Being condescending

I have a hard time talking to non-scientists about science: I assume they know more or less than they actually do – I never seem to get it just right.  I think assuming they know less is a better strategy.  If I assume they know more, they normally don’t even bother to ask about what they didn’t understand and don’t get anything out of the conversation.

However, if I assume they know less than they actually do, I’m sometimes accused of being condescending.  I don’t (usually) think the people I’m trying to talk to are stupid or incapable of understanding whatever concept I’m trying to explain – I just don’t know what kind of background they have.  I try to guess what they  know and then explain the concept to them the way I would like the concept explained to me if I had that background (example).

I’d like to brush it off as people just being insecure about their own knowledge/intelligence, but if I can’t communicate my work to people other than scientists, I’m failing in a big way.  I’m not really sure what I’m doing wrong, but I’d really like to figure it out.  Any ideas, readers?


  1. Jules says:

    Hey there! Followed the link from your facebook…

    As a giant nerd, I face this problem often. Assuming you’re not speaking with a close friend, it’s difficult to know what someone will be able to follow and what one will not. I’d been reading my “Symbiotic Planet” book after setting up for a work barbecue the other day, while waiting for everyone to arrive, and got a lot more questions about it than I expected. While everyone is familiar with the concept of symbiosis, I was surprised to learn that most people– in a generally biologically-literate group– hadn’t heard of endosymbiosis.

    Anyway, I apply a sort of hierarchical if-then approach that seems to work well. Using the above example, I’d begin with, “Are you familiar with endosymbiosis?” If no, then I’d explain that concept in understandable terms (discovering that even terms like “eukaryote” and “mitochondria” are not universally known) before getting to its relevance to the book. If yes, then I’d launch into the less “dumbed-down” version of my explanation, employing questions throughout in order to figure out whether my listener was following, rather than leaving them with the responsibility for asking questions.

    Generally speaking, I’d say that’s the key to it: asking questions of your listener, since most people won’t claim to know something they don’t when asked, even if they will nod and agree when they don’t follow when the responsibility for asking questions is left to them.

    Hope that helps a bit [and wasn’t consdescending 😉 ]!

  2. Theo says:

    This is a tough thing to do! Something that definitely requires a lot of thought, practice, trial and error, and humility (ie, screwing up a lot and learning from it). The more time I spend here where the bio station community is my entire community, the worse I get at it I think, because it’s so easy to slip into automatically assuming everyone knows what you’re talking about.

    I think there are helpful things to learn from the communication majors on this one (gasp?). The tiny bit of communication theory that I’m acquainted with stresses how important it is to effective communication to have dynamic feedbacks between the person speaking and their “audience”. In a more formal speaking setting, one person is doing 99% of the talking, but a lot of return communication comes back to them from their audience, in non verbal forms. When we first start learning to speak in public, usually we’re soooooo shell-shocked that we’re doing our best to just make it through a near-memorized text and make it out alive.

    The best teachers i’ve had are also really good speakers, and the somehow manage to keep intelligent things coming out of their mouths while also paying attention to how the audience responds, and adjusting their talking. I can’t do that with groups yet, but with individuals, if you pay close attention to their non-verbal reactions, you can get a decent idea how much of what you’re saying they understand. I think usually i start with the assumption of “not very much” but that may be more reliable since my stuff is extra arcane…

    You’ll get it!

  3. Laurent says:

    Don’t bother about accusations of being condescending. Being passionnate about something is a good per se, the only thing is that sport fans are rarely facing this kind of accusation. But really, don’t bother, let others be. It’s their responsability if they feel insecure. There will always be some like that.

  4. Justin says:

    My best guess, from watching people who are good at communicating is to start from the presumption that someone is interested in understanding. Pitch things straightforwardly (avoid complications) but don’t dumb it down. I find myself worrying about whether my professor would find my explanations adequate, and that’s a recipe for adding needless qualifications, and asides, all of which confuse the issue. If you avoid those, then I think you don’t have to artificially simplify the material.

    The other key thing is to watch the person you’re talking to-give them lots of chances to ask questions, and pay attention to whether they’re asking questions. It’s a good indication of whether they’re interested. It also helps mute the concern that you’re being condescending–people will naturally find their own level of explanation that works, if they ask questions and you do a good job of reading the question.

    Lastly, you don’t always have to explain your super-specific research to be effective. Perhaps I’ll just talk about what moral psychology is as a field, and some characteristic questions of the field (it helps that my work isn’t very specialized yet, and that most people’s reaction to the term “moral psychology” is “huh?”). If they want to, they can ask questions which helps focus, and I’ll go more in detail on something I’m thinking about.

What do you think?

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