before moving on to another job, and managing people is HARD. I was doing my best and had the full support and mentorship of my boss, but learning how to manage people is skillset that takes a long time to develop.

        OP, definitely heed AnonEMoose’s advice, it is excellent. In addition, reflect on your own work managing people: are there situations you think could have been handled better? How so? Reflect on how you manage and you’ll become an amazing manager

        1. Working Mom*

          Absolutely! The fact that you’re seeking information to improve tells me that with some experience, you’re going to be an amazing manager. It is REALLY hard to get comfortable having those difficult conversations. It is not easy at all to sit down with another human being and explain to them that they’re behavior is inappropriate, etc. It does get easier, but it never gets “easy” – if that makes sense.

          If Fergus answers any of Alison’s well-phrased questions/responses with, “I’m just joking” – I’d like to address that (and encourage other commenters to share their wisdom). I had a new hire a couple years out of college that would make “jokes” like that – not quite as condescending, but that same neighborhood. Once – I asked him to do a project for me, I think I phrased it like, “Fergus, can you please run these numbers?” and I kid you not, he replied, “No.” With a chuckle. I think the way I looked at him made him realize it was too far – because his face got real serious and he muttered a quiet apology and shuffled off to do the project. Later – I sat him down and explained that while I appreciate having fun at work and being able to have the manager-worker relationship where we can joke; it has to be appropriate.

      2. JelloStapler*

        I so could have read this and taken this to heart last summer. I was beating myself up for not doing a flawless job with a prickly employee (that I have come to find out wasn’t easy for anyone that had supervised her).

    2. Leela*

      I’ll also add that almost every company I’ve ever been at does a *terrible* job of training and properly supporting new managers, and I’m more likely to suspect that that’s at least playing a part of this. Often it’s “oh your a good artist/accountant/admin so we’ll make you head of art/accounting/admin etc” with no actual training on how to bridge that gap, because using photoshop well doesn’t extend logically into delegating well, looking at human problems objectively and proceeding in the way that makes the most sense there, giving clear feedback, etc.

      Often the best I see is “oh you can go talk to X if you have any questions” but X is way too busy to help you with anything more than simple questions that answers can be fired off to in a text, where X really should be more of an ongoing mentor role in that case. Some companies do this and props to them! Often times though it’s just thrusting someone into the role and then going “hmmmm didn’t work out” when they don’t magically get it. It’s the bane of my existence as an HR/admin/PM type person!

    3. Artemesia*

      This is the situation for which ‘easier said than done’ was invented. Managing people i.e. what to say to motivate, structure work, provide feedback and correct communication issues IS dang hard. It is easy to say ‘what you should do is’ — but it is very hard to do it. That is why I think the OP should have a planned sit down with this guy when she can get her head square and has practiced what she wants to say and the tone. Easier to do than in the moment until the skills are developed. It IS hard. Most people who are good at doing things are not good at doing managing — it IS HARD, but it is a learned skill you can master.

    4. EinJungerLudendorff*

      Allison herself often says that most managers have a rough start, are often undertrained and need time to become good at managing.

      Its totally normal to struggle right now!

  3. Box of Kittens*

    I’m pretty sure I’ve been Fergus before, in the I’m-enthusiastic-and-trying-to-prove-myself way (although hopefully not that annoying). Cringe. +1 to saying something to Fergus!

    1. Dragoning*

      Yes, without the tone, I can think of times I have phrased things as “Yeah, I was wondering…” to sort of show “yes, I was thinking abut my job and all aspects, and am eager to learn more!”

      Also I can be bad at jokes at times.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        Tone matters a lot. There’s an excited “oooh, I was wondering when we’d get to that!” and a snide “well, I was wondering when we’d get to that,” and I think eagerness would be obvious.

        1. Dragoning*

          It does, but tone can be misread, and OP has mentioned here in the comments that she wouldn’t be mad if a female student was doing this. So I think OP might be misreading tone because it’s a male student and she’s primed to expect condescension from men.

          1. Ilima*

            Maybe OP actually is right about the tone She is witnessing and Fergus really is condescending because he’s been primed to disrespect women?

          2. Hills to Die on*

            I am kind of second-guessing myself over here because I don’t see these comments as particularly condescending.
            1. “Fergus, has anyone shown you how to boil water in the teapots yet?” = “I assumed it was pretty straightforward and I am a professional who is capable of boiling water. What else is involved that I am missing?” I would be thinking that OP thinks I am not smart enough or capable enough for this if I had phrased something that way.

            2. “Yeah, I was wondering when you were going to get to that.” = ‘This is a key part of my job and I feel like I am not living up to what I was hired for if i am not doing it. I don’t understand why it has taken 2 weeks to get to it.”

            I am an insecure person a lot of the time but I also have a desire to work hard, succeed, and prove myself. I can see myself saying these things as a lighter way of asking why we haven’t trained on it yet, or what I need to do to show that I am capable of taking on the tasks.

            I am honestly surprised by Alison’s suggestions and the other commenters who agree that these are inappropriate things to say. I am not saying anyone is wrong – I am just not wired this particular way.

            1. montescristo1985*

              I feel the same way, so not just you. I wouldn’t say these things, mainly because I usually can manage to be a bit more tactful in the moment, but I don’t find this as massively objectionable as Alison and the commenters do.

              1. Blueberry*

                It is really obvious in practice, yet takes a novelist’s skill to describe in print, the difference people who say such things conversationally and people who say such things dismissively to those they consider beneath them (such as some men to women).

                But also (and this is about the discussion in general) every single time women discuss dealing with this (or POC dealing with racism, or disabled people with ableism, or…) so many people emerge from the woodwork to challenge and question whether or not this ever happens or could be happening in this example, to say that they can identify with the condescending person because they might say the same things (but with entirely different inflection), and so on. There is a constant refrain that people who report being maltreated must prove their maltreatment to a hostile judge or judges, who insist on identifying with and sympathizing with the one dishing out the maltreatment, beyond not only reasonable but unreasonable doubt.

                It gets a little exhausting sometimes.

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Yes, thank you. Women have a lifetime of recognizing this — and a lifetime of being told they need to prove it with courtroom accuracy before they’ll be believed (and even then, maybe not). We’re going to take the LW at her word about it.

                2. Hills to Die on*

                  Except that I am not maltreating or judging anyone, and I am identifying it with my own behavior, and I know my own intentions. I also am not questioning the OP; I am questioning myself. I am not asking the OP to prove anything.

                3. Hills to Die on*

                  Again, this is why I am not questioning the OP but an questioning my own conversations. Not sure why that is the focus when I specifically said I was talking about my own behavior.

                4. JSPA*

                  It is, all the same, possible to say, “make sure to leave space in your mind to hear and process a response that shows the issue is Some Other Thing,” without invalidating the experience that, yes, it actually mostly is That Same Fricking Thing. Considering the alternative possibility — even given good reason to believe it’s not so — can be a powerful way to redirect and thus take control of one’s own reactions. It also can work analogously to praising someone for being the way you want them to be, rather than the way they are. “Fergus, I know you intend to be respectful, trainable and attentive. However, your eagerness to move forward and be dependable and self – sufficient is manifesting in some counterproductive ways.”

            2. Dankar*

              Same! Especially the third example. I think I said something similar to my supervisor last week.

              I honestly think that if my manager responded to “how hard could it be?” by being alarmed, I would have to go back to my office before I roll my eyes so hard they fall out of their sockets. But then, I worked for an alarmist boss that turned every. little. thing. into a catastrophe.

              I also work in higher ed, and there’s plenty of gallows humor from those of us who are constantly pushed to do more work for the same pay, with less budget. I’m betting OP is going to encounter this kind of attitude quite a bit (a bit dismissive, laugh-it-off, etc.), though I agree it shouldn’t come from those she’s supervising. It’s just such an odd environment, with much more relaxed social/professional boundaries, and I suspect the student worker has probably absorbed some of that.

            3. Aquawoman*

              There is someone I work with who is pretty universally regarded as condescending, and I could not write a letter that could adequately communicate that in a few snippets, because there is a lot in tone and body language and there is a lot in sheer repetition. I just believe the LW. Also, if it is the case that she’s misreading, the questions are still helpful. The LW can ask “what do you mean?” and that will allow Fergus to say “Well, I’ve been really stymied in how to get my tasks done without knowing…” or “That’s the part of the job I’m most excited about,” and that will be helpful to both the LW and Fergus.

              1. aebhel*

                Yeah, exactly. As far as words on paper go, these could read as a bit clumsy/tactless but basically unobjectionable–but tone makes a big difference, as does context.

            4. Ivy*

              It’s all in the tone and wording.
              On #1 if it was expressed similarly to what you wrote “I assumed it was pretty straightforward and I should be able to manage it without further instruction. What else is involved that I am missing?” – would have been perfectly fine. Especially the last part. Otherwise it comes as oddly defensive and disparages the manager attempt to bring up what may be a valid suggestion.
              On #2 again adding something like “I’ve been eager to get started on X, now that I have taken care of Y and Z” – would add the necessary clarification that the remark is based on excitement, and not on criticizing the timeline of the manager.
              His remarks may be fine addressed to a buddy, but this is not a tone to use with a senior co-worker or manager

            5. DeeEm*

              Nope. Same here. I read those and thought, “I don’t see those comments as condescending.” But tone matters a lot and is hard to convey when writing it out.

              1. Extroverted Bean Counter*

                Agreed on all counts. I could see all those things being intended as jokes, not condescension (and probably have said similar things myself in a banter-intended way. I’m a 30-something woman, for whatever that’s worth), but I’m just taking OP at their word that they can tell the difference.

                1. Environmental Compliance*


                  Text is very difficult in these situations because you will read it with your own assumed tone.

            6. beanie gee*

              I think the key is these are terrible ways to communicate with your manager.

              He’s not saying “I assumed it was pretty straightforward and I am a professional who is a capable of boiling. What else is involved that I am missing.” If those were the words he was using, I don’t think the Letter Writer would be annoyed.

              “How hard can it be” sends a message that he isn’t considering that he might be missing something or that the manager has a justified reason for explaining what looks like a simple task. That undermines her position that she has information that he needs in order to do his job well. We’ve all probably felt like we didn’t need a boss to tell us how to do our jobs, but when you’re young and new probably isn’t that time.

              1. andy*

                Most people are not thinking up to these super subtle implications. When you construct “hiw hard it can be” into undernining manager then and intentional sending message, then you either work with manipulative soil path or are truly overthinking the communication.

                1. The New Wanderer*

                  Or maybe it’s that the employee doesn’t bother to form a diplomatically worded reply because it’s not really a big deal to speak condescendingly to a female, regardless of her authority?

                  “How hard can it be?” spoken by someone who, per the OP, “needs all the help he can get” when he actually does the job absolutely comes across as dismissive.

                2. Peeved*

                  It’s not super subtle. If my boss wanted to show me a task, I would never say, “How hard can it be?” (ie. You don’t need to show me.)

                3. Kt*

                  If I thought it was important enough to show someone explicitly, and they said “how hard can it be?” I would assume they’re on the idiot end of Dunning-Kruger, personally. If it wasn’t hard wouldn’t show you. If you can’t figure out it’s got a subtlety from the fact I think it’s important enough to show you in person, you probably don’t know what you’re doing enough to know that you don’t know what you’re doing — which means you’re a total disaster. I work with many thoughtful and competent people and one guy who thinks everything is easy. The guy who thinks everything is easy thinks so because he doesn’t know sh#&, and he shows that every time he claims something is easy when it took a year of testing and optimization.

            7. Sulan*

              If we were talking about a professional that would be one thing, but when we’re talking about a student who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, it comes across as pretty clueless and condescending.

              1. Hills to Die on*

                I think that for that reason, you have to give the person a bit of benefit of the doubt and assume that their professional voice isn’t fully developed. I think I have said it here before – never attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance. I don’t think it applies to every scenario, but because he’s a student employee, some explanation for him is in order. Since we are taking the OP at her word that his tone is way off. Without tone (a different scenario altogether), I think it would merit a softer conversation.

            8. Eukomos*

              I don’t know that I’d call them condescending, but they’re certainly rude. When someone whose job it is to train you on things proposes doing some training, the correct response is not “how hard can it be?” Even if he genuinely doubts the training is necessary he needs to say it in a more direct, less sarcastic way, like “oh I thought I understood how it worked already, is there a reason you want to do a formal training?” The “I was wondering when we were going to do that” isn’t quite as bad, but it still contains a seed of questioning her judgement, so I can see why it bugs her as part of a larger pattern. That kind of talk is fine for bantering with friends who you know are up for it, but doing it at work, at a new job, with an authority figure speaks pretty poorly of HIS judgement

            9. Peeved*

              #1) – The manager is making sure someone has show Fergus her department’s procedure to boil water before assuming he knows how to do it correctly, rather than coming back later and saying, “you didn’t do this right.” I don’t see anything wrong with that. Also, the student is not a professional.

              #2) – If the manager wants to take the onboarding/teaching process slower and do things in a certain order, that’s her prerogative. She doesn’t need to be questioned on that. If it takes 2 weeks to get to the task, so be it. She can run her area how she sees fit. Also, the tone is definitely an issue. He could have said, “Great, I was really looking forward to this task!” rather than second guessing her actions and making this her issue. (I was wondering when YOU were going to get to that.)

              1. Hills to Die on*

                If he is hired to do something and hasn’t been trained on it, he should absolutely ask. She can plan how she wants to train, but he should bring up any confusion or concerns. It would be silly not to.

                And because he isn’t a professional, he doesn’t have experience speaking in a professional environment. He needs to learn – that ‘not a professional’ door swings both ways.

                1. GreenDoor*

                  You kind of just illustrated the whole point of Alison’s response when you said, “he doesn’t have experience speaking in a professional environment”. Precisely why the OP needs to have the conversation. He may not be intending to come across as a sarcastic know-it-all, but right now he is. And she needs to nip that in the bud.

                2. Hills to Die on*

                  Not communicating as professionally as you should is not the same as potentially being fired for being condescending.

                3. Peeved*

                  He’s not asking how to do something, though. He’s saying “How hard can it be?” and “I was wondering when you were going to get to it” both of which have nothing about what he’s going to to do. She’s the one checking in to make sure that he has what he needs, and his language is challenging that.

            10. Kella*

              I think because your comment ended by saying you’re surprised by alison and the commenters’ reactions, people thought that’s where your focus was, rather than on re-evaluating yourself.

              As other folks have mentioned, tone and intonation matter a lot. But even with the rephrased versions of what you can imagine yourself saying, there’s an underlying assumption that the person training you doesn’t have a good reason for doing what they’re doing. That’s the problem.

              If someone asks you if you’ve been trained on a task yet, even if the task seems overly simple, if they are a good trainer, it’s safe to assume they have a good reason. It’s weirdly hostile to assume their reason is that they doubt your competence.

              If someone has delayed in training you on something important, responding with “I don’t understand why it has taken 2 weeks to get to it,” implies that your trainer is doing their job badly by waiting to train you, when in fact, there could be a perfectly logical reason that they delayed it that you just happen to not know about.

              There are lots of valid reasons to have an automatic insecure or distrustful reaction to other people, including toxic work environments that skewed your work norms. But struggling with insecurity doesn’t mean you should give in to that insecurity and let it determine how you talk to the people trying to help you learn your job.

              1. Hills to Die on*

                Agree – that’s exactly why I posted! I’m thinking it through and taking feedback from commenters. Even if I don’t agree with what everyone is saying, I consider their responses.

                And assuming the trainer did something wrong wasn’t where I was at – my automatic reaction would be ‘what did I do wrong?’ in that scenario. What about me made you believe you could not trust me with this? If nothing, then why aren’t you teaching me what I am supposed to know to do my job?

                I know it’s my issue – I have never been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder but I have never been tested either. I also learned a lot of really dysfunctional behavior growing up and honestly, this is how I learn. If it makes sense to me, I change.

                Assuming this guy is nothing but a condescending prick because she up to here with condescending pricks, when I am not condescending nor a prick and would do something close to the same, or at least think it internally – I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I give OP the benefit of the doubt that she knows tone when she hears it, and I give home the benefit of the doubt that he is just unpolished. And then I make sure it’s not something I ever step in, whatever the scenario. The responses seem too much to me. But to each their own,

                1. Kella*

                  I understand that when your immediate reaction is “what did I do wrong?” that it’s actually a reflection of yourself and your own insecurity, but to reach that conclusion, you have to assume that the most likely reason your trainer would have for teaching you how to do something is that they think you’re incompetent and that they haven’t communicated their concerns to you yet either. It’s a form of undermining yourself but it’s also a form of distrust of your trainer.

                  If you grow up around people treating you with condescension and assuming your incompetence instead of giving you constructive, useful feedback, and if you still aren’t 100% clear in your head that those people were wrong (which most of us aren’t) it’s going to feel normal to assume other people would do that to you, too. Distrust in that context is a coping mechanism.

                  But that treatment isn’t normal and it makes it really hard to train a person when they can’t trust that your instructions have their best interests at heart.

            11. dan*

              Yes, I am 100% with you. I understand that tone can be anything., it is definitely possible OP is correct in her reading of this. However, I think the other side is important as well.

              It seems she may be an insecure manager, (I was when I was new!) and that coupled with her expectation of men to be rude and argumentative is not doing her ability to read situations correctly any justice .

              If spoken by a women, it was mentioned, that these comments would not be offensive to OP . This seems like a dangerous path to go down . If it is offensive, it is offensive regardless of gender. If it is not offensive, then it stays non offensive regardless of which chromosome speaks it. When you start tacking gender onto what makes things offensive, you set the entire feminist movement back.

              I think OP needs to do a serious self inventory here, and see why she is really so troubled by these comments.

              1. Hills to Die on*

                I think that’s also part of what’s bothering me about this. It shouldn’t matter who is saying it. If this is handled incorrectly and escalates above her head, she could find herself on the defensive end. It would be unfortunate.

                1. Blueberry*

                  It matters because who we are matters to how much societal power we have.

                  *makes a note to find my Audre Lorde books and bring them back to this discussion*

              2. Blueberry*

                Sexism, like other forms of bigotry, isn’t about chromosomes. It’s about power. Your examples are like saying that a law forbidding both rich and poor people from not having housing is all that’s needed to solve homelessness.

              3. Blueberry*

                Sexism, like other forms of bigotry, isn’t about chromosomes. It’s about power. Your examples are like saying that a law forbidding both rich and poor people from not having housing is all that’s needed to solve homelessness.

              4. Cg1254t*

                The thing is the male/female dynamic is relevant to the situation — but even if a woman said it OP probably would’ve had an issue with it. I’d agree it’s more OP’s problem if it happened *once*. But it’s a pattern. It doesn’t set the feminist movement back and it’s not particularly fair to set the way women are viewed in the workplace based on OP.
                People are not robots. Fergus brings in his experiences and worldview just as OP does (and acknowledges). Sexist attitudes towards what women know are real and you can’t just dismiss it.

              5. OP*

                I didn’t mean that the comments would not be offensive if spoken by a woman – they would be. I just don’t think I’d be flying off the handle in such an emotional way. I was looking for strategies to handle this situation so my emotions didn’t hurt him unfairly or poison our working relationship more than they have to.

                1. Sleve McDichael*

                  OP, as a woman you do yourself a disservice by describing yourself as ‘flying off the handle’ and ’emotional’, especially since the grand outcome of all of this is that you snapped once at someone who is being objectively very annoying. You haven’t shouted, thrown things, fired him, wailed at him like a banshee or cursed him into an alternate dimension! By your description you’re keeping it all in pretty darn calmly – aside from that one unfortunate slip. Frame it instead as, ‘I wouldn’t find it quite as frustrating if it came from a woman.’ or ‘I wouldn’t be as annoyed if it came from a woman.’. It might help you feel less trapped if you look at it as ‘Context is making me extra frustrated.’ rather than ‘My emotions are hurting this poor innocent!’ (I’m exaggerating a bit for dramatic effect). Some people snap at their colleagues when they have a headache. In essence it’s the same thing as your situation, context is making them extra irritable. That’s not ok either, but both are fixable with a bit of introspection and some self control. You got this!

                2. Avasarala*

                  Echoing Sleve below. OP you sound trapped in this concept of “women are emotional and men are condescending”–both trying to fight against sexism and free yourself, but also perpetuating it in your self talk.

          3. Sleve McDichael*

            Here it is! Occam’s big fat paisley tie, here to swish and swirl and swoop around the OP’s lived experiences once again! How about we all just take OP at her word. Even if (and I think it’s unlikely actually) she happens to be wrong, Alison’s suggested scripts won’t harm the student and all of the advice and constructive comments will be useful to other people in future who are in this situation. All the ‘Maybe Fergus is the innocent party and OP is a raging feminist with issues who should get over it’ comments below won’t help anyone reading back through in 2023, and I doubt they’re helpful to OP either.

        2. Vemasi*

          There’s also the panicked “Yes, I was wondering if you would teach me that, or if I was expected to already know it, in which case I was too scared to ask you,” which is what I used to do. If I were less timid I might have turned to arrogance, like LW’s subordinate, to mask the anxiety.

          This is very much a hill you have to get over if you tend toward it when young. I did so by reaching the breaking point of anxiety and realizing “This is stupid, just ask. And if you didn’t think to ask, just ignore the compulsion to prove you aren’t dumb. They don’t think you’re dumb. Let them teach you.”

        3. Sparrow*

          Yeah, I’ve also done a, “Oh, great! I’d been curious about that,” type thing. But (critically), the tone is upbeat and I’m a woman who works primarily with women, and that delivery and context can make a big difference.

    2. I'm A Little Teapot*

      I know I’ve been Fergus in that way. And I’ve also worked with Fergus. It’s annoying. I know I’ve at least somewhat improved, and I’ve seen others have dramatic improvements as well.

    3. Cheese_Toast*

      I read Fergus as the kind of student who did really well in high school or undergrad without a lot of effort, without realizing that they have reached a point where natural talent is not enough to succeed. In essence, they have always felt smarter than their teachers (true or not) and haven’t yet realized they are not the big fish they think they are.

      OP, I suspect any manager would get this treatment from him, and it is well within your purview to cure him of it before he becomes the arrogant coworker everyone hates.

      1. Warm Weighty Wrists*

        Yes to the feeling smarter than the teachers! I have taught quite a few new college students, and there is a particular subset who assume that the information being imparted to them is the level of the teacher’s thought. Therefore, if the information seems elementary or is something they already know, the person teaching that information is of elementary intelligence or doesn’t know as much as the student. To be honest, I never found a way to call that assumption into question that was kind or gentle. That might be a failing on my part, though, because that way of thinking raised my hackles right up.

        1. Gumby*

          I was an excellent student but never thought I necessarily knew more than my teachers. Possibly because my parents are teachers and so I saw the difference between “what is imparted in a classroom” and “what the teacher knows” on a daily basis. I did have opinions on how well some teachers taught, but not what they knew.

          In college my problem was more of the “this person is so crazy-smart and well-versed in this subject that she can’t possibly really *want* us to show up for office hours with our piddly freshman understanding of the topic.”

        2. Amy Sly*

          In fairness, I had a couple teachers in school who didn’t know more about the subject than what was in the book. There was a middle school one where I’m still not sure if the blatant errors in her lectures were her own ignorance or her “I’m deliberately giving you bizarrely wrong facts because I want you to push back and ask questions” excuse she lamely offered. (E.g. American colonists had to pay taxes in francs.) I’ve even had a friend who teaches elementary school who admits that she wouldn’t be able to do the math she teaches if she didn’t have to teach it.

          As for dealing with those smart-alecks, well, I can tell you the way one of my teachers helped discourage me from showing off: keep asking questions at higher levels until you get to what stumps them. e.g. “I already know this arithmetic stuff.” “Okay, what about this algebra concept?” “This geometry proof?” “This calculus problem?” “This differential equation?” If you can’t find something in your subject that they don’t already know, well, they aren’t wrong in their assumption that they know more, and they need to be in a different class anyway. But odds are good they’ve often been more knowledgeable than their school teachers and haven’t actually dealt with someone who could stump them.

        3. TL -*

          Oh Lord, I once TA’ed a student who was complaining about her low test score to me because she “had been raised by parents with PhDs and thought about the material in a way the professor just wasn’t able to yet.”
          I was like…. The professor is fair grader/test designer I think she’s accurately captured what you know….

      2. Blueberry*

        I dunno if it’s an either-or. I have seen bright students treat teachers this dismissively, but I have seen and heard of male students treating female instructors dismissively and seen (and experienced, in a non-professional environment) White students treating Black and Latino instructors dismissively. Maybe this particular Fergus would be respectful to a male supervisor, maybe not, but either way LW does warrant his respect as his supervisor and isn’t wrong to expect it.

    4. memyselfandi*

      I know. I was wondering how I came across when I was younger. I know I did some irritating things because I know I consciously learned certain behaviors, but I have let the actual circumstances that brought one those lessons fade from my mind. The lessons were valuable, OP, and for me they have lasted a lifetime.

    5. Jedi Squirrel*

      I found the boiling water example especially disconcerting. If I were Fergus, I would think “Geez, do they really think I’m so stupid that I can’t even boil water? Why did they hire me? How did I get this job?”

      But if it were worded, “Fergus, have I shown you how to boil water per SOP 2017-34-19A?” then I would realize that this is not about how I am perceived but about the work instead.

      1. Ice and Indigo*

        I’m assuming ‘boiling water’ is a nom de guerre term for what the company actually does by way of protecting identities. That said, even if that is how Fergus interprets it, it’s no bad thing for Fergus to learn to wait and see if there’s something he doesn’t know before talking like he already knows everything.

        1. Creed Bratton*

          Most of us know coworkers who can screw up the simplest of tasks. So “boiling water” (loading paper in the copier, whatever) is obviously included in the training b/c there IS a specific procedure that OP needs them to follow. Though I don’t like saying she has to justify things like this with the intern…..

        2. Jedi Squirrel*

          Yes, I’m aware of that, but this is a student job in a university setting. It’s not like they’re building nuclear weapons or dealing with personal medical information.

          My point still stands — if someone felt that they had to explain to me how to do a job that is so simple people do all the time without an instruction book, I would really wonder. So my point is also about how OP worded her query here. Just she really feel Fergus is incapable of making ice cubes?

          before talking like he already knows everything

          This is OP’s interpretation of it. As others have pointed out, and OP has acknowledged, her sense of this may be a bit off, which is what she is looking for help with.

          1. Lana Kane*

            Except if the water has to be boiled in a certain vessel, or for a certain amount of time…or any number of one-offs that aren’t just “boil water”. And even if it is just plain boiling water, sarcastic replies have no place in the workplace.

            1. Rui*

              Not sure about any cultural/geographical/sectoral differences, but if my manager keeps checking in with me on the simplest tasks that’s obviously assumed knowledge for my pay grade (I am a 30 something mid-level manager in a European office of a multinational consultancy), I will be annoyed and pushing back. I wouldn’t be sarcastic; but I will voice my displeasure.

              Respect goes both way, including respect of each other’s intellect.

          2. Sparrow*

            Even if you’re internally thinking, “How stupid do you think I am,” you don’t have to say or imply it. Even something like, “No, not yet! I was expecting it to be a basic kettle like I’ve used before. Is there a trick to it?” would give the benefit of the doubt to the trainer while also making the point that you’re not completely clueless.

            I will say that if I had an employee who said, “Oh, I’m sure I can figure it out,” in a snotty tone that implied, “How dumb do you think I am,” my instinctive (internal) reaction would probably be, “How dumb do you think *I* am that I would want to train you on something if it was as simplistic as you clearly think it is.” So I get why OP is annoyed.

          3. Michelle*

            Does it matter what you think about the boss’s perception of your ability to boil water? It’s not appropriate to snark back, especially if you’re an intern. I can’t read, “How hard could it be?” as anything but snarky. If you think your boss thinks you’re not very bright, that might be worth addressing in a one on one, but it’s never going to be smart to respond to that perceived perception the way this intern is doing so. This is still something OP should address in light of intern’s future workplace interactions.

      2. LizB*

        See, and I would immediately assume that there must be something weird about the kettles at this place, since obviously if it were a matter of fill with water, push button, I wouldn’t need training on it.

        1. aebhel*


          I had this issue with an old boss that I had to train on our collection management software. She was used to a different system, and there were certain functions in our system that *looked* like they clearly and obviously did the same thing as the one she was used to… but they didn’t, or there were good reasons at the organizational level that we didn’t use them, and it was a matter of trying to explain that this button that says ‘delete item record’ is not actually the correct way to remove an item record from the system.

          Of course, she was my boss, so it didn’t really take until the higher ups sent out an email asking whoever was using that function to please knock it off because it was creating record stubs with nothing attached to them…

        2. iglwif*

          Yes, me too.

          At least, current me. I cannot promise that 19yo me in my first part-time office job would not have said similar things to Fergus, though I hope I wouldn’t have used a similar tone!

        3. OP*

          The boiling water example was actually about if anyone had shown him how to check our mail. I masked it with teapots because I didn’t want him to recognize himself in this letter, on the extreme off-chance he reads AAM. That said, when he responded that way, he had NO IDEA WHERE OUR MAILBOX EVEN WAS. See, I’m getting upset all over again. He was laughing at me like I had asked him just about the dumbest question he had ever heard!

          1. Ice and Indigo*

            Yeah, ‘How hard can it be?’ is not an appropriate response to that. If he was using his head/experienced, he’d get that every company is likely to have its own protocols about how to handle the mail, and that ‘check’ is likely to imply things he’ll need to be told. It’s a Dunning-Kruger answer.

          2. Ice and Indigo*

            On reflection, behaviour like that might actually be a teachable moment, and by ‘teachable’ I mean ‘give him enough rope to hang himself.’

            As follows:

            You: Have I shown you how to check our mail yet?

            Him: How hard can it be?

            You: All right, then, suppose you tell me how you think you’d do it.

            Him: (Gives his best guess.)

            You: Thank you. Now, there’s a reason I asked you that, and this is a demonstration of it. I don’t know if you’re aware, but you have a habit of speaking as if you think you don’t need training on tasks, when actually you do, and your tone is frequently quite rude. It’s unprofessional, and I need you to work on it. Now, let’s take the mail example. Here are the wrong assumptions you just made: (list them). Here are the things you weren’t aware of (list them). I know you’re new to an office setting, so I’m going to assume you aren’t aware that even simple-sounding tasks may require training because every office has its own protocols and you need to get them right; you can create system jams if you just try to improvise. So, I’d like an apology for the rude tone, and after that I’ll take you fully through the training on checking mail, and I’d like to see you work on this in future. All right?

            Use moments like that to call his bluff. Hopefully he should realise quickly that he’s risking much greater embarrassment than if he just said ‘I don’t know something.’ And again, if he can’t take that, he’s showing you that he won’t work with you.

              1. Ice and Indigo*

                Yep, also effective! I personally think that given his repeat offences and superior attitude, this kid has earned a b*ll*cking/would benefit from training on this issue (depending on whether you take the disciplinary or mentor view). But it’s an excellent quick-fire answer!

          3. Ice and Indigo*

            And in fact… (Apologies for the multiple posting, it’s early in the morning where I am)

            This is a method you can adapt to any situation:

            You: Training time!

            Him: I have a smart remark I think at least one of us will enjoy.

            You: Okay, why do you think I’m doing things the way I am?

            Him: My best guess can’t possibly be 100% of the answer.

            You: If any persons to the number of 12 or more unlawfully, riotously and tumultously assemble together…*

            People who are rude in ways they think are hard to call are generally flummoxed if you just calmly ask them to explain themselves. He can’t possibly complain that you’re picking on him, but making him demonstrate that he actually doesn’t know stuff should be embarrassing enough to get his attention pretty hard.

            *That’s the Riot Act, to save Google trouble.

    6. JSPA*

      I absolutely did it, and I have 2 X chromosomes. Cockiness overlaps with mansplaining and with condescention, but they’re not identical (nor, as Allison notes, do they always come from a place of self – confidence). It might (or might not) help OP to respond in whatever way OP would handle a cocky young woman (or enby) saying those same words. Not because male -towards – female condescention is a wrong guess (it may be bang on the money), but because it’s going to be less infuriating that way.

      After all, if “X” is a big part of the job description, it’s… not unreasonable to wonder “so, when the heck do I get trained on X?” The delivery needs to be fixed, but the underlying eagerness and anticipation and even the “think like your boss” approach are what you’d hope to get from an excellent student.

  4. fposte*

    OP, sometimes when you’re a new manager (or old manager, even) it’s easy to forget you can and should just name the specifics of the problem without getting into the emotions. It can be really freeing to see (and use) a script like Alison’s that says “Your communication is flawed and I’d like you to improve it” rather than just thinking of Fergus as That Enraging Guy until finally you snap at him.

    1. Threeve*

      It’s also helpful to think of directly confronting the issue as the midpoint between silently tolerating and firing.

      And yeah, it’s a terrible idea for a manager to fire someone for being condescending and obnoxious, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of managers out there who have done just that.

      While I don’t think the LW should threaten it, shouldn’t even hint at it, I’d say it’s okay if Fergus maybe thinks “if my manager thinks I’m being disrespectful, my job could be in trouble.”

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’d argue it’s not at all terrible to fire someone for being condescending and obnoxious, but you do need to tell them clearly what needs to change first. Treating colleagues respectfully is a fine thing to require.

      2. Threeve*

        That is to say LW shouldn’t hint at firing before confronting the issue. If someone has been told plainly to end a behavior and doesn’t, it’s absolutely fine to escalate things.

      3. fposte*

        I’ll nudge the phrasing to “addressing” rather than “confronting,” because a lot of us struggle with confronting and also addressing is not just the midpoint but our job as managers.

        A lot of us default to social mode, where silent toleration or just peacing out are the most popular options, and it’s really important to understand that manager mode is very different from social mode in that addressing an issue is the expected default.

    2. Sara without an H*

      Ditto. OP, one of the smartest HR people I ever knew taught me early on NOT to get down into the weeds speculating about an employees motivations and feelings, but to concentrate on the behavior I needed the employee to do and/or stop doing. It makes a major, major difference in how I approach problematic behavior.

      Can you reframe this in your head? Rather than think “Fergus is a condescending young jerk who disrespects me,” try “Fergus communicates poorly in a professional setting.” The first is a character defect, while the second may be remedied by training.

    3. TootsNYC*

      until finally you snap at him.

      I think it’s important to deal with these annoyances early, too. Before you’re so annoyed or angry that it’s hard to control your tone.

    4. Ck*

      OP, Please try to reframe this situation less as a “condescending male” and more as a communication issue.

      Also, and more importantly, consider how you would react if it were a female instead of a male. Would the comments come across more as “inappropriately confident” instead of condescending? There might be some unconscious bias against males here, and you definitely do NOT want that to be the focus of this issue. Identify the difference between expected and observed behavior, and focus on that.

  5. ExceptionToTheRule*

    Solidarity. I went off on the manager of a different department a couple of weeks ago (in front of my own manager) over something like this. Then he tried to gaslight me by saying he had no idea what I was talking about and he hadn’t done what I said he had – even though my manager was sitting there nodding her head.

    Allison’s advice is much better than my “you have got to be f#ck!ng kidding me” route.

    1. La Framboise*

      OP, when you can apply that calm reasoning style to someone, and it becomes second nature, you will look so kickass to everyone around you. And get results you want from everyone. Go forth and conquer!

      1. Artemesia*

        And plus for it actually being slightly condescending back, so they get a dose of what they are giving women. But it has to be ice cold calm and in control with a slight back of amusement (very slight).

    2. hamsterpants*

      Hey, the term “gaslight” describes a serious, harmful type of abuse. It’s not a synonym for “lie.” Can we not dilute the true, serious meaning of the word with “hey this person was a stupid jerk”?

      1. Pibble*

        Gaslighting is trying to make you doubt your perception of reality. That is definitely a thing the boss could have been doing in this situation. Abuse isn’t limited to personal relationships.

      2. Michelle*

        Trying to convince her the scenario was different than she remembered it sounds like gaslighting to me.

        1. hamsterpants*

          Me disagreeing with someone’s word choice is not gaslighting, holy moly. Y’all need to learn to weather differences of opinion. Gaslighting is ABUSE. “He remembered the situation differently” and/or “he lied in an attempt to cover his ass” is not abuse. Yikes.

          1. ExceptionToTheRule*

            Gaslighting is the psychological manipulation of people to make them question their perception of reality. It can and does occur in work situations. This manager was trying to get me in trouble with my direct supervisor. He is constantly trying to manipulate situations in an effort to belittle me and trash my professional reputation because of his personal insecurities. Might not be textbook abuse but it is gaslighting on the whole.

            None of that information was pertinent to my comment originally, but I hope you can step back a second and realize that you’re not weathering a difference of opinion very well.

  6. BeenThereHaven'tDoneThat*

    Letter writer has been dealing with the same problems that I have and I couldn’t quite figure out what to do. As letter writer was saying how do you explain it to your boss, especially in this situation where I don’t want to “tattle” to his boss.

    This letter came at the right time for me. I have a junior colleague and while I am not his manager I am his senior and have been given the authority to train and oversee his work. He makes similar joking comments and complaints that are difficult to address.

    These scripts with some adjustment are just what I need to try to address the problem before bringing it to someone with more authority if it doesn’t improve.

    1. Lily Rowan*

      These are honestly some of the trickiest things to handle as a manager, so I’m so glad the OP wrote in, because these scripts are so useful for so many of us! They’re hard because they aren’t obvious, black or white issues, but do call for managers to respond to them.

    2. The New Wanderer*

      Also not a manager, but I (female) just had this kind of encounter with a male colleague, who ended up arguing with me that this new piece of tech that he just bought would solve a problem I said couldn’t be solved by that kind of tech. Tone wasn’t the issue, it was that he just talked right past me and my 16+ years of hands-on familiarity with that kind of tech because he has a shiny new toy that, incidentally, he wouldn’t know how to analyze the data from in the first place.

      Oh, and that was my first conversation with the guy. At least I know to be on guard next time and have my calm, cool comments at the ready.

      1. tangerineRose*

        Sounds like a great time to say “I look forward to watching you use this to solve the problem.” And then don’t laugh out loud when he finds you’re right.

        1. The New Wanderer*

          Oh I am tempted, believe me, and I’ve had to let other things like this go until they fail in late stage development for all the reasons I said they would. Unfortunately, I don’t believe in our leadership’s ability to see the difference between something that looks like it works (but doesn’t) and something that truly works (but is much harder to explain), and we don’t have the budget to waste on dead end ideas.

          Relatedly, I’ve been called out for being “too negative” about my reviews of colleagues’ proposals that I know won’t work, usually because I literally did the research myself. It’s the dark side of Edison’s “I’ve found 10,000 ways that didn’t work” with a tinge of “Mom won’t let us do anything!”

    3. Paulina*

      Some junior employees are so sure that they’re better than their current job — especially if it’s an entry-level job — that this colours how they see the person with responsibility for training them. They can act like you training them means that you are providing a service for them, not that you have authority. This can especially be the case if it’s a woman training a man.

  7. Ice and Indigo*

    You know, you say ‘I cannot handle it when men are condescending’ … but this is actually one of those situations where you CAN handle it. As in, you have the power to tell him to stop, and if he resists that, to discipline him for having an attitude problem. If you think of it that way, it might become gratifying rather than maddening! (Though obviously I’m not suggesting you twirl your moustache and plan to punish him in effigy. It just might be a relief to think, ‘Oh, actually I don’t have to be the good girl and laugh this one off.’)

    You mention he was polite in his interview, so you know he’s capable of communicating appropriately. That means he’s doing one of two things now:

    1. Trying to come across as confident because he thinks that’ll make him look impressive, and overshooting badly.
    2. Taking the opportunity to be sexist now he thinks it’s safe.

    If it’s the former, direct communication should help. The thing I’d look out for is: how well does he take actual training and feedback? You say his llama grooming definitely needs support; is this just inexperience? Does he listen and improve when properly guided? Does he act like a know-it-all during training, but still take the lessons on board? Or does he act like a know-it-all and ignore guidance?

    Any of these except the last are probably a case of 1, in which case you’re free to pull him up every time he speaks unprofessionally (which is what he’s doing) until he stops. The last would be a case of 2, in which case, honestly, I’d start documenting so that any future official disciplinary action or dismissal have good written evidence. Either way, you’re in charge of him! :-)

    1. Blueberry*

      +1 I was going to write a comment rather like this, but Ice and Indigo’s version is better and more complete than mine would have been.

    2. Viette*

      This is a great comment! I exist (as a woman) in a very hierarchical environment, and I do often get subordinates who are men and who are just this sort of condescending/overstepping. It’s so helpful to remember that as their direct manager, I have the power to dictate how they act*, so it’s in everyone’s best interests if I just tell them what I want. It’s often coaching people on soft skills and professional wording.

      If they’re #1 on the list as above, it can be a little awkward because they feel like they screwed up. You may have to do some reassurance that it’s not a disaster, they just have to do it the way you want going forward. This is one of the reasons it’s best to get on it early, before you get really, really annoyed with the person: you want to be able to honestly say, “hey, it’s not the end of the world, just get on top of it and don’t do it anymore.”

      *within reason! This is not hazing, or a dictatorship. But you are in charge. I once had to tell a male direct report straight out that he could consistently address me *and* all my male colleagues (also his superiors) by either our professional titles or by our first names, but he absolutely had to stop addressing me and only me by my first name and all of the men by their professional title + last name. It was awkward! But he got the point and he stopped, and that’s what counts.

  8. Jennifer*

    On a personal note – if you still have people in your life you are condescending to you, maybe you need to have a conversation with them about how this makes you feel and see if they are willing to change. If they aren’t, or try to gaslight you into thinking that’s not what they are doing, maybe you need to reconsider how much time you spend with them. You’re coming to work with your nerves already frayed from dealing with male condescension in your personal life, which gives you even less patience to deal with it from Fergus and others in the office.

    I met my lifetime limit of male condescension several years ago as well and it made me re-evaluate who I want to have in my life and what I’ll tolerate from “friends.”

    1. Sally*

      I agree, and I think you might get good results by trying the “what an odd thing to say” part of Alison’s scripts. It’s similar to asking someone who makes an offensive joke to explain it.

    2. cncx*

      i agree with this. i had to cut out the condescending men in my private life to have the bandwidth to deal with them in the office- i work in IT and stuff happens like getting databases explained to me as a concept. one can only handle so much.

  9. Hey Karma, Over Here*

    I have a brother like this. Good luck. I’ve learned to take control back from him and you can, too.
    Karma: Hey, did you know X?
    Brother eating crackers: No, it’s X is A.
    Karma: After I’m done telling you what happened to me, you can tell me what happened to me. How about that?
    BEC: Oh, yeah, I just thought.
    KArma: but you didn’t say you thought, you said, no, it’s this. And I’m still going to finish my story.
    Shout out to my therapist~!

      1. Auntie Social*

        “Fergus–There are consequences for disrespect. I’m *sure* this is not how you want to speak to your manager. Do you want to rephrase that?”

        1. Close Bracket*

          Maybe it’s just me, but that script would not improve the level of respect I felt for my manager. Respect is built, and you can’t build respect with threats.

          1. Sacred Ground*

            Hard disagree here. OP has already earned the respect of her subordinates by Having earned her position as their manager. They owe a baseline of respect to her as their manager and and that baseline is higher than the default level of respect owed everyone.

            Everyone is entitled to respect until they aren’t. Respect isn’t a armed, its owed. Disrespect is earned.

    1. MistOrMister*

      My mom and my sister will both jump in to finish your thought for you while you’re in the middle of saying it. Usually I just meet it with humor but in their case, it’s not a matter of them being condescending. They just really seem to think they know what is going to be said and for some reason cannoy contain themselves long enough to let you say it yourself! Sometimes my mom does it when my dad is telling a story and when he stops talking she asks why and he says something along the lines of, you were on a roll telling my story, so I decided to let you finish!

      1. Sal*

        Agh, I do this and I am here to “enlighten” you as to your mom and sister’s possible motive–for me, at least, it’s a way of appearing excited/engaged but also on the same wavelength as you. Like when we say the same thing at the same time we’re gonna laugh and say “Jinx! Twin-brain!” It’s a (rude) way of building rapport and exhibiting warmth. I’m trying to stop but my actual default self is super shy and doesn’t want to talk to people and I’ve overcorrected.

        1. Close Bracket*

          I am the same way. I’m working to curb it bc I realize that some people don’t see it that way.

        2. RudeyDudey*

          I do this too, for exactly the same reasons. Never occurred to me that it was coming across rudely until someone pointed it out. Trying to stop but it’s taking a fair bit of effort (but am so glad they told me).

          It’s sort of like active listening gone rogue!

      2. Alexandra Lynch*

        My ex-husband got mad at me for this often. The problem is that he slowed his speech down after his heart attack, and sometimes lost words.

        So…when you’re…talking…like this…It’s not…y’know…easy to figure out….if you’re done talking….
        or if you just….just…Well, what’s the word then, damnit!
        So one tended to finish his sentences.

    1. SometimesALurker*

      1000% this. Can you follow me around for a week and say this to me? I’m so good at remembering this until I’m not.

    2. Nom de Plume*

      This. Especially if you’re in a male-dominated field it’s so easy to fall into the trap of equating being easygoing with being a doormat/taking all kinds of abuse. I get it. You want to be seen as “cool” and “one of the boys”. I used to be that way, and like, you, I’ve had my lifetime fill. Now if someone makes an inappropriate joke that makes me feel uncomfortable, I call them out on that. I’ll say things like, “Wow, that was inappropriate” or “gross” or “ew”. I realize that those situations are different than what you’re going through, but I wanted to point out that sometimes when women see themselves or want to be seen as easygoing, they tolerate a lot of bad behavior. I know I did.

  10. Zap R.*

    Oof, I was in a very similar situation with a direct report a few years ago. He wouldn’t do the tasks I assigned him and then eventually quit because he said I wasn’t giving him enough tasks to keep him busy.

    I was too intimidated to confront him directly because he was twice my size and I think he knew that. Take Allison’s advice and deal with it now rather than letting it build to the point where you’re dreading going into work and dealing with this guy.

  11. rldk*

    OP, I also encourage you to reframe ‘collaborative attitude’ and ‘willingness to learn skills openly’ as part of the job requirements – you absolutely *can* fire an intern for being rude to the point of coworkers not wanting to work with him. But, you can only do that in good conscience if you’ve had the conversations Alison suggests. But those ‘soft’ skills are absolutely essential to any job that relies on actually working with other humans, and can and should be treated like any other performance issue. I hope reframing that helps with the empowerment Alison mentions – don’t talk yourself out of very justified irritation because it’s “not serious enough” – it absolutely is! And if he can’t adjust given the clear directive to do so, that is 100% a actionable offense

    1. valentine*

      you absolutely *can* fire an intern for being rude to the point of coworkers not wanting to work with him.
      Yes! A bad attitude can eclipse all positives (and if OP feels guilty for their response, it’s worth checking if she’s overcompensating by giving extra weight to the positives).

      I don’t think it’s something I’m entitled to try to manage out of him, since he’s only a student employee, and I’m not sure it’s fair to nitpick someone’s personality just because it’s not compatible with mine. It’s not really a performance issue, because for the most part, he’s doing fine.
      OP, you are entitled to manage this (or him!) out, sexism isn’t a personality, and it is a performance issue that’s already harmed your dynamic.

      1. Ice and Indigo*

        Yeah, it doesn’t sound like ‘compatible with your personality’ is a big ask! All you’re asking for is professional courtesy; if that’s a big personality quirk, I guess I’m weirder than I thought too. ;-)

        1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

          “compatible with your personality”
          OP needs to reframe this in her head. A personality clash is where people have different work processes and think that’s the only way.
          Being a dick is not a personality trait. It’s being a dick.

      2. soon to be former fed really*

        Just make sure that you would fire a woman for the same behavior. I’m black, and certain behaviors are considered obnxious in black people that are OK in whites.

        1. Blueberry*

          So true. To expand, I think society trains us to judge the same/equivalent behaviors differently from different sources, and part of being a good manager is recognizing and correcting for that lens when judging subordinates’ behavior.

          (Although, to pull back to my own experience and personal observations while being both Black and female, I think many women are often punished more heavily rather than less for being judged to be ‘rude’ or ‘condescending.)

        2. Hey Karma, Over Here*

          There are definitely different “rules” or interpretations of someone’s words and actions based on their gender, race, age, etc. Like women who speak up are pushy, but men who speak up are leaders. Women who hug coworkers are annoying, men who hug are creepers. OP is definitely aware that she’s viewing his actions through her experiences with men over the years. Building on your question, I think that OP would be annoyed by a know it all young woman, but I wonder if OP would be concerned about calling it out exactly because their is the issue of gender bias.

        3. designbot*

          If anything, I think nobody would dance around a woman’s insecurity as much as they are this dude’s. But it’s a good check to make—how would this behavior come across if I saw it from people of different backgrounds? Different levels? Different levels of earned trust?

      3. TootsNYC*

        I don’t think it’s something I’m entitled to try to manage out of him, since he’s only a student employee,
        I might argue that you have a responsibility to manage it out of him.

        And it’s not his personality; condescension is not a personality trait; it’s a bad habit.

    2. Nom de Plume*

      We fired a full-time employee in part because he was condescending to peers and his manager. He didn’t have the skills to do his job (I think he lied on his resume), and when people tried to train him/give him pointers, he was frankly, a huge dick about it. I was part of his 360 review, and I said things like, “He bristles when given constructive criticism”. “Soft skills” mentioned above really aren’t optional qualities in today’s workforce. He needs to learn to be an adult and work well with others.

  12. Elizabeth Proctor*

    Oof. As the parent of a toddler, this hits home: “There’s no need to yell when you’re the person who has all the power in the situation. Yelling comes from feeling helpless…”

    I would also encourage him to ask questions when he has them. If we take the charitable view of some of his comments, perhaps he has needed to know some of these things but hasn’t felt like he could ask. That’s probably not what’s happening here, but it could be.

    1. 2 Cents*

      Yeah, if I read some of these responses in my own voice, I know I’ve said them, but without malice or ill-intent, like “oh yeah, I was wondering when I’d be shown X because it seems like a great part of the job!” But if I give them a less charitable reading, yeah, it comes across as snarky and like a child who doesn’t get enough attention said it.

      OP, just curious, once you show him these tasks, does he do them correctly? I had a smart -a$$ intern one semester who would talk back and then do the actual job horribly. Was so happy when his internship was over.

      1. valentine*

        I’ve said them, but without malice or ill-intent
        The key is that you also did so without the dismissive laugh.

        1. sunny-dee*

          I do wonder about interpretation though, especially if this is something that the OP is sensitive to for totally unrelated reasons. Like, Fergus said something innocuous but it reminded her of Joe, who is a jerk, so she’s reacting to Joe and blaming Fergus. What she interprets as a dismissive laugh could very easily be a nervous laugh or a verbal tic.

          It may be a good idea to get a read on the situation from another manager whose opinion she trusts.

      2. Snoop*

        yeah, it’s ALL about tone. I can see someone saying this very innocently. But if someone is already a knowitall or unaware then it can come off very annoying.

    2. TootsNYC*

      As the parent of a toddler, this hits home: “There’s no need to yell when you’re the person who has all the power in the situation. Yelling comes from feeling helpless…”

      I actually gained something really powerful when my children WERE toddlers. They were in a terrific daycare, and I watched those teachers interact with their students.
      They knew what bad behavior was developmentally appropriate, and they didn’t take it personally; they regarded it as a behavior that needed correction and guidance so the kid would grow out of it properly. They didn’t get angry; they had all the authority they needed.

      And now I have this technique I call channeling my inner daycare worker.
      It keeps me calm and authoritative.

  13. Mary*

    Yes, confront Fergus as soon as he does it. I am a former Fergus except I was a woman responding to a woman boss. I would respond without thinking trying to be clever and to hide my lack of confidence. It was only when she said back ‘What do you mean?’ that I realised that words count and I was coming off as a jerk. This was decades ago but I still remember the look on her face. I’m grateful she gave me that lesson, even though it was embarrassing at the time.

  14. Kim Z*

    With students, I always try to keep in mind that if I don’t tell them, no one will.
    Which is why every time I get an email addressed to Mrs. Z. instead of Dr. Z., I sit them down and explain that while they didn’t mean to be insulting and rude, that is what they were and they should never ever address a professional woman as Mrs. unless given specific instructions to. And then I remind myself that their brains are not done cooking and I have to be patient.

    1. infopubs*

      Your final sentence is a great metaphor. Although OP is so irritated with Fergus she might be contemplating sticking a toothpick into his brain to check for “doneness.”

    2. Egg Eater*

      Oof, I could not imagine working in a department where every PhD insisted on everyone referring to them as Dr. That sounds like a really unpleasant place to work.

      1. Anonie*

        And I didn’t work for 7+ years on a doctorate to be boiled down to my presumed marital status. To students, I am Dr. To colleagues, I’m First Name.

        It’s like when people assume the female doctor is the nurse. People assume my college dropout husband is the Dr. because it can’t possibly be the wifey. Who cooks dinner?!?!

      2. StrikingFalcon*

        I mean, she said students, so I’m assuming she’s a professor. Dr. is the standard way for students to address professors in the US, assuming they have a doctorate

      3. RS*

        As a student, I always addressed my professors as Dr or Professor. I wouldn’t call it “really unpleasant”.

      4. DyneinWalking*

        Maybe that depends on where you live? I’d feel weird about it, too, but I don’t live in the US. I sometimes wondered about how to address professors, but since I’ve never heard anyone address them by their titles, I’ve usually defaulted to calling them by their last name prefaced with the equivalents of “Mr.” and “Mrs.”. I sometimes feel weird when doing that with to female professors, but I do it to the male ones, too!

        I hope that if I ever find myself in a setting with different expectations, I’ll pick up on it early enough to avoid offending anyone. But if I don’t, I hope people would correct me kindly without assuming offense or sexism.

  15. Zap R.*

    “I’m guessing I just need some mindfulness classes, and some deep breathing exercises.”

    All the mindfulness classes in the world won’t fix sexism. It isn’t your fault this guy’s being a doof.

    1. Ice and Indigo*

      I’m all for positive psychology and the like, but it is worth knowing that it can be abused by authorities who want their subordinates to get better at enduring, rather than to let them have endurable conditions. It’s not always on you to manage every single feeling you ever have to the point where you never cause anyone else the slightest bit of discomfort ever. Sometimes someone just needs to be told to knock it off.

      All these stress-management techniques are cool, but they’re not a substitute for removing unnecessary stressors. And this is definitely unnecessary.

      1. Shirley Keeldar*

        “It’s not always on you to manage every single feeling you ever have to the point where you never cause anyone else the slightest bit of discomfort ever. Sometimes someone just needs to be told to knock it off.”

        I very much love you for saying this. (I hope that did not cause you any discomfort.)

    2. Lilyp*

      Yeah this is 100% on him to fix his weird behavior, but I think possibly OP would be happier if she could cultivate an attitude of detached amusement instead of barely suppressed rage. Think about how you’d feel towards, say, a five year old giving you very serious instructions on how to cook spaghetti but also getting half the steps wrong. Your knee-jerk mental reaction to This Guy could be more along the lines of “*snort* oh isn’t that funny how he thinks that makes him sound smart *mental eyeroll*” than the sensitivity and rage you’re feeling now.

      And then obviously still correct him out loud — you’re not doing that because “this is a thing I’m sensitive about” you’re doing it because he’s making an ass of himself and also making it harder to work with him and alienating/annoying his boss.

      * I’m not trying to police OPs emotions or say she’s overreacting or anything, I just truly think that mentally re-framing situations can make you feel more in control of them and less agitated/stressed. But different framings work for different people! Sexism and condensention *are* enraging but this guy is also sort of a joke and maybe it’d help to see him that way?

      1. GothicBee*

        I agree with this. As someone who can be really sensitive myself to certain behaviors (especially from dudes), I’ve found learning to control my reactions is freeing. But it is really important to know you can and should still address the problem because this isn’t about excusing bad behavior from others, it’s about freeing yourself from the immediate knee-jerk reaction, which is rarely good *for you*. Plus, I find it a lot easier to correct someone when I’m calm as opposed to when I’m seething with anger.

      2. TootsNYC*

        I especially like that “if a five-year-old were…” because it points to the “channel your inner daycare worker” tactic that I rely on.

        Daycare workers don’t get upset when 2-year-old grab toys and say “mine!” They don’t take it personally when 2yo’s say “I hate you!” But they don’t let the behavior stand, either.

    3. Nom de Plume*

      Yeah, this stuck out at me too. It’s like the New Age version of when a person (woman) responds to a crappy situation with normal emotions and then whoever they are responding to tells them they need to be medicated. The problem isn’t you, it’s them. They are being a jerk and you are having a normal response to that.

      1. Joielle*

        Exactly! It’s the “all my exes are crazy” phenomenon. Like, no, odds are you treated them poorly and they had a normal human reaction to that.

      2. TootsNYC*

        “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.”

    4. Well, there's this*

      and if his doofy bias is unconscious, then he needs the mindfulness classes so he can become aware and remediate. One of my takeaways here was this is a man who is not comfortable with a female boss. Another was the LW may have been called ‘too sensitive’ in at least one other situation, which leads to the hesitating in addressing it.

  16. blink14*

    OP – Try to look at this less as a condescending male, and more as an immature student who is clearly ill prepared due work in a professional environment. Nothing in what you wrote screams condescending male specifically – his comments are pretty typical of a young person who’s either never had a job, or has worked very little, and probably never an office setting. This should be learning experience for him and you should approach it that way.

    I also work in academia, and the departments that we share office space with both have multiple student employees. Some of the things I overhear are shocking, both in context and in tone. Some of them blatantly aren’t doing any work, or school work, and are messing around on their phones or online, others have conversations that while not overall inappropriate for the office, clearly show they have either nothing to do or are procrastinating. While they are hired to do a job, it is also supposed to be a learning experience for them, in a real work environment.

    1. Dragoning*

      I agree. We’re missing the tone, obviously, but the wording of a lot of this is “immature new person trying to sound competent and forward-thinking” and OP has admitted to having no patience for male condescension (understandably!) that might be coloring her view of things in a BEC, hypersensitive way.

      I’m trying to read the statements in a way that screams condescension, and I can, but.

      1. blink14*

        I can totally read all of his comments in a super sarcastic way, but you’re right, without knowing the tone it’s hard to judge further.

        1. valentine*

          Try to look at this less as a condescending male, and more as an immature student who is clearly ill prepared due work in a professional environment.
          He’s both, OP should say so, and knocking the blatant sexism out of at least his workplace behavior will spare future colleagues.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      I thought this, too. My early service-type jobs, my supervisors were often close in age and there was definitely a habit of talking flippantly to each other. It wasn’t my thing, but I was always kind of a stick-in-the-mud. If he’s only had pizza delivery jobs or whatever, he may be used to bosses who are almost his own age and maturity level and think this kind of dogging is OK.

      1. blink14*

        Agreed. I managed temporary high school and student employees at a seasonal business, and some years it was absolute h*ll trying to get them to work together and act professionally. A few I had to fire during the season or they weren’t asked back in the future.

        On the flip side, some of them came back every season for several years, and there was obvious growth from season to season. One student was so quiet and shy, her first season she wasn’t assigned to interact with customers at the counter. She grew more confident each season after, and the final time I worked with her before leaving that job, she was the one we depended on for evening and weekend shifts when there was less direct supervision.

    3. ACDC*

      I had the same thought. Hopefully this can be a learning experience for him and he can stay as your employee! If not, then it’ll be a learning experience in a different way…

    4. WellRed*

      Yes, I’m not seeing all the sexism others are seeing here. If Fergus were a female, but otherwise reacting the same way, what would the response be? I’m seeing some awkward and annoying behavior, to be sure.
      OP, I think your past experience is coloring this. I also wonder if some negative experiences with some condescending men is coloring your view of most interactions with men, but maybe you are in an industry where condescending men are par for the course and I’m just fortunate that hasn’t been my experience.

      1. EmKay*

        You’re not seeing it because you’re ignoring the condescending laughter and the tone that OP indicated in her letter. She said it’s there, and we should truat her on that.

        1. tangerineRose*

          I agree – since we should trust the OP. We don’t know what the tone is.

          The good thing is, whether this is caused by sexism or awkwardness, the OP has authority to shut it down.

      2. Lance*

        But Fergus isn’t a female. Context matters, and ‘Fergus is male’ is part of the context here that’s very much worth looking at.

      3. Blueberry*

        You are indeed fortunate, but there can also be sympathy with the less fortunate. For instance, I have never been sexually harassed at work. (I have been sexually harassed and I have been harassed at work, but not both in the same incident.) I don’t think it would be fair or logical of me to then conclude that sexual harassment doesn’t exist, considering all the examples I have been told of and learned of in other ways.

      4. Jessie the First (or second)*

        Tone matters. Ask my sulky tween – she can say “Oh, sure” and it’s a helpful, positive response, or “oh, sure” and it is a snarky obnoxious response.

        Tone matters. (OP mentioned tone specifically – she said she was not sure that the tone was coming across).

        Let’s trust that she understands when she is being condescended to.

        It’s incredibly irritating to hear and see the condescension, and then to be dismissed with some kind of “well, you’re just too sensitive, this is all fine, you’re overreacting” BS of some of these comments.

    5. Tehanu*

      Yabbut … we know it when we see it, you know? I think it’s far too common for women to second-guess ourselves rather than calling it, which I suspect is why it took so long before terms like “mansplaining” were coined. Second-guessing is a form of excusing sexist behaviour. True, younger/newer men in the workforce are more likely to be malleable to change and less likely to be self-reflective, but it still isn’t something women should have to put up with. Particularly if it causes them to question their managerial skills!

      The litmus test if you’re unsure is to observe whether his condescension is universal (likely insecurity) or primarily to women (likely sexist). Either way it needs to be addressed, but I trust the OP to have a pretty good idea of male condescension is when she sees it.

      1. EmKay*

        Thank you. All these “but are you suuuuure” comments are grinding my gears.

        And isn’t it a rule here that we should trust the OP?

        1. Blueberry*

          The “but are you suuuuuuuuuure” is a standard reaction to people who describe experiencing bigotry, from those who haven’t experienced bigotry and/or find the person expressing bigotry more relatable. For example here, many of the commenters, male and female, seem to find a disrespectful young man more relatable than a woman trying to manage him.

          I’ve seen this rection so many times (and even seen people on both sides of it at different times, which made me want to scream) and it is so utterly exasperating.

    6. zora*

      Yeah, this is what I was thinking. This is a pretty different situation than a grown adult peer who is consistently condescending to women.

      I would definitely remember he’s a kid and this is his first job, and it is definitely your job to teach him about proper workplace behavior.

      Also, I obviously am not hearing his tone, so don’t know for sure, but could this be his self-deprecating/sarcastic humor defense mechanism? Do you ever hear him talking to men who are giving him work? Because maybe he’s doing this with everyone. I can definitely see “jokes” like this used by younger people/newer to the workplace to deflect from them feeling like the new, dumb person at the job and cover their insecurity. If he actually does listen and take your direction when learning something new, I would try to make that assumption and explain to him why that doesn’t come across well, and give him some examples of good things to say when someone is teaching him a new assignment.

    7. Anonie*

      Yeah. I read this as an immature student issue too and wondered why the student’s sex is being brought into it. And if OP would respond differently to a female student worker saying the same things with the same tone, then it’s a problem OP needs to take a hard internal look at.

      (Said as someone whose boss won’t walk through a door I’ve opened, because my vagina means a force field goes up and he literally can’t cross the threshold unless I go first.)

    8. I'm just here for the cats*

      I feel the same way. We obviously are missing out on time of voice. But I wonder if this was a female student if the op would feel the same way?

      I especially found the first comment a little odd to feel condescending. The “I was wondering when you were going to get to that” may not be condescending at all and the OP just feels like it is because of past experience. I was thinking that sounded a bit more frustrated, like maybe he feels like he is wanting more responsibility or he wants a more fast paced. Obviously that’s not a good way to ask but it might not be condescending at all.

      1. Augusta Hawkins Elton*

        OP said earlier in the day that she did feel that her reaction was based at least partly on the student’s gender, and that she would react differently if the student was a woman. But she also seems to be saying that she understands this is unacceptable and she’s looking for strategies to manage her issues.

        I can certainly read the comments as condescending and I think it’s okay to take her word for it that they are, but the key now is to manage the behaviors, not to obsess over what he’s truly feeling when he says those things. She may never know what he’s truly feeling. She just needs to help him develop a more professional demeanor, and get things back under control.

    9. MissDisplaced*

      I agree with this take of “immature person” more so than “condescending male” because I had a young female intern/new hire who acted much the same way!
      Unless there’s something else in the delivery, body language or tone that really is sexist.

  17. Anon for now*

    I am experiencing this, but Fergus is the new-ish boss.

    Me: “Fergus, can I get information on how to boil water in the teapots?”
    Fergus, with a dismissive laugh and a shrug: “I mean, how hard can it be?”


    Fergus: “Why did you do this piddly, minor thing in this particular way? It shouldn’t be done that way!”
    Me: “Oh, I didn’t know. I’ve been doing it that way for a long time. No one ever told me different. I’ll adjust it going forward.”
    Fergus, in a snide tone: “YOU NEED TO USE COMMON SENSE.” (Then interrogate me for another 10 mins.)

    Sigh. I feel OP on unwillingness to put up with condescension. But when it’s the boss… sigh. I am looking.

    1. Chronic Overthinker*

      The best way to respond to a dismissive boss is to respond with, “I want to make sure I’m following the correct procedure to boil water in the teapots. I want to learn the correct way so I don’t make mistakes in the future.”

      Some bosses get stuck in their ways with regards to how they like to do things/routine tasks. Write down the SOP for how they like things and you’ll be golden, or at least a bit shinier. In the meantime, good luck and if you still can’t make it work with “Fergus” then by all means, find something better.

    2. Zephy*

      Bruhhh. If there’s multiple ways to do a thing that all yield the same result, and you want the thing done in one specific way for whatever reason, you gotta use your words. Fergus, my dude, you’re the boss. You get to give piddly, minor edicts like “purple paint is to be made by mixing the blue paint into the red, not red paint into blue,” or whatever it is you’ve currently got a bug up your ass about. What you don’t get to do is expect your employees to read your mind and then punish them for guessing wrong. If it matters that much to you, write it down and make it policy.

    3. Amy Sly*

      “How hard can it be?”

      “I don’t know; that’s why I’m asking. It’s better do it right the first time than have you tell me to fix it later.”

      My suggestion would be to always frame the interaction as helping him avoid more work. Naked self-interest is generally the most effective tool for dealing with tools.

      1. tangerineRose*

        My advice for this might be to write down or walk through what you think you should do. I have found that it is much easier to get someone to look over my “documentation” on what I think should be done (and then the someone can make corrections) than it is to get a training or documentation. I think this is partly because it’s easier to correct existing stuff than to write new stuff, and also some people just like correcting people.

        Sorry you’re having to do this. It does sound like the boss expects mind readers, which just isn’t OK.

        1. Amy Sly*

          Very good point!

          Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock actually uses that technique to get information in an episode. Pretending to be the deceased friend and guessing about his behavior got the wife to admit to information she wouldn’t have proffered if he’d just asked her.

  18. Snark*

    As a big fan of natural consequences, I think he gets the scripts once, maybe twice, and if he’s still trying to pretend he’s the smartest undergrad who ever graced your office, he gets to pack his shit and learn a big lesson.

    And honestly, if you just said “Wow, Fergus, that was incredibly condescending and rude. I don’t think this is working out, so best of luck, you’ll get your last paycheck on [date],” wouldn’t bother me none.

    1. Palliser*

      100% agree. Natural consequences are an extraordinary teacher. People develop a lot of awful habits and attitudes because other people are protecting them from natural consequences. If Fergus gets fired for being a sexist jerk (hopefully after being told that he has been a sexist jerk), that’s fair.

  19. voyager1*

    One of the things I do dread about this site is the use of Lamas and Teapots for stand ins for real business procedures… makes it hard to judge what is going on.

    That being said if your employee is saying “I am wondering when we would get to that” it sounds like he is bored. I am a guy and when I use that kind of language I am usually bored or being ignored not utilized. When I say “how hard can it be” it is usually when my manager is asking me something I already know and I feel again I am being talked down to. I use this language with both my male and female managers.

    You need to talk to your employee. Also can you email tasks to him with written instructions? That way he can take a little ownership in his learning?

      1. OP*

        The llama and teapot thing is about anonymizing and generalizing situations. It was helpful to me in writing my question.

        1. valentine*

          When I say “how hard can it be” it is usually when my manager is asking me something I already know and I feel again I am being talked down to.
          You can say that you already know. If Fergus had said, “I boiled water weekly at my last job,” that would be fine. But, after struggling with other new tasks, he still feels king of the castle and well on his way to appearing incapable of proper self-assessment.

        2. voyager1*

          I understand but I as a commenter pretty much discounted them because there is no context. I mean if your examples are respective of really simple tasks or just placeholders for tasks that are complicated. I think that matters. That is why I focused on what your employee is saying in your letter.

      2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        Why does it feel cliquish? Given that people typically don’t want to provide their actual industry/product line for the purposes of anonymity, what would you prefer to see used as a generic stand-in?

      3. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I remove a ton of those references when they’re unnecessary but in this case the LW actually needed stand-ins for the real words to preserve anonymity.

        I ask that we not nitpick language here so I’m closing this thread.

      1. msjwhittz*

        Yep! There are better ways to communicate that you’re not being challenged at work that don’t come across as rude (and as a result, reflect poorly on you!)

    1. Amz*

      You sound like a bad employee and you should step back from your situation and try to be objective ab0ut the way you’re behaving. You should never be telling your manager “how hard can it be?” unless it’s part of an inside joke or something!

      1. Jules the 3rd*

        ‘Wondering when we’d get to that’ can be ambiguous, but yeah, ‘how hard can it be’ is always snarky and unprofessional. If you already know it, a better response is ‘ok! I do that task in this way – does that work for you?’

    2. infopubs*

      Perhaps your takeaway from this discussion will be to see that this language comes across as condescending and irritating. If you’re bored, you need to communicate with your management that you’d like to be given more work. Responding to language that feels condescending to you by being condescending in response is not useful in the long run.

    3. Joielle*

      I mean, this sounds like actually YOU need to use your words and say things like “I don’t have a lot to do right now, could we do the next phase of my training?” or “Thanks but I already know how to do that.” Sarcastic remarks are not a good way to get those messages across. They just make you seem like a jerk, or like you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re nervous.

    4. ThisIsNotWhoYouThinkItIs*

      Politely, I’d say that your language would be off-putting to me. I’d much rather someone that feels bored, underutilized, or talked down to name it as that instead of the phrases you mentioned. Those come of as passive-agressive.

      I’d use something like:

      (Bored) “Hey, is there another project that I can pick up or learn more about? I feel like I have a bit of down time and I’d like to learn more.

      (Under-utilized) “Do you have anything else I can help out with or learn? I want to make sure I’m learning all I can. If not, my plan is to work on project X or as Person Y for things to do.”

      (Condescended to) “I think I learned that already with Person X or Person Y. Is there something different about using it in this context I should know about?”

      Could also use silence for condescension.

      I’m still working on it, but what you say can sometimes significantly effect how you are perceived. If I had someone responding like you mention above consistently (depending on tone) I’d probably label them as disengaged and would be even more reluctant to give them more/critical assignments.

      The “how hard can it be” is more worrisome than the “I was wondering when we would get to that”, for me.

    5. EmKay*

      You might want to be more direct in your communication and less snarky, especially and work, and *especially* with your manager. It’s not a good look.

    6. NW Mossy*

      If I had an employee hinting around that he was bored, ignored, and/or under-used, I’d be extremely wary of sending them an email of written instructions to sift through as a solution. That’s a really isolating move and likely to carry big undertones of “see, they don’t even care enough to talk to me for ten minutes!” to someone who’s already feeling neglected. If anything, disengaged behaviors like what you’re describing call for the opposite – more face-to-face time talking about the work to draw the person in.

      Leaving a bored person alone with their own thoughts to write in their own stories about what’s happening based on untested/faulty assumptions is a fast track to watching that person leave in disgust.

    7. Wintermute*

      I agree only because in this detail context MATTERS. and I think a lot of people are getting caught up on the euphemism. After all, boiling water is something any competent adult can be trusted to know how to do, it would be condescending to try to teach someone!

      In this case it’s really hard to know if he’s even being condescending without more details, but I trust that if we knew the full context and the exact tasks and knew the industry well enough to know what that means, the LW’s feelings on the matter would be logical and well-supported.

    8. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      The almost every time someone said, “How hard can it be?” when I asked them if someone showed them how to do something, my response was, “Well, you did it wrong the last 3 times you were assigned it, so I was wondering if somehow that part of your training had been skipped.”

    9. It's a No From Me*

      I find it interesting that it appears from your comment you have perceived multiple managers as “talking down to” you. If you’re having a particular challenge with only one person, there’s a reasonable possibility that person is the problem. When you’re having the same challenge with multiple people, you should consider that you are the problem.

  20. Tuckerman*

    I’ve worked with students/ student workers/employees with little professional experience. I think it helps to build professional communication into their training and give examples of how they might respond to various common requests/questions.

    A big part of my job is helping students create scripts for talking to faculty when they have a concern. I was surprised how much they struggle with this, and they are often relieved to get the chance to talk through it beforehand.

    1. Did you read the syllabus?*

      Yup, this a very common problem with students. I have experienced it both from students taking my classes and students working in my advisers lab. Alison’s scripts are all good.
      It does come across as condescending, but in my experience, a lot of this attitude is a result of students thinking they know than they do or they are trying to hide the fact that they are completely lost. I spend a lot of working with students to help them realize how much they don’t know, accept that it is ok to not know something, and how to properly ask for help in figuring it out.
      There is also an increasing trend in which students make statements instead of asking questions, so be prepared for that with student workers. Have clear policies in place and then clearly explain why what they are doing comes across poorly. Some of them will react poorly to corrections, but you can’t “save” them all.
      Hang in there!

      1. tangerineRose*

        Reminds me of a couple of co-workers I used to work with. Neither seemed to be able to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” or “Let me check on that” or “I think…” This meant that they regularly gave me incorrect and sometimes conflicting information. In contrast, the co-workers who were very experienced had no problem saying any of those because they were expert enough to know that none of us know everything.

  21. Mme de M*

    If this is all it takes for LW’s tolerance to “reach its limit” and cause LW not to want to be at work, I can’t see this person being a good manager of student workers without quite a bit of self-work.

    This is a student! Students are cavalier, insecure, moody, etc. etc. LW needs to get a grip and be an adult.

    (And I’d be willing to be LW is on quite the lookout for condescension, never failing to find it where none is meant.)

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I mean, it’s a useful question for the OP to ask herself, but it’s in no way a “gotcha.” Dealing with a lifetime of sexism is exhausting, and it’s not odd or some kind of pathology that she’s really f’ing over it.

        More broadly, please be constructive here, per the commenting rules.

        1. dan*

          There are a ton of thinks that I am really f’ing over. I do not treat folks differently because of my personal bias.

          I believe is the point mme de m was trying to make.

      2. OP*

        I would absolutely not be reacting to this behavior in the same way if my student was a woman. I acknowledge that as part of my problem.

          1. Threeve*

            Like how the exact same behavior might be considered “friendly” from a man, and “flirty” from a woman. It sucks that we have to learn to work around things like that, but we do, and it’s unhelpful to pretend otherwise.

          2. Joielle*

            Agreed. In these trying times, men may need to be a little more careful with their tone than women to avoid coming off as condescending (because condescension is something that was previously, but is no longer, tolerated/expected behavior for men). I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem.

          3. JamieS*

            It absolutely does matter. If OP wouldn’t consider it condescending for a woman to talk to her that way then Fergus isn’t being condescending either. Something doesn’t become true just by virtue of your bias interpreting it that way.

        1. Caroline Bowman*

          Sure, but it would still be irksome.

          Saying that, I think your dude is terrified and nervous and saying the stupidist things and giggling to make himself feel better. You are evidently cross, and who can blame you, but of course that would make him do it harder, to try and be confident and ”on it”.

          Definitely speak up, it will help him and you.

          1. Dragoning*

            That’s true…if OP is noticeably angry about this kind of thing, I can see Fergus making more bumbles and awkward moments and saying dumb things, especially since he’s a student and doesn’t know how to address the situation.

          2. Dr. Pepper*

            Agreed. This to me sounds like insecure teenager-ish behavior. And Fergus will very likely be far from the last student employee (of any gender) from which the OP will encounter this attitude. Train him on professional communication like any other skill you wish him to have. You will be doing that a lot as a student employee manager.

        2. Blueberry*

          On the one hand that is an unfairness you are wise to make note of.
          On the other hand, as Snark points out, it’s also context — you know you could expect a fellow woman to be more likely (not guaranteed but more likely) to listen to you.

          In general, sometimes what’s needed for fairness is equality, as in equal treatment and interpretation, but sometimes what’s needed is equity, as in balancing each individual situation against another.

        3. dan*

          Can you maybe explain why? Not trying to badger you, it just seems so blatantly wrong that if a man wrote this letter , and followed up with something along the lines of, “Well of course that behavior would be okay from a man! It is only women who mean to condescend! He would be jumped ALL over. Alison would probably say he was being nonconstructive and close the thread.

          Why the difference?

            1. dan*

              So because Men are not the victims of sexism as much as Women, it is okay to treat them differently.

              How many times does it have to happen to Men before they get on your list of people it is not okay to be sexist or rude against?

              Two wrongs do not make a right.

              1. Explaining*

                It’s more about how much the manager is willing to put up with this type of behavior. Because it doesn’t happen very often coming from women, she might be willing to let it go or give it a pass. Because it happens more often coming from men, she is not willing to put up with it anymore.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Because gender politics don’t exist in a vacuum, and the landscape of how this systemically plays out with women being chronically subjected to this matters. It taking place in a sexist society matters. Context matters.

          2. Ice and Indigo*

            Nobody’s saying this would be acceptable behaviour from a woman. It’s unacceptable no matter what genders are involved.

            Sexism is worth bringing in here because it would be a predictor of his future behaviour. Specifically, a male employee who disrespects a female boss out of sexism is likely to ignore gentler corrections from her, because he already feels entitled to dismiss her ‘opinions’. He will therefore need a sharper correction in order to make it clear to him that there are actual consequences he can’t afford to dismiss.

            Whether or not someone is sexist is actionable information. Wanting to leave it out is the unhelpful kind of PC.

        1. Starbuck*

          Speaking of male condescension… pretending that women feeling stressed by sexist behavior is simply them victimizing themselves (that they could overcome by… lightening up and getting over it?) is an obvious bad-faith argument. Not impressive.

    1. Don*

      Speaking of people choosing a courteous tone, maybe saying the LW needs to “get a grip” is a pretty cruddy way to phrase that? And whether condescension is always meant isn’t really relevant. People can for whatever reason have lousy ways of communicating that a reasonable person would find objectionable even if they don’t “mean” anything by it. I’d say a sizable amount of condescension, sexism, and disrespect that I have seen professionally was committed by people who maybe didn’t “mean” it but have subconsciously absorbed cruddy beliefs.

      1. AskJeeves*

        And on that note, it’s important professional development for the employee to become aware that his words can easily be perceived as condescending, even if he doesn’t intend it. That kind of thing can and will hold you back in your career – he’s already damaging his relationship with his boss in this job! The OP doesn’t need to assume it’s her problem and look the other way; she would be helping him by addressing this.

        Also, being a student isn’t a free pass to act like a jerk at your job. If a college student isn’t mature enough to act appropriately in the workplace, either they shouldn’t be there, or their manager should directly address the issue. (Which is what LW should do!)

        1. Alexander Graham Yell*

          And on that note, it’s important professional development for the employee to become aware that his words can easily be perceived as condescending, even if he doesn’t intend it.

          YES. A manager pulled me aside after a meeting I was leading that I’d felt went pretty well and highlighted this for me – there were a few things I’d said that didn’t come across the way I’d meant them and I’d risked upsetting people. It was a mild correction, but that was probably 8 years ago and I’ve never forgotten it.

          Ultimately I think that when we’re growing up, the majority of our models for proper adult behaviour in the workplace are our teachers – who, for obvious reasons, are generally taking control and assume a level of power that we won’t have if we follow their lead. So much of where I see interns go wrong is by taking the tone their stricter teachers have used because it seems “professional” and they don’t really have anything to compare it to.

        2. tangerineRose*

          “being a student isn’t a free pass to act like a jerk at your job. ” This! Not all college students are immature enough to act “cavalier, insecure, moody, etc. ” at work.

      2. epi*

        I totally agree. A lot of the unacceptable treatment that people from marginalized groups experience isn’t malicious, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t insulting, hurtful, and prejudiced. Many people speaking or acting in inappropriate, stereotyped ways don’t see how negative and dehumanizing their assumptions are, they think they are responding to the reality of people in X group.

        I’m a woman scientist and honestly, condescension is one of the things that hurts the most precisely because it is unexamined. You can have a lovely relationship with someone with more power than you, think you see eye to eye on everything, and really feel safe with them. Then the next time you disagree, suddenly you are being talked to like you just don’t understand how shit works. I’ve had multiple men with no training tell me what they’re confident an epidemiologist would think of a situation, or how an epidemiologist would solve a problem, even as I’m telling them they are wrong based on that precise expertise. It hurts because you have to reexamine the whole relationship in light of their belief that they know more than you about your life, your job, and the world in general, based on nothing but just being themselves.

    2. Snark*

      “This is a student! Students are cavalier, insecure, moody, etc. etc. LW needs to get a grip and be an adult.”

      Students are adults. When I was a student, I would have never once dared to behave in this fashion, regardless of how insecure and moody I was feeling at the moment. If they’re old enough to vote, join the military, buy cigarettes, get approved for a loan, and go to college, they’re quite old enough to conduct themselves in a way that is not condescending and belittling of employers and superiors.

      American culture already coddles and infantilizes young men in many, many ways, and the more privileged they are the longer they are treated as if they cannot be expected to display self-awareness and agency. Let’s not do that here.

      1. Amy Sly*

        Heck, OP, maybe try a mental exercise of the military. This kid is old enough to have gone through boot camp, so when he mouths off, think about what R. Lee Emory might do. If Emory wouldn’t accept it, you shouldn’t either! He would call out the kid with what he’d done wrong and demand the kid fix it. So should you, even if you don’t want to use Emory’s vocabulary and leadership style.

      2. Myrin*

        Yeah, I’m always surprised when I read this lame excuse, and maybe part of that is that at least in my immediate subculture, this attitude isn’t particularly common (it’s very normal to start working fulltime at sixteen, for example, so the “inexperienced, child-like 22-year-old” trope is always a bit alien to me) but I’m also thinking back to when I was just a wee eighteen- or even sixteen-year-old and I just can’t for the life of me imagine behaving like that. And I know that I’ve always been (maybe too) stern and mature for my age but IDK it just doesn’t fly with me when I think about my own experiences.

      3. Starbuck*

        Yes, he is an adult. It sounded like the commentor above was describing a toddler! If anyone needs to “get a grip and be an adult” it’s this student, not OP.

    3. Madame X*

      Not all students are like that though? And if they are cavalier and moody, then they need to learn sooner rather than later to be more professional in their communication. The OP clearly realizes that how they’ve been handling this intern is not ideal and they are see how to better manage their direct report. If they were blissfully unaware they your point would be more valid

    4. Joielle*

      Nope! If this guy is an intern, he’s within a few years at most of graduating and entering the workforce, and it is well past the time when he should have learned how to communicate respectfully. It absolutely does not matter whether condescension is “meant.”

      You can’t give men a pass on this – first it’s “he’s so young, he doesn’t know better” and then it’s “he was never taught, now he’s stuck in his ways.” The intern may be a student, but I’m assuming he’s not eight years old. He his old enough to know that there are consequences for disrespect.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        You can’t give men a pass on this – first it’s “he’s so young, he doesn’t know better” and then it’s “he was never taught, now he’s stuck in his ways.”

        This, 100%. No matter what, it seems like there is always an excuse when a dude acts like an ass.

        People have asked if OP would be reacting the same way if Fergus were a woman; I also wonder if the commentariat would be reacting the same way if it were a woman who was acting like this.

        1. Blueberry*

          I remember a letter by a lab manager(?) who had a disrespectful, contentious employee. Alison’s advice was similar, IIRC. The commentariat was far less interested in questions about if the employee was Really Disrespectiful and Really Argumentative and Maybe It’s All In Your Head, LW?

      2. Evan Þ.*

        It doesn’t matter in that it’s still unacceptable, but it does matter in that – if OP addresses this as Alison describes – he might quickly change.

    5. Rusty Shackelford*

      This is a student! Students are cavalier, insecure, moody, etc. etc. LW needs to get a grip and be an adult.

      1. “Get a grip” is rude.
      2. Yes, this is a student. An intern. What do you think the manager’s role is in this situation? Because generally, training them to help them succeed in the workforce is part of that. And “you may not realize it, but you sound extremely condescending when you say that” falls under that umbrella.

      1. tangerineRose*

        Yeah, I don’t get the “he’s just a student” thing. I remember being a college student, working in fast food, etc. I wasn’t acting cavalier or moody at work (even if I felt moody). I was very insecure but that doesn’t necessarily cause someone to act like a jerk.

  22. Trout 'Waver*

    This student’s behavior comes off as nervousness to me. You’d be doing him a kindness by directly stating how you would like him to communicate with you and holding him to it.

    If he doesn’t change his communication style, that’s a perfectly fine reason to replace him, imho.

    1. Mistresstina*

      Agree. I have seen this type of behavior in young people and I read it as nervousness and learned communication behavior.

      If someone says something to you and you don’t understand their tone or intent you can just ask fo clarification.

  23. Dust Bunny*

    The thing is . . . you’re not powerless here. You’re angry about how you’re being treated, but you’re not addressing it, and then you’re mad that it’s continuing. But you’re the boss here. You’re in a position to do something about it.

    A lot of this sounds like flippant young twerp commentary and maybe he’s a total sexist, or maybe he’s young and dumb and hasn’t quite grasped how it sounds (and of course he can’t be held responsible for every other man in your life who walked all over you). Maybe he would make at least some of these remarks to a male boss, as well, out of mistaken familiarity; it’s never been my MO to talk to professors or bosses like this but I’ve had coworkers who do. But it’s still not a good look at work and you can still tell him so. And it’s also possible that you should review how, what, and at what pace you’re training him because if you dread interacting with him so much, it may actually be making you a less effective manager than you need to be.

    Are there other, more practiced, people at your organization whom you could trust for guidance?

    1. Amy Sly*

      Also, she’s not powerless in the rest of her life either. Cut off the male family members, divorce the husband, dump the boyfriend, call out the teachers and bosses and coworkers; whatever it takes. Some mindfulness classes aren’t going to resolve that anymore than they’ll resolve this problem with the student worker.

      1. Starbuck*

        Well, if liberating ourselves from sexist men was as easy as ‘just do it,’ women would have overcome our oppression long ago. Not that any of this is bad advice, but I can’t pretend it’s that simple. Our society is set up to have women depend on men economically, socially, etc. We’ve changed so much, but they’ve changed relatively little in comparison unfortunately.

        But I have absolutely found that spending more time exclusively in the company of women is a helpful balm for this sort of baseline sexism that you may not be able to easily escape; whether it’s joining a professional organization or something social (book club, knitting group, hiking club, etc) it helps.

    2. Caroline Bowman*

      I think he sounds desperately nervous and awkward. Laughter is very common in this respect, frantically trying to sound ”on it” and as though he 100% gets it, terrified of messing up, aware that his supervisor / trainer is irritated with him (As anyone would be – his tone is incredibly rude and condescending)! and doubling down… vicious cycle…

      Address it. Be serious, calm and tell him that the laughter and sarcasm is actually annoying. He’ll be mortified, but you can clear the air.

  24. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    What a dick.

    OP, I work in higher education too, and to be honest, I would take a much firmer line. You are an experienced manager, he is a student. He hasn’t even earned a degree yet. If you’re not comfortable sitting down with him and calmly if firmly telling him this (for fear that he’ll go to the Dean of Students or his parents or your boss or whatever), you could share this with the student conflict office and have a rep from their office with you when you professionally lay down the line.

    1. Anonie*

      …lay down the line on what? I work in higher ed. First question to OP is going to be what she’s done to address the situation and manage the student. And I’d be absolutely aghast if the OP escalated to Student Affairs to accuse this student of sexism based on perceived tone and overconfidence, after having done no managing of the situation and of a kid who may never have actually worked a job.

      The hardest part of the semester is the first three weeks, before I’ve set expectations and given sometimes harsh corrective feedback. They learn and do better, or they ignore me and ultimately drop the class. They’ll never learn if they never get the feedback, and you can’t (shouldn’t) fail them if you never gave the feedback.

      1. Tangerina Warbleworth*

        Fair point — it was my understand that the manager had, in fact, tried to address the situation, and the student simply wasn’t picking up hints. But a classroom setting and a job are two very different situations. If a student in my class said something like “well, how hard can it be?”, that opens up a whole floor of discussion, giving other students in the class opportunity to respond. In that case, my job as the professor is to encourage respectful, if passionate, conversation.

        But when I’m managing a student worker and he gives me attitude like this, it’s not a topic of exploration. Even in a crapily-paying student job, it’s a job, and he needs to understand basic job behavior. I’m not talking about screaming at him, or punishing him, or dragging him to Student Affairs against his will. What I mean is a professional conversation: “As a voting adult, you do not talk to a manager in that tone.” The idea of bringing in someone from the student conflict office serves both me as the manager — there is a witness from another office who can confirm that I did not threaten him, or scream at him, or did anything disrespectful — and the student, who can benefit from having a third party in the discussion, as a possible advocate if needed. It’s insurance that goes both ways, in my view.

        1. Anonie*

          A student worker on campus is still a student on campus, and moving up the campus chain to report student conduct means the student would be treated like a student on campus. This isn’t some dude at an off site internship or working at an onsite Jimmy Johns. He’s probably work study. If OP had reported this student at my university for what was written in the letter, and as you suggested, OP would most likely lose the supervisor role, at best. Maybe your college is different. YMMV.

  25. it might be sarcasm*

    I feel like there is maybe a chance that this is a cultural thing vs. a condescension thing. I notice that in the industry I’m in (tech), the tone and terms that people use with each other is very sarcastic, all the time, and I think it’s some kind of mechanism to try and fit in and be “cool and casual”. I don’t think people even realize they do it – it’s like the natural flow of conversation in these circles. My spouse speaks this way as well, and I get so fatigued of the sarcastic “peanut gallery” comments and conversational fillers. It makes me insane. I blame media – this seems to me like an iteration of “bro culture”, and it’s pervasive because people feel like they have to speak like this to be seen favorably among their peers. I’ve felt that way, and I’m a woman. But I’m older and wiser now and I know better!

    Maybe if it helps, frame this differently in your mind – he isn’t trying to condescend to you, he is just speaking in a dialect that has been shaped by his experiences and has helped him fit in in previous jobs and social situations. He’s now in a different environment and hasn’t adjusted yet, and maybe he never will without some outside guidance. You could change his life! And make yours better in the process.

    I agree with the angle of professionalism. Not that this is him being a dope, but that his sarcastic replies are damaging his professional reputation.

    1. Extroverted Bean Counter*

      Yes, this was my read too. I’ve noticed it a little in my “professional” career (finance and accounting for a manufacturer, the Operations people tend to be this way a bit) but this was just the assumed way to be when I was a) a teen/early 20-something and also b) working in the service industry.

      It’s not cool or interesting to be earnest and without guile. If you wanted people to think you have a personality, you needed to be a little brash and cocky with the general understanding that you were doing so a little ironically. Like “rocket science? Pfffft, how hard can that be?” swagger.

      It might be condescension, especially if accompanied by eye rolling or sneering or derisive laughter like the OP seems to be picking up on. But it also very well might just be “2020 student culture” stuff.

      That doesn’t change the answer of “go ahead and address it! It’s about professionalism.” But I do think it might be something for OP to keep in mind, if not for Fergus but perhaps for future students who also act like this, that may help keep the rage at bay.

  26. cosmicgorilla*

    I’m torn here. On the one hand, I never want to downplay anyone’s experience or come across as gaslighting. On the other hand, I wonder if you are on high alert due to past experiences. I can see my past self saying, “Oh, I was wondering when we’d get to that!” but not feel comfortable actually asking about it. You label it as a dismissive laugh – what tells you it’s dismissive? How do you know it isn’t an insecure laugh? Why do you automatically jump to dismissive? And if it is dismissive, does it help to think of it as dismissive? Treat his comment as a genuine question to be answered. Take the wind out of his sails. Puncture the pomposity.

    Do you have a training schedule in place so he has an idea of what to expect and when? When he says, “I was wondering when we’d get to that,” do you tell him, “Fergus, if you’re ever wondering about the training schedule, or if there’s something you’d like to learn, you can always ask me. I may not be ready to add that to your responsibilities, but you should always feel comfortable bringing it up.” For “how hard can it be?”, answer that too! Calmly and professionally. “No, it’s not difficult, but there is a process our company expects that you follow to make sure the boiling water is done in a safe, compliant manner. The pots and machines have been damaged in the past by people who haven’t taken the process seriously. I need you to pay close attention – this is part of the professional norm at this company.”

    I can’t even comment on him acting like an expert and then needing guidance. Allison covered that one already pretty thoroughly.

    1. CupcakeCounter*

      I agree and in the response to some of the comments, OP specifically stated that her reaction would be different if the student was a female.
      While it is still TBD if Fergus is a sexist prick or a nervous student, OP needs to find a way to both separate her instinctive reactions and feelings and behave in a professional manner. I think she can do both with the correct scripts and change her mindset from “condescending male belittling me” to “still impressionable student I can help train up to be a open minded professional who has respect for all coworkers and managers”.

      OP – you’ve got the power to help shape this young person’s mindset and professional behaviors. Before responding, think about what your response would be if a female student had the exact same response and then reply to that. You may be absolutely right that Fergus is condescending but, by your own admission, you are particularly sensitive to that problem as well as a new manager. That insecurity is probably coming into play more than you think it is.

    2. Oh No She Di'int*

      “On the one hand, I never want to downplay anyone’s experience or come across as gaslighting. On the other hand, I wonder if you are on high alert due to past experiences.”

      Why do you imagine that these things are mutually exclusive? I have no doubt that OP is on high alert, because high alert is an appropriate reaction to a lifetime of being exposed to sexism. High alert is what allows you to see patterns of behavior and to become proficient in understanding what those patterns mean.

      Soldiers in war zones are always on high alert. That high alert is why they can tell the difference between a quiet night that’s “not quite right” and a normal quiet night. Non-soldiers would not be able to tell the difference; it would all just sound like quiet to them.

      I trust OP to know how to recognize a dismissive laugh, because she is there in the situation and is analyzing the whole pattern of behavior presented to her. She is a human being and we as humans can tell the difference between being condescended to and simply being asked a question. These things don’t come in isolation; they come in patterns. Ans this is a pattern OP has seen before. She knows when it’s not quite right.

      1. Close Bracket*

        That’s a good analogy. Soldiers who get out of war zones continue to be on high alert and see threats where there aren’t any. High alert is a rational reaction to being under constant threat, but not necessarily a constructive reaction.

      2. Starbuck*

        “high alert is an appropriate reaction to a lifetime of being exposed to sexism”

        Yeah, exactly. And OP took pains to give many examples that illustrate the overall pattern she’s seeing; not just a one-off comment.

    3. Joielle*

      The thing is, though, a lot of women are on high alert for condescension these days. I know I am! I have an extremely low, and getting lower by the day, tolerance for being condescended to (by people of all genders, but it’s almost always men who do it). So everyone, but particularly men, needs to be more careful to avoid condescension. Because a lot of people, but particularly women, are unwilling to forgive it.

      And if he’s just acting condescending because he’s actually insecure, or something, I don’t think that really matters from OP’s perspective – either way, he needs to learn that the way he’s coming across isn’t acceptable.

      1. andy*

        If you misjudge situation due to being on high alert, you are harming yourself. As a manager, you are also harming other people which should matter too. Leadership comes with leadership responsibility.

        I am woman too and I know what it is like to be on high alert because someone else somewhere else was sexist. And if unchecked, it makes you unfair to people and super hard to communicate with. It also makes you ineffective in dealing with people problems, because instead of dealing with problem at hand you use the only hammer available.

        And that is especially important when emotions fly. When you have strong emotional reaction, it is time to stop and evaluate twice. Cause risk of bad decision is tripple high.

        1. Jessie the First (or second)*

          Being on high alert doesn’t actually mean “super emotional and unable to tell the difference between obnoxious behavior and professional behavior.”

          I agree that when a manager (or anyone) finds themselves internally screaming, you have to take a step back and breathe. But that isn’t because I think the OP isn’t seeing and hearing what she reports seeing and hearing; it is because she has to be able to have a calm, firm conversation with her direct report about his wording and tone, and it is hard to be calm and firm when you are screaming internally.

    4. hamsterpants*

      I feel like you’re contorting yourself to tell a story that this wasn’t condescending. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, a reasonable first assumption IS that it’s a duck.

  27. Liz*

    You: “Fergus, has anyone shown you how to boil water in the teapots yet?”
    Fergus, with a dismissive laugh and a shrug: “I mean, how hard can it be?”
    You (visibly taken aback): “Whoa. That’s an alarming comment to make. What do you mean by that?”

    This phrasing would be really weird to me. Calling it “alarming” is over the top. I would just skip that part and go right to “what do you mean by that?”

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      It depends on how hard it is. Could something explode? Could it bring the wrath of federal auditors onto your department?

      The smoking remains of many microwaves were left in the wake of people who thought “What’s the worst that could happen?”

    2. Wintermute*

      I would agree if it’s literally as simple as boiling water. But I think we’re getting a bit hung up on the euphemism used, because boiling water is something any competent adult SHOULD know. We don’t know what actual process that phrase is standing in for. It would be very alarming to hear a junior radiofrequency operator go “how hard can starting a radio pack be?” it’s not HARD per se but the steps go in an order and if you don’t do it right you cause an outage, and if you don’t check the proper work orders first you could hurt someone. Likewise it would be very alarming to hear a junior operator say “well how hard can rebooting a mainframe really be?” it’s not hard, you follow a rote set of steps in a book but inattentive handling of those steps has ended more than one career.

    3. Employee of the Bearimy*

      I’ve had good results with, “I don’t find that response particularly useful.” It generally draws the speaker up short a bit, and you can vary the coldness of your tone as needed.

    4. fhqwhgads*

      Only if the task is literally boil water. The letter uses teapots as analogy for whatever the work is. So switch out “boil water in the teapots” to “do any key task with out company’s products”. The point is if you’re dismissive of Work Thing You’ve Been Told You Must Be Trained on, that’s alarming.

    5. tangerineRose*

      I don’t know; I’m not sure I’d want to trust someone to boil water when they have no idea how to do it. I’m picturing sitcom-levels of awfulness happening.

  28. Falling Diphthong*

    I want to note that especially in academia, hiring a student, it’s very easy to hit someone who believes they must always be excelling and earning an A, or they fall off the only path and are doomed. So their attitude can be less “great, a chance for me to learn things I don’t know” and more “That? I knew that! I am on top of that. Yup, I definitely know all the things. You will give me an A for my Knowing Of The Things.”

    That is, try to see it as a little more desperate student.

    1. Extroverted Bean Counter*

      Gosh, I’m 34 and still fall into that trap. Nodding along acting like my manager saying “I’m going to compile the YVT so that the Whoozies get off our back, it’s been a nightmare since The Incident. IM me if you need me” means anything at all to me.

      1. James*

        A guy I work with constantly rides me about that. I’m the guy saying things like “The ISM results for QR17 are below the HTPs, so per the ESR7 we’re good.” And my coworker will stop the meeting and say “James, none of us has a clue what you just said.” I live in a world of acronyms, spreadsheets, and data; I even dream about this stuff at night, and tend to forget that normal people….don’t.

        It’s really, REALLY helpful when someone stops me and lets me know I’ve blown past the twenty minutes ago! If you’re hesitating to speak up and say you don’t understand, at last in my experience, I encourage you to say something!

  29. montescristo1985*

    I know the letter writer is in a much better place to determine tone and intent of the employee than I am, but I do wonder if perhaps having to deal with the condescension and put-down for so long might be coloring your perception of what’s happening here. If you take out the word “dismissive”, these comments sound very much like something my newest employee would say, and he isn’t in the slightest being condescending, he just likes to joke and goof off a lot, which is fine by me and my group as we like to keep it light. In fact, anyone in the group might answer back like that with a laugh, cause we all joke with each other. If you’ve got a serious faced jokester in a group that doesn’t usually operate that way, it can be super awkward all around until somebody clears the air.

    That doesn’t mean you can’t tell him to knock it off in either case, but maybe if you take away the sting of the way he is talking about being possible about you, and not about himself, it would help make the discussion easier and less personal.

  30. Spek*

    I’m not going to tell that I know how you feel, because I can’t know. But I will tell you that you have a lot of power right now to affect how this guy works with and for women the rest of his career. Having a calm, frank discussion with him now will carry as much positive weight as flying off the handle will have a negative impression. Realize that he is young and needs guidance and may be oblivious to how he is coming off.

    1. tangerineRose*

      “you have a lot of power right now to affect how this guy works with and for women the rest of his career.” This!

  31. Caroline Bowman*

    What strikes me is that the student is nervous. People laugh and are incredibly awkward when they’re nervous and insecure. The laugh is what gives it away.

    Not that it isn’t INCREDIBLY IRRITATING and yes, it sounds awful and condescending, but a script similar to what Alison has outlined would work. Just ask him why he’s laughing, then look at him, unsmiling. If he doubles down, tell him that you are finding it very hard to to teach him what he needs to learn to do his job effectively because you feel that his tone is condescending and dismissive, especially since it often transpires that he isn’t all that ahead of the game and needs help as often as can be expected.

    I’d bet money on the notion that this guy is terrified and desperately trying to act cool and clever. It’s not an excuse, but it is likely true.

    1. LizB*

      I got the same impression: he’s nervous and insecure and defaulting to a super irritating mode of behavior, that he’s seen modeled by both nervous dudes and total assholes, to try and feel like he’s in control. And the OP is reasonably exhausted from a lifetime of dealing with this behavior from all types of dudes who exhibit it, and so it’s pushing her buttons and she’s not able to bring her best What-Would-AAM-Do self to the forefront when she’s in the midst of the ARGH RAGE response. Which is why writing in was such a good idea! I think Alison’s suggestions will very quickly reveal whether Fergus is actually nervously putting on a Cooler Than My Dumb Boss persona and can be corrected out of it, or if he is, in fact, a condescending butthead who will double down.

    2. Dr. Pepper*

      Yup, that was my read too. Goodness knows I’ve encountered enough of it. On some level he probably perceives your anger and is reacting to it- read: getting even more nervous and therefore gauche. Most people are not as good at hiding their emotions as they think they are and other people can pick up on a lot.

      Approach the situation as if he is acting out of ignorance and insecurity and train him in professional communication. If he is in fact an asshole who is acting this way because he’s a dick, well, then you can fire him and you can tell your boss that you tried. Saying nothing and hoping the problem goes away is a huge disservice to both you and Fergus.

    3. Peter*

      A quote from John Scalzi:

      The failure mode of clever is “asshole.”

      I agree that OP can and should change this person’s approach.
      I hope that the OP can use the comments in this section to do this in a positive and constructive way.
      I also hope that in five years time the student finds this thread and realises just how much more his brain has cooked and that his approach feels so much more comfortable and constructive than it used to.

  32. Noobert*

    I could see Fergus making some of these comments as a defensive mechanism regarding how lost/stupid/ignorant he feels. Although in that case he would have said “I was wondering when we’d get to that” rather “you get to that”.

    But even so, Alison’s responses still work nicely to fix the issue — his comments are not helpful, supportive or even neutral – and asking him to explain may reveal his insecurity or may reveal unwarranted assumptions regarding his value/value of the work.

  33. Mistresstina*

    Employee: haha how hard can it be
    Manager: ok perfect. show me how you would do it

    Employee: I was wondering when you were gonna get to that
    Manager: why? Do you have a lot of questions about it? Did you make notes?

    Employee: I was wondering what you meant by that
    Manager: great. What are your questions.

    I think it’s important to add that managing, especially managing young people, is both about showing them how to do the job but also letting them learn. OP is chasing this situation too hard and also personalizing. Push back a little bit on these interactions by asking questions/for clarification and see how fast things change.

    1. AKchic*

      Oooh. I like this. It very much shuts the sarcastic passive aggressive spin down and makes Fergus rethink his whole communication style without any kind of “talk” involved.

      1. Elaine Benes*

        I agree! These responses make it very clear how obnoxious these comments are, whether a nervous tic, bad joke, or fully snarky retort… because at best, they’re inane conversational-flow stoppers. The manager can say them in a firm but pleasant tone and not come away having been more rude than the original remark.

    2. montescristo1985*

      This is usually my go to for dealing with people’s “style” that don’t jive with me. Just act flat out like they are dead serious and mean exactly what they say. People are usually trying to get a response (whatever that response may be) and if they don’t get one they usually change their style until they do. Not to sound obnoxious, but I deal with people exactly the same way I do with animals….basically ignore any behavior that I don’t like (to a point, obviously you can’t ignore away something illegal) and reward (appropriately for the setting) the behaviors I do. It works 99% of the time, and they don’t even know it is happening.

      1. Amy Sly*

        Operant conditioning works. We like to pretend that as humans, we’re all rational beings with well-thought complex reasons for everything we do, and as such the solution to every problem is to discuss it. But sometimes, the best solution is to use the same training techniques that work on everything from goldfish to elephants: do something I really don’t want, get really unpleasant consequence; do something I’d prefer you not to do, get mildly unpleasant consequence; do something I want you to do, get enjoyable consequence.

        1. tangerineRose*

          Well, a rational being usually tries to avoid the unpleasant consequences and go for the enjoyable consequences.

      2. Dr. Pepper*

        Humans are animals. We like to pretend otherwise but good animal training is not so very different from good people training. Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.

    3. CupcakeCounter*

      These were my thoughts as well. Putting it back on him a little bit will get the point home as well. Especially the “I was wondering what you meant by that” comment. My first thought was “Really? Then why didn’t you ask me when you read through it the first time?”
      Its one thing to take a little initiative and try to figure something out using the documentation and quite another to read through it, notice a mistake or confusing section, and just do nothing about it.

      My problem is every response would be so full of snark it wouldn’t be hard to figure out I was pissed.

      F: HaHa, how hard could it be?
      Me: Well each teapot is specially made to our specifications and costs about $1000 and if you do it wrong they could shatter and ruin the entire batch. We only have 3 of them and the lead time is about 4 weeks so doing it wrong could cause serious delays in getting our products out. So…would you like to wing it or are you ready to learn how to do it correctly?

      F: I was wondering when you were going to get to that.
      Me: Really, why? Last I checked, you were still having trouble with X so I’m not sure why you would expect to learn Y until you had that figured out. As I mentioned before, Y requires X to be completed correctly so training on Y while still unable to handle X would be a waste of time.

      If you can manage a reply with your reasonings for something, i.e. master X before moving on to Y, without getting an attitude (like I have) that can be extremely helpful on many levels. You show your knowledge of the subject matter, address the comment a little bit, and provide context that might help the next interaction. Some in the moment correction won’t hurt either such as “Next time you have a question on the documentation, please come ask me instead of waiting” or “I know the task seems like a no brainer but we have to follow a specific process in order to maintain result quality. We know what we are doing and why and if it wasn’t a critical step we wouldn’t have it included in the training”.

    4. Dr. Pepper*

      With the added bonus of encouraging him to think things out before speaking. By asking serious, open ended questions (even if his initial comment was sarcastic), you are both putting him on the spot to explain himself (which discourages flippant comments) and sending the message that you care about his experience as an employee. You’ll likely get a lot of stammering and “oh nothing” at first, but keep at it anyway. You are modeling professional behavior, which includes taking the concerns of others seriously even if they don’t express them eloquently.

      As I said in another reply, this will hardly be the last time you encounter this type of behavior, so figuring out how to redirect it into something useful will go a long way to making you an effective student employee manager.

    5. Dankar*

      I like this so much better! Especially the second response because it both indicates to him that he should be taking notes and being proactive, and establishes OP as the expert that he needs to go to.

      Alison’s responses are, I think, a bit too much for a younger employee who might just be nervous or deflecting.

    6. whistle*

      Yes! Take his comments at face value and respond to them as if they were said without a tone. I think this approach is the most likely to lead to him reflecting on and improving his behavior.

    7. learnedthehardway*

      I love these responses. Also, they don’t require the OP to be correct about her interpretation of the intern’s attitude. And I think that is important, because while the OP may be absolutely correct that the guy is being condescending, it’s possible that he has no intention or awareness of being condescending, and it’s possible that he’s not being condescending, but is insecure and being flip about it.

      Responding to the perceived intention has a good chance of not achieving the desired outcome. Responding to the actual statement / question as if it was a serious statement / question takes things out of the “this is what I think you are doing” realm and into the “this is how to communicate properly” realm.

      1. tangerineRose*

        And if he is being condescending, and the OP acts like the guy just needs coaching, this will probably drive him crazy.

  34. ...did I write this?*

    This behavior isn’t okay, and my strategy is to communicate clearly to the student what the expectations are (ex. You are expected to speak respectfully to your supervisors and co-workers) and be clear when those expectations aren’t being met. And make sure that the student knows that a consequence to this is that they may lose their job with the department. (And make sure you know that if they do, it was their choice to continue the behavior.)

    It really bothers me, too, when men are condescending. I had one particular student worker who was highly patronizing to every woman in the office. I (internally!) rolled my eyes when he spoke this way to me and moved forward with the coaching points I mentioned above. But what really motivated me to either ensure that he changed his behavior or remove him from our environment was when I noticed the way he spoke to his female colleagues. I realized that I had a responsibility to make sure the environment was safe and respectful for everyone, even if I didn’t take this guy very seriously. So I chose to demonstrate to my whole team that we have a “be nice or leave” policy. (Incidentally, this particular person chose to leave.)

    As their manager, your student workers are learning a lot from you. I encourage you to take this opportunity to teach the women on your team that it’s okay to not be okay with bad treatment, and teach the men on your team that there are consequences to disrespectful behavior. (Yes, this can go both ways, but systemic sexism is real and I’ve had this conversation with many, many more male student workers than female ones.)

  35. Probably Nerdy*

    Sounds like every male GenZ I’ve ever talked to… I feel like boys that age just have no category in their brain for “female that I’m not trying to flirt with and who isn’t my mom”.

    I was a grad student teaching a class and this kid kept trying to call me a weird nickname so I had to tell him “Please call me Ms. Nerdy” and he was all like “whooooaaaa touchy, my bad”.

    He later earned a poor grade in the class which I did not attempt to “massage upward” as some teachers do.

    1. fposte*

      As somebody who works with fabulous and tactful GenZ males, I’m going to say that there are plenty of men that age who are capable of civilized workplace behavior.

      1. Champagne Cocktail*

        I once had an undergrad intern who worked for me for two summers. He was more professional than some people twice his age. Courteous, responsible, responsive, a good communicator, and didn’t hesitate to ask questions. When he started the second summer, I sat him down and said I wasn’t going to be going any easier on him because we’d worked together, if anything I’d be harder. His response was, “Whatever you need me to do.”

        1. fposte*

          Yup. I encounter young jerks, too, so I’m not saying they’re not out there, but I think it’s a disservice to all generations for one to dismiss the other’s capacity out of hand.

    2. Texan In Exile*

      I had to tell him “Please call me Ms. Nerdy” and he was all like “whooooaaaa touchy, my bad”.

      This would infuriate me. He’s not your peer. He doesn’t get to act like a peer. I am glad you corrected him. And nope, I would not have looked for a reason to massage his grade up, either.

    3. WellRed*

      “whooooaaaa touchy, my bad”.

      Grrr. Don’t make me feel like asking to be called My Name means I’m touchy.

  36. Goldenrod*

    I love Alison’s advice on this!! I do think this is 100% the way that this guy covers up for his insecurity. Unfortunately, it’s inadvertently pressing all of OP’s buttons.

    But, as Alison pointed out, it’s not an acceptable way for him to deal with his insecurity, so OP would be doing him (and herself) a BIG favor by telling him so.

  37. EJane*

    For what it’s worth, I’d offer the perspective that the dismissive laugh–as someone who has done that until a friend pointed it out–is a tactic to make himself feel comfortable. Doesn’t make it okay, but he could be unbelievably anxious, and laughing about things tricks our brain into nullifying a perceived threat.

    Doesn’t make it okay, but does provide some context for the cause.

  38. LogicalOne*

    We had a similar situation like this at my workplace. Staff would have tone in their voice or make a sarcastic remark when they start feeling “too comfortable” with the job that their filter seems to dissipate with time. No cursing or swearing has come of it but there is that slight thought in the back of my mind like, “did they really just say that with tone or what did they mean?” It’s almost as if sometimes they want to inject some passive aggressive tone to where it may seem a bit extreme if you bring it up to HR or something and at the same time they may try to get a rise out of you. And then they seem to think they are immune because they are doing their job well or better than others. Well doing the job is one thing but behavior and attitude are also part of the job and you can’t excel in one area and not do well in the other. It doesn’t work that way I’m sorry.
    In our yearly evaluation forms, we have a section where staff get graded on how well they get along with staff and customers, how well they accept new ideas, how well they accept feedback from their superiors, etc. This tackles a part of the job that is essential. Like I said, doing the job is one thing but if you have attitude, sarcasm, can’t seem to get along with people or just don’t like new ideas being implemented, then you will get a bad evaluation. Simple as that.

  39. AKchic*

    Oof. Fergus sounds like such a teenager that I would be very tempted to treat him like my own teenagers when he pulls this sort of thing. Which is to say, I would calmly raise an eyebrow, give him a dead stare and say “excuse you?” and keep holding his gaze and then say “can you explain what you mean by that remark?” and hold his gaze until he breaks eye contact. Keep staring at him though (you can now blink). He may stutter. He will trippingly say something like “oh, I meant nothing by it”. No. He said it, therefore *something* was meant by it. Bring in one (or more) of Alison’s very wonderful scripts.

    Act like a child, don’t be surprised if people treat you like a child; even if you are an adult. It may also be beneficial to remind Fergus that this is his training period and he is expected to actually learn during this time, so not knowing the information is okay and that someone higher up decided that a slower training speed was better for skill retention.

  40. Myrin*

    Oooh, I love both this question and the answer!

    I especially love Alison’s sample script of using a specific incident happening in the moment to address the larger picture. With that, you’re not coming at him out of the blue but have an immediate, tangible example of what exactly it is that is bothering. I’m definitely voting for trying this approach.

    And for what it’s worth, OP, it sounds like you’re plente mindful already and just dealing with a situation that hit a nerve for you. That is okay and understandable! And I think you’re already miles ahead of a lot of managers we read on here in that you recognise your own “weakness” in this situation – reacting aggressively to condescending men, which is 100% understandable to me but, as you say, not something to show at the workplace – and actively try to work against it. I’m sure you can do it – best of luck!

  41. James*

    The “How hard can it be?” comment struck me. Part of my job used to be to collect soil samples–tedious, boring (bit of a geology pun), and it looks like any moron should be able to figure it out in five minutes. Problem is, soil sampling served as the foundation for multi-million dollar decisions, and often appeared in court cases. Getting this stuff right was absolutely critical for a number of reasons, up to and including “Do two dozen people have jobs next year?”

    There are two ways I’ve dealt with this, which may help you. They can be modified for the other examples you cite.

    First, if I think the person honestly doesn’t understand, is to hit them with the full weight of what could happen. I calmly explain where errors can creep in, what those errors mean for the specific project, what it means for the sampler’s future employment prospects, what it means for our jobs, etc. I tend to think people work better when they see the bigger picture, and try to show how these tedious and easy-looking jobs fit into that larger picture. And frankly certain people work better if they are just a bit afraid of Hell raining down upon them if they screw up (I know, because I’m one of them).

    Second, I put on my Safety Jerk cap. Look up the Trigger States in any Health and Safety manual and you’ll see “Complacency” as one of the big ones–and asking “How hard can it be?” is a sign of complacency. That means that quality will go down, and safety will go down. Even something as easy as walking across a hallway can cause injury if you’re complacent (broken wrists and ankles, mostly); anything more complex makes that risk of injury skyrocket. A brief lecture on the dangers of complacency is never out of place, and gives you a chance to vent just a little of your frustration.

  42. OP*

    Here’s an update. A few weeks after I submitted my letter, I had my end-of -semester review with this student. I revised it about 6 times, making it more and more positive as I got more nervous about introducing a difficult subject. In the end, he came in with a completely different – and very humble – attitude. I said vaguely that I felt he had expressed some concerns about his training, and he said he had been feeling bored, and I told him that I understood why (we’re a new office and the workflow has been unsteady.)

    I think he just interviews well and knows how to behave when he’s being evaluated, but may have gotten off track when asked to be professional in everyday working situations.

    In any case, he has now resigned to take another opportunity. I can only hope that I’ll mature with more experience!

    Thank everyone so much for their constructive comments and feedback. After writing my letter I started to realize just how spineless and insecure I sounded. I expected to be raked over the coals, but everyone has been very kind.

    1. Don't Send Your Kids to Hudson University*

      I posted my comment below before seeing this comment. Have you thought about having more periodic reviews for any future student hires? I wonder if having a more intentional schedule for informally discussing performance with students will make it easier to collect your thoughts and talk about those more difficult subjects in something closer to real time. It might also take some of the power out the emotional reaction you have, knowing that you have a path for identifying your concerns and providing some corrective coaching.

    2. valentine*

      making it more and more positive as I got more nervous about introducing a difficult subject.
      Inflating positivity covers up issues. You’ll find a lot on this site about addressing things, if not in the moment, soon as, so that the review has an update, but in this case, if the review was your last best chance, even a soft “You came across as sexist” would have been decent.

    3. Lilyp*

      Hey, a lifetime of being condescended to would make anyone insecure! I think it took a lot of spine to write in and figure this out. You’re gonna get better!

      1. tangerineRose*

        I also think you’re doing great by examining your feelings about this and writing in. Also, I thought several posters were harsh in their responses.

    4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Some people are also bad at “reading” a situation. In an interview or a review, it’s clear that it’s time to put on that reserved, humbled face, etc.

      But when you’re working directly with someone, it’s easy to fall into a trap of not realizing you’re attitude kind of stinks and is full of bad tone with badly timed jokes. So I don’t think this guy is really cunning or coy even, he’s probably just not good at day to day communications with superiors.

      I can understand him from a distance, I have a snark tongue by nature. But I also know moderation as well and to keep it to myself, even though it’s typically just ingrained in my sense of humor. All my professional situations have had that undercurrent in the playful tone we take with each other.

      We also read things from our own experience. You’re calibrated so that this attitude from men specifically set you off. So we’re all different that way, so it’s best to just continue to remember to make your expectations known and if someone speaks to you in a way you don’t like, you address it so it can be changed.

    5. Threeve*

      I think you’re being way too hard on yourself. It’s a weird situation to be in, and I would say most new managers are lucky enough to have quite a few good experiences under their belt before they hit a difficult one. Take the “I would have handled this in [X perfectly calm but assertive way] with [Y productive insight into the dude’s psychology]” comments with a few tablespoons of salt.

    6. Close Bracket*

      Something to keep in mind for future interns–Regardless of how he expressed himself, if he was wondering when you were going to get to something, maybe you should assess how you train people or how you communicate the training schedule. Address what he was trying to express as a separate problem from how he expressed it. You might be able to head off some wondering in the future. I’ve been in the position of the new person who is wondering when my boss or lead is going to get around to teaching me something. Part of heading off the wondering is teaching someone that they can be constructively proactive about asking for it.

    7. James*

      Be kind to yourself. There’s always learning curve, including learning where the boundaries are and how close you can get to them. I’ve certainly let my share of people walk over me; it’s a learning experience, which you use to improve yourself next time.

      It’s also not spineless to over-compensate for a known issue. That’s just human nature. In time you’ll find the right balance, the one that works for you. Good luck, and thanks for the update!

    8. Blueberry*

      I am here with no advice and a big lump of encouragement. *encourages you a lot* Don’t call yourself spineless — you’re learning.

    9. Viette*

      It’s hard to do! I think the only constructive thing I could add is in response to “I revised it about 6 times, making it more and more positive as I got more nervous about introducing a difficult subject” — it might be worth practicing the imaginary conversation where you did actually bring it up during that final review. Think about how he was acting then, more appropriately and humbly. Think about saying the real feedback, “more than once, when things like X and Y were brought up, your responses like E and F came across as impatient and flippant. I hear now that you were bored with the unsteady workflow. In the moment, you could have said A or B, which would have sounded more professional and could’ve led to more things for you to do.” Think about how he would’ve responded with his demeanor at that time: probably pretty well. He might have even said thank you.

      Consider actively practicing giving this kind of feedback to people who *don’t* seem as adversarial as this dude did in the day-to-day, so that you get comfortable with it. You don’t need to be out there policing everyone’s tone, but it really does get easier the more you do it.

    10. Qwerty*

      Boredom was my first thought reading your examples, but that is only because I used to work a lot with interns and fresh college grads. My parents used to refer to that age range as “quasi-adults” – although legally an adult, they are still figuring out emotions and adult interactions (among other things). In some ways, they are just older, moody teenagers. But in other ways, they are fresh, fun, and professional.

      If you can change your perspective, you can have a big impact on their growth. You also can make a decent impact without having to dive into a big confrontational speech – just kindly address things in the moment and move on quickly so neither of you dwell too long on it (for both of your sanity). You’ll get used to it the more it happens, it is totally normal to feel weird when you first start correcting someone. It helped me to read up a bit on parenting teenagers and about how to de-escalate situations.

      1. Qwerty*

        I should clarify that I am not doubting that the student sounded condescending. By “change your perspective” I was thinking more about advice in how to deal with future student employees, but that was a poor word choice.

    11. Anonie*

      Ask your boss to send you to management workshops and conferences.

      Right after undergrad, my boss up and decided that I would be in charge of undergrad interns. I had no management experience or training. I didn’t have the time, didn’t want to do it, ignored every issue out of meek avoidance of any conflict, and figured the interns would be gone in 14 weeks so who cares. I did very wrong by two of them, including your kid’s older brother (haha, they sound the same). I wish I’d had training. A lot of those kids quit me, not the job.

      After that, I told myself I’d never let a bad situation fester, I’d never lie about performance, and I’d never avoid conflict again. I’ve kinda ended up a direct, assertive jerk, but I’m also no longer afraid of being condescended to. I learned to not flinch.

      Get some training and make yourself some promises.

  43. Just Here for the Free Lunch*

    OP, you do have all of the power here, and you’ll be doing your student-worker a huge favor to address it with him. When I was a student intern, my manager asked me a question, and I gave a “jokey” answer that didn’t go over well. He got very serious and told me that a communication style that is fine in a social setting is not always appropriate at work. I immediately apologized, and obviously that lesson stuck with me. I still remember it vividly even though it’s been over 20 years. Talk to him – if he has any self-awareness he will thank you for it for years to come.

  44. Heidi*

    “I’m guessing I just need some mindfulness classes, and some deep breathing exercises.” If you’re open to these options, you might consider some job coaching/leadership training/therapy also. I haven’t found all interventions of this type to be effective, but it could be a resource for methods of dealing with anger, strategies that have worked for other women, or just empathy from people who have been there. First-time management can be scary. You don’t need to sort this out all by yourself.

  45. Reality.Bites*

    I confess I fear a time decades in the future in which no one will hire anyone named Fergus and no one knows why, but well-meaning parents still assure their Ferguses and Fegusinas that if they just show some gumption in pounding the pavement all will be well.

  46. TootsNYC*

    I think I’d vote for simply straight-forward.

    “Yeah, I was wondering when you were going to get to that.”

    “Fergus, I am your boss. That means I outrank you.You need to speak to me professionally, and not in this condescending tone. One thing you might say is, ‘Sure, I’m ready.’ I do not have to train you at a time you approve of, because I am the manager here, and I choose when I spend my and when I spend your time on training.”

    Just drag this stuff right out into the open. Identify it. Label it. Give alternate phrasings. If it gets really bad, make him try his response again.

    If you want to have a sit-down with him first, sure. But identify it as what it is: condescending, disrespectful, and contrary to the organizational chart.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Eh, and maybe that’s too harsh. I might go with Alison’s longer speech. But I don’t like the softer, “What do you mean?” kinds of things–I think that isn’t clear enough.

      Maybe, “That sounds an awful lot like a criticism, Fergus.” and let it sit.

      And maybe he IS just doing that “I’m going to show how smart and invested I am,” and hasn’t figure out that you can look smart without having to prove you’re smartER (some people take a long time to stop seeing things as a competition).

      But I still vote for very direct.

      (and I’m a fan of the idea that people who are pretty new to the work world need some really explicit coaching, more than they need reprimands. But that means direct, to me)

    2. Surly*

      That seems like a massive overreaction! Also “That means I outrank you” is a lot more condescending than anything Fergus is doing.

      1. TootsNYC*

        yeah, given where the OP is in the whole interaction, I think you’re right, which is why I came back and decided it was too harsh.

        But I’ve been in a position where I ended up having to say it to someone. Eventually.

  47. Don't Send Your Kids to Hudson University*

    OP, I feel this. I think you’ve gotten some great advice and insight from the comments too. I think if you can take a step back and see that your own personal experience is clouding your managerial judgment with lots of unhelpful thinking, you’ll see (1) that you are human with emotions, and that’s OK, and (2) you are dealing with an inexperienced worker who may also may be sexist, but is very likely just clueless. That doesn’t mean you should downplay this problem, but it gives you a whole different set of tools to address it. You get to name this in the moment, and also plan to have a more thoughtful conversation with Fergus about his performance in general — is that something you typically do with student workers?

    I would use Alison’s scripts the next couple of times you see this behavior, but I would also plan to have a more serious conversation about performance with Fergus — most university students, even ones with prior work history probably haven’t ever had a performance review. You can give positive feedback where he’s earned it, describe the areas where you expect him to be learning/taking on more responsibility, and set goals for him. You can also talk about your expectations for the role, and what more respectful communication would look like. If this becomes a more periodic conversation (and you’re treating him more like you would a professional), he’ll have the opportunity to rise to your expectations. If he doesn’t it will feel a lot easier and a lot less personal to tell him this simply isn’t working out.

  48. Junior Dev*

    He’s a student employee, right? I see this sort of thing a lot in younger people I’ve been in a supervisory or training role over—volunteers under the age of 21, interns. Not these exact sentiments, but weird and inappropriate responses to being asked if they know how to do something—either answering as though they’re trying to impress me (“yeah, we studied the theoretical implications of teapot lids in my senior seminar, very in-depth stuff”) or they’re mad that I asked (“what kind of idiot do you think I am?”) when all I need to know is “yes,” “no,” or “I have done x but not y” type answers. I think it comes from having been in environments where they were evaluated very differently from in the workplace. In the first he was straight out of college, where you get partial credit for saying what you do know on tests. For the second example it was basically the opposite background—they were a homeless teen in a work program, which meant they’d probably been in a lot of situations where admitting weaknesses or ignorance was dangerous. In both cases, they were coming from spaces where the incentives around what you know and how you talk about that were completely different from work, where we are just trying to get stuff done.

    It sucks, it really sucks, that it is tripping over years of accumulated hurt you’ve felt over men condescending to you. But Alison is absolutely right that this is a performance issue and you have the capability to treat it as such.

  49. CanCan*

    OP, I get that something about his tone upsets you, and that tone can’t be conveyed effectively here, but what makes you think his laugh is dismissive? It’s most likely just a nervous laugh – the usual nerves of starting a new job, plus the nerves of it being the first job. As he was hired, he feels the need to prove that he knows something (or else he would feel like a fraud), but at the same time, he realizes that he doesn’t actually know anything.

    “I was wondering when you were going to get to that.” could mean: I may not know much here, but I knew we were going to do lama training. OR: I’m rather apprehensive about llama grooming (hence the laugh), so I’ll try to project some confidence about it.

    Re. boiling water: “How hard can it be?” = There’s lots here that is new to me and that I don’t understand. Finally here’s something that sounds easy.

    Re. documentation: “I was wondering what you meant by that.” = “I didn’t understand the documentation, and it’s a relief to know that it’s not me being stupid.”

    You can, of course, question him if his comments seem condescending. The “How hard can it be” comment seems most problematic here. But questioning him on every single line like that may show you as too touchy. You may want to reframe it to try to understand where he is coming from, and try to take a more objective approach, without considering that he’s a male. Just because other males have behaved inappropriately with you in the past doesn’t mean viewing them all with the same lens would be a good idea. Also, if he’s just nervous, it will likely go away in a couple of weeks and this will get better.

    (FWIW, I’m a woman.)

    1. OP*

      I do realize that I’m asking people to take my word for it that his laugh is dismissive and that his tone is belittling. Think of it this way: it’s as if you were making a neutral work statement, and your employee acts like you’re being either adorably clueless or enormously entertaining. He’s not tonelessly saying “oh yeah,” he’s acting as though he’s providing a running commentary on your (hilarious!) constant ball-dropping.

      1. tangerineRose*

        That sounds awful to deal with! But you don’t have to work with him anymore, and if someone else comes in who is like that, you now have scripts to use. It’s tough being a manager – usually there’s little to no training.

      1. montescristo1985*

        I’m curious about this one. What if the student had said “I was wondering when’d we’d get around to that” or “I was looking forward to getting to that”. To me these in essence are the same statements, just crafted with a bit more tact….does everyone have the same objection to something like this?

        I’m not saying the kids wasn’t being dismissive, i wasn’t there, but I’m not seeing the problem with the works, aside from a lack of tact. The sentiments seem fine to me, but I seem to be the odd man out after reading through the comments.

        1. TootsNYC*

          the tone could take “wondering when we…” over into condescension.

          And I suppose the right tone could salvage “I was wondering when you were going to get around to that.”

          But I trust the OP on her interpretation of the tone.

  50. LadyBirdJohnson*

    I also work in higher ed, and I recently had a male student worker (I am female) who was exactly as you describe. It was not my first time managing and certainly not my first time managing a student, but this guy was completely condescending. Each day was a struggle because of how rude and dismissive he came across and I let it affect my mental state WAY too much.

    Because I worried that I was reading too much into things/creating a problem that didn’t exist, I asked a a few co-workers to sit in on a couple of our training sessions. Their feedback on the situation (on his behavior, on my response) was very valuable and helped me put things in perspective–there was indeed an issue on his end that needed to be addressed and it was not related to my own comportment or emotional state. I got through it okay, but I wish I had Alison’s scripts; they would have been a great tool for me and I hope you will use them and report back.

    1. TootsNYC*

      This is such a neat insight and suggestion–that the OP see if others’ perceptions are the same as hers.

  51. teapot billing specialist*

    Adding my solidarity to this as well. Its so frustrating dealing with ingrained condescension.
    The only thing I would add here is to ask for guidance from your own manager–you’re new to managing and it would be normal to ask how they would handle this situation. Assuming you have a good manager that is open to mentoring–its possible they’ll think of it as unnecessary hand holding, but a good one wouldn’t.

  52. BookLady*

    I’ve been training someone new in my department lately, and she has a tendency similar to this, where she’s cut me off mid-sentence while I’m explaining something and fill in whatever she thinks I’m going to say. Sometimes she’s right, but usually she’s wrong, and I have to say, “No, it’s this instead.”

    It’s incredibly frustrating, but I think it’s coming from a place of over-eagerness and a desire to look bright and capable. She’s technically a temp and someone on our team left after she started, so there’s a possibility of us hiring her on full time. So she’s trying really hard. But, as Alison said, it’s having the opposite effect.

  53. CommanderBanana*

    Ugh. Any tips for when this happens repeatedly except when it’s older women? I’m in my mid-thirties and I thought it would stop happening, but I seem to keep running into this attitude when working with older women who aren’t very technologically adept.

    1. Blueberry*

      I don’t have specific tips so much but I think most/all of Alison’s advice applies, because it’s basically about when one has to deal with someone who thinks you are less than they are for whatever reason (including age). I’ve done bits of what she’s suggested at various times in dealing with people who had varying reasons to despise me, but of course I wish I’d seen all of it so much earlier. I’m currently working out how to mail this post of hers back in time to myself in college and my first student jobs. :)

      *cheers you on*
      *cheers you on*

  54. Llama Drama*

    To the original poster I think you may like this podcast: Battle Tactics for your Sexist Workplace. It discusses issues of inequality/frustrations in the workplace and gives you tactics for how to handle them. Maybe it can help with some tips on how to deal with condescending male colleagues.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Power differences make it much more delicate when you’re dealing with your boss. You can indeed speak up and ask that you’re spoken to better but in the end, you need to be well aware that the boss may not like it, therefore putting your job in jeopardy.

      Usually if it’s your boss, my main advice would be gauge how much you want that job because it can sour you on the job all together and be a toxic environment. I’d just leave if someone at a higher level had an attitude issue with me.

  55. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I just have to say that you’re NEW at managing, just about everyone “sucks” at that stage. You’re still getting your style and confidence down, so please don’t start writing yourself off because of this random Fergus. You are doing the right thing looking for guidance.

    Even Alison wasn’t just plopped down on this Earth as the manager guru, without any trial and error and teaching, you know? Be kind to yourself. You can go on to do great things and be a fantastic manager in the end. These beginning days will be laughable soon enough hopefully.

    It takes practice and being thrown a bunch of different Fergi.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I still remember how I couldn’t even answer the phone when I started. I shouted “BUT WHO IS THIS?” at someone my first time when they didn’t respond to “Whom may I say is calling?”.

        We’re not monarchs, we’re not trained from the cradle about all the delicate details and processes ;)

    1. Zap R.*

      Seconding. It’s a tough gig and in my experience, a lot of workplaces don’t bother to teach people how to do it. The assumption that being good at your job means you’ll automatically be good at managing your department without any further training is so bizarre to me.

  56. 867-5309*

    Without being part of the conversations, is there a chance he’s just trying to be funny and it’s coming across all wrong? Not that OP shouldn’t address it but if she is already sensitive to how she’s been spoken to by men before, there could be a chance in this case that Fergus is being sarcastic and it’s reading wrong. I say that as someone (female) whose sarcasm can miss the mark and I recognized in some of the phrases things I might say, in an effort to be funny or build report.

  57. Eli*

    Omg this is great advice!! It will help both the OP become a better manager, because really, it is in fact her job to get him to stop doing this, AND it will help the employee immensely in understanding that this mode of communication is not only ineffective but also inappropriate! As a child who received absolutely no constructive feedback from y parents and no training in helping me become a productive member of society, I was so incredibly grateful for my first manager who was willing to sit me down on occasion and teach me where I was going wrong- especially when it came to interactions with coworkers and managers!!

  58. PMP*

    Lord, I started to read this letter and I was like…get out of my head! Except it’s with peers, not with people I manage. I can’t take the passive aggressive condescension ugh

    1. tangerineRose*

      I don’t know if this will help, but sometimes when I feel like I’m being talked down to by another software developer, I’ll try to drag my comp sci degree into the conversation somehow, in a friendly, non-angry way to just make sure they know, I do have tech education, even if I don’t know the specific thing I’m asking about.

  59. animaniactoo*

    One more suggestion for things to address/say:

    “If you’ve been wondering, that’s something you should be asking me/checking in with me about so that I can explain it. Waiting to find out information can be good, but when it comes to stuff like schedule or what I mean by something it’s usually far more valuable to just ask for the information.”

  60. peachie*

    On top of Alison’s advice, I think you can handle some of the comments like “Yeah, I was wondering when you were going to get to that” and “Yeah, I was wondering what you meant by that” by saying something along the lines of “If you’re confused about something, please be proactive and ask me” (with better phrasing; I am not doing words great today). On top of reframing this a Him Problem rather than a You Problem, it’s also a professional norm he should know about: If you’re confused about something, you don’t just sit around until someone comes to you with a clarification! (Of course, some people go way too far in the other direction, but, as a friend would say, “We’ll jump off that bridge when we come to it.”)

    (To be clear, I believe you when you say his tone/demeanor is dismissive — the “when you were going to [xyz]” especially. This is such a real thing and I’m sorry you’re dealing with it on top of the general stress of a new job.)

  61. Shirley Keeldar*

    Oh lordy, I do hope you were not training my nephew.

    I mean, I’m fond of the kid/young man, but he is so so so insecure that you can’t give him any instructions before he’s jumping in with “I know I know I know.” I’m at the point where I want to say him (and I think I will, next time this comes up), “Look, kid, if I am paying you to mow my lawn, part of the what I am paying you to do is to listen to the instructions about how I want my lawn mowed. Even if you already know how to mow a lawn!” Listening to instructions from your boss is literally part of what you get paid to do, just as giving the instructions is part of what your boss is paid to do. Allow instructions to happen!

    1. TootsNYC*

      and of course actually listening.
      Not standing there while the words waft past you.

      One thing I once told a bunch of college students is that I am constantly calibrating myself w/ my boss. They tell me something I already know, and my mental response is, “Oh good, we think the same about about how to trim the edges.” That’s valuable to know, actually–“we have the same frame of reference/knowledge/ideas” IS the information you are learning, “that we are in sync” instead of “how to trim the edges.”

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      It’s your nephew, say it and don’t even flinch.

      Hearing it from family is crucial, then he’ll be prepared for when someone who loves him a whole heckuva lot less than a new boss will put him in his place!

      Lots of times we lightly step around the kids in our family, trying to build them up and not break their confidence that we understand all too well is fragile or non-existent. And we should keep their youth in mind but we have to also tell them that there’s a huge difference between the patience auntie has with you and patience a boss will.

        1. TootsNYC*

          also remember that you can give the info in a teaching tone that a boss might not bother with.

          my mom thought aunts were really important and powerful relative allies for a kid to have. The kid knows the aunt is on Team Them, but there isn’t the baggage that comes from “mom telling me.”

          1. tangerineRose*

            I agree with TootsNYC and The Man, Becky Lynch
            Sometimes kids pay more attention to aunts and other people who aren’t their parents. Plus, it sounds like you have the kind of relationship where saying this outright to him would come off OK.

      1. Amy Sly*

        And frankly, too many people don’t give kids the tools they need to get confidence. Yes, praising them inflates their ego, and not criticizing them keeps it inflated, but confidence comes from mastery. Mastery requires unpleasant things like hard work, failing, and learning from correction. You can do it, or his boss can do it in a few years when the stakes are higher.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          It’s because they stumble and don’t realize that you can pick and choose situations to “teach” them as well.

          If I’m paying my nephew to do a job, I’m going to expect it’s done well and to the instructions given. If he’s just doing something out of the kindness of his heart I’m going to approach it differently.

          “I mowed your lawn because you’ve been sick in bed and I didn’t want you to worry about that.”

          That’s just “thank you, that’s very kind.” even though he may have mucked it up a bit. But if I’m like “I want you to do these chores and I’m going to pay you for it, this is a job.” I’m going to expect that he follows instructions more carefully and be more mindful of the project at hand.

          Same goes with work really. There are times people do things that are above and beyond their job, sure it’s not the perfect way and it could be done better somehow. But you still say “Wow, great job. You’re awesome.” But if I say “here’s a job for you to do, please do this and that.” and they only do this and half-ass the “that”, I’m going to point it out and ask them what’s going on there!

          You don’t have to treat a child like they’re always in the ‘real world’ but you should at times.

  62. NPOQueen*

    OP, I unfortunately did some of this when I was a student intern, because I wanted to come across as if I had some base knowledge and my boss shouldn’t worry about me. I went to a women’s college and learned how to speak up for myself, be a leader; unfortunately, I didn’t quite put it into practice well. It didn’t help that my boss was barely 25 and I was 18, it felt like we should be able to have that kind of rapport. About a week after I started, she pulled me aside and told me to shut up and listen in meetings, and how she wanted me to reply to her when she asked questions. Completely changed how I did things at my internship from then on, in a good way. I learned the unwritten rules of authority, even when you think everyone is friendly and open. Kids are rough around the edges, give him the benefit of the doubt in this situation. If he doesn’t improve, then you know where his heart is.

  63. Archaeopteryx*

    The direct question and gently but firmly forcing him to explain himself is key: “ Yeah, I was wondering when you would get to that!“ “ What do you mean?“ “Ahh nothing…” “No, actually, you say things like that a lot and it’s very strange. Do you have any concerns about the training process?” Etc.

    Young men of that age haven’t always learned the difference between confidence and cockiness, so now is a golden time to teach him.

  64. Dr. Pepper*

    OP, I think you would benefit greatly from doing some work on yourself to heal these old wounds. They’re obviously causing you a lot of pain and shoving the issue away isn’t helping. The longer we let emotional wounds fester, the easier it is for other people to hurt us, intentionally or unintentionally, when they poke the sore spot. Emotional injuries are just as painful as physical ones and they don’t heal when they’re ignored. Deep breathing and meditation are great and all, but when things hurt this badly it’s a sign that you really need to be there for yourself. Maybe consider therapy or other forms of healing. You have these strong feelings for a reason, they’re trying to tell you something just like your arm would hurt if you fell down and broke it. A broken arm will hurt until it’s healed and the pain is there to let you know that the arm is damaged and requires care. Your strong feelings surrounding this issue are the same. Some part of you has been damaged and requires care. It’s not weakness, it’s being human.

      1. Dr. Pepper*

        The way OP opens her letter sounds like a person with an awful lot of old emotional injuries surrounding this topic to me. Death by a thousand tiny cuts is how these things build up and ignoring the cuts will not make them go away. It will just make the next one hurt all the more.

    1. Joielle*

      What? No. Standing up for yourself when you’re being disrespected is not a sign of emotional damage…? The OP is being disrespected by an employee and having a normal emotional response to that.

      I’m all for therapy and attend regularly myself, but having a normal reaction to a crappy situation is not an indication that there’s something wrong with the OP.

      1. Dr. Pepper*

        Not the standing up for yourself part, the anger part. I’m not talking about how to deal with this one dude, that’s been covered extensively. I’m talking about WHY the OP is so bothered by this one dude. One dude being rude shouldn’t tip you over the edge like this. It’s helpful to figure out why and deal with that, rather than fighting bitterness for the rest of your life. Dudes are going to be rude and life is better when you can deal with it in the moment instead of going into an anger spiral. If it didn’t bother her so much, the solution of “tell him to knock it off” would have been obvious.

      2. Anonie*

        “I get angry and fight back… so far I have been able to hold my feelings back at work” is someone who is trying to not explode at a student intern in the workplace. That’s not standing up for oneself. That’s not a normal response to a student intern not receiving direction well. And OP admits it would be different if a female intern was doing the same thing. I’m a woman in a STEM field who teaches lots of young men and you cannot treat them differently because of historical oppression and sexism. Not even the sexist ones.

        I usually read these letters and then wonder what the person on the other end would write. “My boss seems irritable and as if she’s holding back a lot of anger, when I didn’t express enthusiasm about being trained on a basic task (boiling water, stapling paper, making an envelope, who knows). She avoids me a lot and doesn’t provide feedback or a lot of direction…”

        1. Augusta Hawkins Elton*

          I think the letter writer acknowledges her reaction is disproportionate and needs to change. She actually recommends some mental health interventions for herself (e.g. mindfulness).

          But your characterization of the hypothetical letter from the student is unfair. He’s not just “failing to express enthusiasm,” is he? He’s actively putting her down when she’s trying to train him, laughing like she’s being funny by offering. And this letter doesn’t say that she’s not providing direction – in fact, he’s smacking her down when she’s trying to provide direction, so it’s no surprise if it tapers off, is it?

          And finally, if you’re a student assistant, do you really have the right to act out when you’re trained on a task like stapling or envelopes? We don’t know what the job entails, but it seems like a student assistant job would have tasks in that realm. Do you think it’s fair to be petulant? Did he think he’d be doing nuclear physics or curing cancer?

          1. Anonie*

            She’s starting or thinking about avoiding work while he’s in the office. Doesn’t sound like assertive management. She’s speaking out of anger and not apologizing. She’s reading a tone but cannot read his mind. Nothing in the letter indicated his behavior had been addressed or called out, after what now sounds like an entire semester of work. If I worked with a manager who could barely contain her irritation with me but never expressed issue with me for 16 weeks, I’d be defensive and laughing awkwardly too.

            I don’t find that I mischaracterized my reading of the letter as submitted. But I do think most of this thread exists in the Twilight Zone, with a lot of contempt for a college kid in his first job because he’s a guy and guys are shitty to women so there, and more power to the manager who is holding herself back from lighting him up when he speaks. I’m baffled.

            1. Anonie*

              And I’ll add that I suspect a nasty feedback loop happened, and they reinforced each other. He came in with a haughty attitude, for whatever reason (no one here is psychic, right?), OP instantly triggered and responded with irritation/anger/new manager insecurity, Kid got uncomfortable and reacted unpleasantly, OP triggered, Kid reacted unpleasantly, OP triggered, etc. 16 weeks of hell for both, until she’s ready to blow and asking Internet strangers for help, while he’s quitting his campus job mid-year.

              New manager who doesn’t know how to handle conflict meets first job college kid with crap soft skills and no idea how to behave (wasn’t there a recent roundup here of ridiculous first job mistakes y’all made?), and who pushes all her buttons. Disaster.

              1. OP*

                Anonie, I don’t know if you’ll check back here, but it was NOT a full semester of work, I wrote in right after we started having problems, and he left for an exciting internship opportunity for him about 8 weeks later. I concealed my irritation and I do it well (after a lifetime of practice). I only snapped at him the one time. The situation was not the hell for him that you describe, where I was acting out my irritation every day. When he left for the internship he asked if he could still come in and work sometimes, because he enjoyed the job and wanted to still be a part of the team (his words).

            2. Blueberry*

              Including the existence of sexism in your calculations might make the situation a little less confusing.

              You mention in another comment teaching lots of young men and your great sympathies towards them. What about the young women?

    2. Blueberry*

      This advice reminds me of when I was sent to therapy as a teenager because I was arguing with my classmates. What I was arguing with them about was topics such as whether or not Black people can learn as well as White people, whether or not women are capable of doing math, and whether or not I had stolen their music player/watch/$20/whatever else they lost out of their bookbag because I was the only Black kid in the class and one of four in my grade.

      So obviously the issue was that I was having mental difficulties.

        1. Blueberry*

          Thanks. :)

          Not least because of that experience and those of other people’s, and my reading about the medicalization and pathologization of both women’s and Black people’s emotions/experiences, recommendations such as Dr. Pepper’s really strike me as the same kind of thing. Basically, “being upset by sexism means you’re mentally ill,” is not actually true.

  65. Jean*

    OP – to your comment that you aren’t a very good manager: No one is immediately good at something they just started doing recently, especially when that something is as complex and fraught with pitfalls as personnel management. The fact that you have reached out for guidance on a situation you don’t know how to handle means that you are doing better than you think. Hang in there, you got this. And AAM is an excellent resource. I have learned a ton about management and professional norms in general just from reading her advice to others.

  66. ITGirl*

    I have a co-worker (I’m not his manager) that does this CONSTANTLY.

    I called him out on it after a while, and he straight up told me he “had a complex with wanting people to think he’s smart” and “in general believes he’s smarter than most people anyway” so… i stopped feeling bad about pushing back. If he were doing it out of nerves or anxiety, then totally, address it! but out of arrogance, or general belief that they are actually smarter than the rest of the world.. no patience, or time for that!

    1. Anon4This*

      As someone who at one time (before medical problems), WAS in fact probably the smartest person in any given meeting, may I suggest this reframing as one path to pushing back?
      Smartest =/= Most Knowledgeable (about a particular topic) =/= Most competent at a specific task.
      Just because someone can see patterns quickly does not also automagically grant them the context for understanding the patterns, or the skill to handle a task. (See upthread about soil sampling for an excellent discussion of this.)
      (And yes, it took me till my mid-thirties to understand what an arrogant ass I was.)

  67. Mr. Shark*

    Alison, I think this is a perfect, fantastic response!! I agree totally. I think the language you provided to respond to the employee is great.
    I agree that I think that Fergus is probably trying to make himself seem to confident to hide any insecurities he may have. I can see that other people I’ve known in the past have done the same thing (of course I can do that, it’s easy!) to try and project to their bosses that they are capable and don’t really need a lot of hand-holding, although they obviously do.
    The LW obviously has the power in this situation and should not let this continue in any way, not only for her well-being, but because Fergus is supposed to be learning how to operate in a professional setting.

  68. Maya Elena*

    Those don’t sound so outrageously condescending. They sound more like “covering for a deer in headlights feeling”. Like, he feels like he should have noticed the errors with the documentation, and brought it up, and every time you bring it up seems like you’re also implicitly pointing out something he should have known or did wrong.

    I think there’s a chance that he thinks you think he’s incompetent, and he’s trying to learn. I get that in the context of being mistreated by men, it is easy to see all men mistreating you, but man + does something I don’t like” doesn’t automatically equal “man is doing this thing to me and me alone and because I’m a woman”. Viewing everything through that lens might be overly negative and not we’ve the cause of gender relations or your peace of mind in particular.

  69. Abe Froman*

    There have been a few comments saying something like, “Are you sure your past experiences of being condescended to by men aren’t coloring this?” And just… of course they are. Maybe we need to reframe this from “My past experiences of sexism make me oversensitive to interactions with men” to “My past experiences of sexism make me an expert in spotting it.” And experts can be wrong, but I don’t think our default should be to question her experiences here.

    1. Jedi Squirrel*

      Disagree. An expert is someone who can study something objectively. Because of OP’s past experience, she is not objective. That’s okay. You just need to take your lack of objectivity into account in future interactions.

      1. Abe Froman*

        So someone who has experience a good amount of sexism in their lives is not an expert in it? I could not disagree more. And objectivity is not the standard of being right.

      2. James*

        I’ve never heard that definition of an expert, and I’ve been a senior subject matter expert on a variety of projects. “Expert” is someone with deep knowledge on a topic. Objectivity is a necessary byproduct of this–deep knowledge by definition requires one to examine conflicting sides of contentious issues.

        We ALL have biases. No exceptions. An expert can leverage their biases (this is something scientists are trained to do, many folks trained in business can do it remarkably well, and many accountants are good at it), but you can never eliminate them. And I would say acknowledging that you have a specific bias is the first step towards leveraging it.

      3. Blueberry*

        This is an excellent method of blaming the victim. “Because you have an emotional response to being hurt, you cannot accurately assess that you have been hurt. Because I have no emotional response to your being hurt and because I have a good reason to side with the person who hurt you, I can now objectively conclude that you have not been hurt. If you would stop making up broken arms, you wouldn’t think your arm was broken even though it has a new bend and is dripping blood. Now get out of my Urgent Care. “

        1. Jessie the First (or second)*

          Love this framing so much.

          The idea that because she has experience with sexism, she can’t *possibly* be trusted to know sexism when she sees it is absurd.

          1. Jedi Squirrel*

            That is not what I said. You are misconstruing my point, which is that OP (and all of us) need to take our lack of objectivity in situations like this into account. It is entirely possible to see it where it doesn’t exist because of past experience. I am not blaming the victim here.

    2. Joielle*

      This! A thousand times this. Being on high alert for sexism doesn’t mean that the sexism you subsequently notice doesn’t exist. Men are just being held to a higher standard, which is… good.

      1. Anonie*

        But it sure does increase the risk that you’re going to see condescension where it doesn’t exist. Confirmation bias is a real thing. (Not talking about the OP here.)

        And I’m thinking about all the wonderful, generous, kind male allies I have where I work, and it panics me to think of them being held to some BS higher standard because some jerkhole male voices are painfully louder than theirs.

        1. Blueberry*

          Is “don’t grope your female colleagues or treat them like they’re idiots” really such an unreasonable standard? That’s basically the epic height expectations have been raised to.

  70. Tommy*

    Very important topic and I fear a major blind spot for me personally. OP, thanks for asking, and Alison, thanks for answering! A few asks/wishes/ideas:
    1. It would be great if there were, I don’t know… youtube clips of examples of condescension. Is there a movie or show that does a particularly good job of depicting condescension? Asking ’cause I’d like to avoid being condescending!
    2. I wonder if there’s a good guide out there, like “This is what condescension looks like,” or “Here’s what arrogance looks like.”

    1. James*

      1) You can try David Spade’s character in “Tommy Boy”. Okay, it’s mostly sarcasm, but it’s clear that it comes from his condescending attitude towards the main character. Plus, it gives you a reference point: “If it’s something David Spade would say, don’t say it.”

    2. fposte*

      I just typed “being condescending” into a YouTube search and got a ton of what look like meaty results, so I’d start there.

    3. TexasRose*

      I’m of retirement age, so my experience is text-based. I highly recommend Suzette Haden Elgin’s series on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. She has a series of books that explains the tonality of problematic language, and she even has one that focusses on such problematic language at work. An excellent resource for a new manager. (I just did a quick internet search, and there seem to be a few YouTube videos using her methods there as well.)

  71. JulieD*

    So here’s something I struggle with. When I attempt to point out when a specific employee is being condescending to me, or even correct his work in general, he will then go to *my* grandboss and complain that I am being condescending or demeaning to *him*. Every time. Luckily my boss and grandboss understand that these come from a larger issue he was around working with women (he does the same to my boss, who is probably the sweetest woman I’ve met), particularly those like me that are younger than him.

    What do I do at that point? I can’t spend all of my time trying to handle the guy with kid gloves. And I certainly can’t let his work go uncorrected, that’s not a recipe for success for him or for the company. But I’m kind of at a loss for what to do next.

    1. fposte*

      What does your grandboss do when he does that? Because to support you they should say “Part of your job is accepting feedback from Julie. It’s not appropriate for you to leapfrog over her to get what you want, and I expect you to deal with her directly in future.” Can you ask grandboss to do that? If this is repeated behavior, it might be worth a meeting with him and grandboss together to make that point rather than waiting for the next occurrence.

      For that matter, have you explained to your employee directly that this is a problem and that you expect him to correct it? Because I’d start there.

    2. Fred*

      Isn’t condescension just an opinion? It’s just an interpretation and cannot be proved or disproved. So you are both right in your own minds. I would not use the term. Instead of using the label I would just say I don’t like ____. And fill in the blank with the specific behavior.

      1. Starbuck*

        I don’t see how re-framing it as “I don’t like…” is going to help with that, because it’s still an opinion. A more helpful suggestion would be like what Alison already said above, pointing out the confusion and mistakes that can come with this student’s poor communication.

  72. CM*

    Opposite advice: If the tone Fergus uses when he says stuff really bothers you on a personal level, address it as a personal issue. Don’t try to dress it up as a professional issue. Just say, “Hey, the way you said that just now makes me feel like I’m annoying you by checking in about this. What’s up?” And then listen to the answer. You might hear that he’s not annoyed and that’s just how his voice is, or you might hear something else, but now you’re talking about it.

    Because of the water boiling example, I think there’s a chance that you’re going to hear that he thinks you’re being condescending toward HIM or that you’re checking in on him too much, and I think you should be open to the possibility that that’s true. Newer managers sometimes get overbearing without meaning to. If that’s something that comes up, I’d consider letting Fergus try low-stakes tasks himself, knowing that he can come to you with questions if he runs into difficulty, as opposed to explaining everything to him beforehand.

    FWIW, as a female manager, I’ve definitely had male staff members who were dismissive of what I was telling them because of my gender, so that power dynamic does still exist, but you need to remember that you’re also operating within another power dynamic where you’re a manager and he’s staff. There’s no real reason to be threatened by this, so the attitude I’d take toward it, personally, is, “I think Fergus is rude, but it’s early days, so let’s try to get our work done and see how it goes.”

  73. Fred*

    Could this be responded to with humor rather than rebuke? Since we have acknowledged he is probably insecure? Wouldn’t the rebuke just make him feel more insecure? It doesn’t seem fair to pile onto a young kid your lifetime of irritating encounters. That might make him feel you are unfair.

    1. KitKat*

      I cannot even with how meta patriarchal self involved BS’y this statement is. You are concerned with how he may be impacted long term by someone telling him in a business appropriate manner that his behaviour is not acceptable, but somehow this is OP’s fault and it’s unfair………

      Just. That’s not how it works bud.

    2. designbot*

      Would you dance around a woman’s insecurity this way? Or would you look down on her for it and tell her it’s up to her to have the confidence to succeed?

    3. tangerineRose*

      Wouldn’t it be better for him to teach him what is and isn’t correct in the workplace instead of using humor? I think Alison’s scripts should work well. I like humor in general, but in this case, it could easily be confusing.

  74. Enginear*

    Allison’s responses are perfect. They put the ball back into the direct report’s court and puts them on the spot.

  75. Seeking Second Childhood*

    Fergus, if you were wondering when I was going to get to something or what I meant by something, then you should have asked. I don’t know if you are aware of this, but your style of response is coming across as snarky and inappropriate for an office environment.

  76. Cafe au Lait*

    Hey OP, I want to give you a fistbump of sympathy. My own personal Fergus opted out of the situation by quitting. Tellingly he emailed everyone on the manager team EXCEPT me.

    We were the type of environment that codified behavior with our student employees. Not only did this make things consistent between student employee to student employee, but between student employees to patrons. My Fergus believed he was too special, too advanced for our basic communication tools. Like…he refused, just flat out refused to use check-in cart magnets (1st check-in needed; 2nd check-in needed; ready to shelve) when he’d check in books. I’d have entire shifts of people redoing tasks he presumably did earlier in the day since it wasn’t clear what was done and what wasn’t. Talking to him about it was like talking to a brick wall.

    I hit my limit one day after training him on how to search for missing books. I clearly told him “You need to touch every book that you’re reading (i.e. read the call number). Otherwise your eyes will read over the call number and your brain will fill in the information.” I left him to search on his own but only walk as far away as to the end of the range. Sure enough he “searched” for the book by reading the call numbers with his arms crossed. After watching him “read” a shelf, I went back and showed him again what to do. Then I found the book I’d sent him to look for within three books from it’s original spot.

    It was the beginning of the end for Fergus. We were in the process of compiling examples in order to fire him when he quit. Sometimes I wonder about him. I’m curious if he’s still the same Fergus–disrespectful, unwilling and unhelpful.

  77. Sleepless*

    I don’t hear condescension in what Fergus is doing. I hear nervous laughter and a guy without a lot of confidence trying to create some bravado. Annoying, but not insulting. I dunno.

  78. Pobody’s Nerfect*

    OP, Fergus is likely mimicking some toxic masculinity he witnessed sometime in the past & that he thought (for some uneducated reason) was cool. He’s getting pleasure out of making you feel uncomfortable. Shut this shit down, you don’t have to take it. Allison’s suggestions are good, try them; if he persists, then fire his punk little ass for insubordination. Use the system to your advantage.

  79. OP*

    To everybody concerned that I’m being unfair to Fergus because he is a man, I suspect you may be right, I don’t want to behave this way or have these feelings, I don’t think my anger is fair, and I want to fix it. However, whether his behavior stems from sexism or plain old insecurity, it is definitely inappropriate and unprofessional (please trust me on this part at least). I wrote to AAM looking for strategies to get his behavior to stop, both for my benefit and his.

    Thank you to everyone for the constructive suggestions! The situation has resolved itself as I mentioned in an earlier comment.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      When it comes to advice, you’ll always want to weigh it with your first hand experiences first! So many people may wonder if things are “this way or that way” because of just the small amount of details we know about your situation with Fergus!

      I know it’s hard when people can get off on their own tangents and thought processes in that way. But it’s good too, it gives you that ability to say the things you did right now. That you have room to grow yourself.

      In the end, you’re doing a lot of things right, regardless of if this exact Fergus situation. You’re growing. You’re learning. And you’re evolving. All these experiences are part of becoming a very well rounded, experienced individual and staying your best self!

      It’s a lot to digest and I think you’re also very hard on yourself, which may be feeding some of the frustration when the harder comments come into view. That’s okay. Lots of us do that. It gets easier after you’ve taken a few bumps.

    2. Sleepless*

      I posted before I read the rest of the comments (oops) or your update. I’m glad it turned into a teachable moment, and that he’s out of your hair now!

    3. Avasarala*

      Best of luck to you!

      As inspiration, I offer Avasarala from the Expanse, leader of Earth, woman of color, and kicker of ass.
      One of my favorite scenes is when a male coworker interrupts her explanation to ask, “Where are you taking this?”
      And she responds firmly, with swagger and a smile, “Wherever I goddamn like!”

      That’s the attitude you should channel in your dealings with Fergus!

  80. Charlie*

    “It comes across very strangely, because anyone in your position should expect to need guidance.”

    As someone on the receiving end of these sorts of comments, I find such comments condescending themselves.

    What position is this that no one coming into it could possibly understand some aspect of it already?

    1. Former Employee*

      The person is a student employee. If they were working in the student store, why would they know how to ring up sales, the proper way to stock shelves, why various items are arranged in a particular way, etc.?

      It’s not as if the OP said that this student was supposed to have had experience in the area she supervises.

      The problem is that people often assume that they know how something is done because it seems simple. Wouldn’t anyone know how to stock shelves, for example. Not necessarily.

  81. Jonno*

    When someone makes a point of trying to seem more in the know than they are (and especially when it’s obvious to everyone around them that of course they’re not in the know, and they’re not expected to be), it’s usually because they feel anxious and in need of proving themselves.

    BINGO. However, it’s not okay, but this is exactly what’s happening.

  82. Scarlet*

    This is fantastic advice! This is one of the best posts I’ve seen on AAM to be honest, and it’s part of the reason that makes this blog so great.

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