Put downs might be back-handed compliments, such as ‘You’re so brave wearing colours like that together.’

They’re also often signalled by something like, I just need to be honest…. Or ‘I hope you won’t mind me telling you, but…. (you will mind).

And they often use ‘humour’ or are described as ‘banter’. So that the person putting you down can then say you don’t have a sense of humour, need to lighten up, shouldn’t take everything to seriously/personally and so on.

When someone tells you outright that something about you or what you’ve done isn’t up to standard, or their standards at least, it can certainly be confronting. However, criticism is often it is at least intended to be helpful- and can be very useful.

Put downs are another matter. A put down is when someone is trying to make you feel small, or bad or manipulate you, but it’s said in such a way that they can deny any bad intentions. In other words it’s passive aggressive.

This kind of behaviour can be part of a pattern of more serious emotional abuse, which is a much bigger, deeper topic, but, even generally well-meaning people can put you down.

Why do people put others down?

  • They actually feel bad about themselves, and it makes them feel a little better temporarily to make someone else feel insecure. This is especially the case when they’re actually a bit jealous of you.
  • Sometimes, especially if their put downs are quite witty, it’s a kind of attention seeking behaviour.
  • It can also help people to feel more in control- they know better than you.

Note that all of these reasons are firmly about them, and nothing to do with you.

How can we best deal with put downs?

As with any criticism, there may be something helpful we can take from what was said. Even if it’s not about us really, if it stings, it’s worth asking ourselves whether this is something we also tell ourselves- which, of course, doesn’t mean it’s true, but could mean it’s something helpful to explore.

But in terms of how we deal with it in the moment, the key thing to remember is that the other person is looking for a reaction. At some level they want you to be deflated or made angry by what they said.

So the most effective response is to not give them what they want.

  • You could just agree with them. Smile, and say something like, ‘Yep, that’s right, you got me.’ It can really take the wind out of their sails, and it signals that the conversation is over.
  • Similarly you could say thank you (with varying amounts of sarcasm). Thanks for sharing. Thanks for your insight.
  • Or just laugh, and refuse to take it seriously. ‘Ouch!’

What if it really needs dealing with?

If you can stay calm enough, you could bat it back to them.

I am wondering why you said that?

Why does that bother you?

So you think that I…..?

What are you really trying to say here?

If you do this the other person will probably either swiftly change the subject or they’ll get defensive..’you don’t know how to take a joke’, ‘you’re too sensitive’, ‘I didn’t mean…’

Whatever the response, wrap it up by saying calmly how you felt and what you want.

E.g. ‘You may have intended it as a joke, but when you said X, I felt Y and I’d rather you didn’t comment on Z again.’

Remember that being assertive is not the same thing as being aggressive, so tone is important. Kind but firm.

And, if this is part of a larger pattern, talk to someone about what’s going on.

Join my community of ELT Professionals on Facebook.