I got a question via email recently about how I deal with condescending older men in the professional world. I should stress first that I am not some workplace diva who has all the answers. I do try my best to strike a balance between being considerate of others while asserting my place in the hierarchy. I try to hold myself to that standard even when it seems awkward. But it takes practice and I can assure you that I have not always been perfectly graceful about it.
I should also note that women are just as capable of being annoyingly condescending as men, especially if the woman in question is older or higher in the hierarchy. Where I find a gender difference (and this is only anecdotal) is that men who are younger or equal to you will sometimes act condescending. This can be fatal. If the higher ups overhear your peer lecturing you about the law while you listen silently, then they will naturally assume that the person lecturing knows more than you. That’s not a good result. Like it or not, in a hierarchical work place, perceptions matter. A lot.
Nonetheless, I think it’s crucial to keep your eye on the ball. If someone’s being a condescending jerk, it only matters if the obnoxiousness somehow objectively interferes with your efforts to do your job or undermines you in the eyes of someone who matters, like a boss or a client. If it doesn’t matter, you can safely ignore it and go about your business. Other people's workplace behavior only matters if it undermines you in some way; if it's merely annoying then forget about it and focus on the task at hand.
If it does matter, your response may vary depending on how the obnoxious person is related to you. If it’s opposing counsel, you can be more aggressive than if it’s someone from your firm. My responses to condescending opposing counsel have been:
(A) I will frequently mock the person in a gentle kind of way. I had one guy who kept saying things like, “In my 30 years of practicing law, I’ve never seen anyone do x,” or “Based on my 30 years of practicing law, I can guarantee you that . . .” So I would often respond, “Well, based on my 8 years of practicing law, I disagree.” I wasn’t overtly rude, but I let him know that I wasn’t going to simply agree with him just because he’d practiced law longer than I.
(B) If someone is outright rude, I think it’s important to say “knock it off.” I had a deposition recently, when a lawyer demanded pursuant to some court rule that I hand over a particular document that I had claimed as privileged. He claimed such and such rule required me to produce it immediately. I responded, “I don’t know that.” I was trying to convey that I am not going to take his word as to the interpretation of the rule. He responded in a very sarcastic voice, “YOU don’t even know the RULE?” This occurred in front of my client so I immediately snapped back, “Don’t talk to me like that.”
I often will outright tell opposing counsel not to be snippy or not to be rude. I hate doing it because it always feels weird and I always question whether I am overreacting. I think it’s worth the sense of awkwardness. Usually the person will say I am overreacting but then they back down, so it works. Once they stop their offending behavior, you act like it never happened and carry on as normal. Your goal is not to try to wrench an apology from the person or belabor how pissed off you are. Your goal is to get the offending behavior to stop and to convey that you won’t be intimidated.
If someone in my firm is being a condescending jerk, then more diplomacy is required. Here are some tactics I’ve used:
(A) Assert yourself in the conversation. Suppose you feel as though you are being made to look stupid because your boss is lecturing you about something very basic you already know about. You can break in and say, “Boss, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I am already quite familiar with the summary judgment standard. But I would really be interested to hear your thoughts about how our local judges handle such-and-such related issue.” Then listen attentively and ask questions. You’ve thus shown that you’re not a doormat or an ignoramus but that you are willing to respect your boss's greater knowledge and learn from him.
If it’s someone below you, you can be a little more snarky. I had one little whippersnapper who had only tried one case try to lecture me about how to cross-examine someone. In that instance, I might say in a low key or good humored manner, “You know, Gary, I have tried a few cases.” Or you might lecture him right back, “Well, in my experience, blah blah blah . . .”
(B) Don’t let anyone shame you. If it’s an older person in your firm, remember one of your goals is to learn and there’s no shame in that. If someone says something like, “Surely you know such-and-such . . .” one tactic is to acknowledge that you don't know -- loud and proud. You might say something like, “Actually I don’t know. I’m a litigator not a tax lawyer,” or “I have never come across that case before. How exactly does it relate to such-and-such?”
I hope this helps. It's hard to predict every situation that might come up. I think it helps to foster a sense of detachment in the work place. Remember, it's just business, not personal. If someone treats you badly, you should not be asking yourself, "How do I make this person suffer or get him back?" You should be saying, "How does this affect what I am trying to accomplish or the perception of me in the firm and what can I do to control or change what this person is doing ?"