Context :

My girlfriend (let's call her V) and I, are programmers, and sometimes we ask each other questions when we believe the other may have an answer.

A few times, she’s told me that I sounded patronizing in my answer (which might be the case, but I don't see how or why).

We usually never put punctuations at the end of our sentence, and when we do, it is usually a sign that an argument will start.

The exchange usually happens like this:

V: How do you do A by B?
Me: I don't know, I don't have the ecosystem on my computer to test it, but I believe the answer is C, let me check

Delay of 5 minutes or so.

Me: Ok the answer does seem to be C, according to this reference, this should work
V: How? Can you write it?
Me: (code solving A by B with C)
V: Ok thanks.
Me: Sorry for the delay, I was making sure I had the reference for it
V: Then you are very smart.
Me: Why are you upset?
V: Because you said like every dumb person would google that

[argument continues]

I believe something in the way I express myself in that particular interaction was definitely wrong, when I was saying that I was looking for reference.

However this is the way I usually interact with colleagues for technical questions and when I answer on Stack Overflow I make sure I have the right reference to back my answer.

I know we are talking about interactions with my girlfriend, but on technical issues I was assuming we were interacting like we would in a work fashion. Maybe this is my mistake.

So, my question: how can I answer such a question without sounding like a patronizing guy, that has all the information?

EDIT

Thank you very much for your inputs, there are a lot of good recommendations in the answers to the question. There was a clear difference between the tone of my exchange with her here and our general interactions (but no part lacking in this dialogue).

Today we exchanged again about some programming topic and I used a tone we have more in our usual interactions and offered one solution that she looked up by herself and she found another solution. The general gist was to give what I honestly think is the answer and trust her research, helping further if needed.

  • 6
    Do you (allegedly) come off as patronizing only when you type? Or have you been told the same when you communicate face to face? – Lord Farquaad Aug 7 at 14:09
  • 2
    Only when I type, face to face is usually much more relaxed (this exchange was on a messaging service). I would add also that I have poor pedagogy skills. – PCh Aug 7 at 14:11
  • 33
    I still fail to see. Why is this considered patronizing? (As a side note, I find it rather sad you don't use punctuation.) – Gábor Aug 7 at 15:31
  • 6
    How much programming experience does she have? Do you have any other examples? And do you suspect that she might be insecure? I've come across one or two people who percieve almost any kind of advice as patronising because of their own inseucurity about their abilities. – Pharap Aug 8 at 0:38
  • 5
    In the extract of the chat you shared I can't get how anyone would think you are patronizing. And also how do you know she is upset? She just said you are smart. I think the example is missing an important piece of information. Take into account this extract you shared is your perception of how things went down, and what you are missing could be they key to understand why she got upset. – Mykazuki Aug 8 at 14:44

10 Answers 10

up vote 57 down vote accepted

As this is your Girlfriend, I can see two options:

  1. Talk about your style of communication with her, and agree on how you will handle these incidences in the future.

    For example my wife always reminds me of speed traps (even though I know of most of them). We decided it's better to get that information one time too often than having to pay - so I can't be mad at her for reminding me of the obvious.

    On the other hand, when she complains about work I only listen and never try to help, unless she specifically asks me to. I know she is not looking for help, but for sympathy.

    Just ask her how she prefers you react to those incidences. Does she want you in logic-solution mode or in tactful (but less helpful) mode? It's much easier not to get upset about tone if you know what to expect.

  2. Stop helping all the way. Just give her what you have and let her run with it.

    This could go like so:

    V: How do you do A by B?
    Me: I don't know, could it be something to do with C?
    V: Oh, sounds interesting. I'll look it up.
    Me: Ok, happy to help. If that does not work I'm happy to dig deeper with you. Just let me know.

    This is what I usually do with colleagues.

  • 16
    Option 2 sounds really good to me, she usually has a good research skill on top of that. – PCh Aug 7 at 14:39
  • 2
    @PierreChevallier A message can also sound patronizing to the ear of someone who is very insecure. I’m curious if that is a character trait of V. – Headblender Aug 7 at 21:36
  • 5
    I'd leave the "Happy to help" line out. It sounds way too formal for a boyfriend - girlfriend interaction and that makes it sound patronizing, yet again. – Marianne013 Aug 8 at 8:40
  • 1
    Option 2 is somewhat expecting V's response to be compatible with OP's intended conversational flow. Given the original conversation where she asks OP to write it for her, I'd suggest modeling your example conversation with that same expectation in mind. – Flater Aug 8 at 10:58
  • 9
    @Daniel: When OP links a reference, the response is V: How? Can you write it? How is that not a request from V to have OP write it for her? – Flater Aug 8 at 12:05

The problem with written communication is that the chances of the reader misinterpreting the meaning or the tone the writer intended are significantly higher.

Firstly, it would be a good idea to let her know that you were not trying to patronize her, at all, and that you are sorry if she felt that way. All you were trying to do is help her. You can mention what you said in your comment, that you know you have poor teaching skills, and it's something you are trying to improve (if that's the truth, of course), so you'd be happy to take her feedback on board.

Secondly, I'd recommend trying to use a similar writing style to the one you use with her for non-technical conversations. For example, if you use emojis, maybe include some emojis. I'm assuming here, but it could be possible that she takes your "more serious writing tone" as patronizing, when in reality, it's nothing but a "more serious writing tone".

  • 1
    I like your recommandation on the writing style, indeed there is something I could have done better than switching to a very serious tone – PCh Aug 7 at 14:41

I think the problem is that you googled it for her.

You didn't know. Okay, no problem.

But then you looked it up for her instead of letting her do that. She didn't ask you to, didn't say she had no time or anything.

You just assumed you'd be better suited to google this. (Or you just genuinely wanted to help, but that's what she might have thought).

Try seeing it from her point of view. She asked you, you didn't know, then you thought she wouldn't be able to google it herself so you did it for her. (Yes, I know, you didn't mean to imply that. Thing is, you did imply it.)

Next time, say for example

I don't know the answer but I can just look it up because I've had a similar thing recently.

Or just don't look it up, ask her if she wants you to help searching. Just make sure you leave the decision to her. She didn't ask you to solve her problem, she asked if you already knew the solution. Don't answer a question that wasn't asked.

On a side note, personal interactions in a relationship are just different than in the workplace. A colleague might say “hey cool thx“, a partner may be more conscious about how you just took away their problem to solve it for them. It kinda feels like asking someone how to do something and them taking the mouse from you and doing it fast and without explaining.

I empathise with you, I sometimes have the same experience.

When you work with computers, mathematics, data analysis or similar, you spend a lot of your time in a very binary world where everything is either right or wrong. Of course, when it comes to relationships of any kind, things aren't so black or white, right or wrong, zero or one.

It may be true that there are people in this world who are great with numbers but terrible with people, emotions etc. but not everybody that works in one of these fields is like that. In my experience you can be really in touch with emotions, both yourself and others, and still have the aptitude for working with the cold, hard facts of numbers.

The problem you have is that these two worlds are colliding. You are talking to your girlfriend about a "work" subject and so you are speaking to her the way you might talk to a work colleague.

As you are learning from each other, in a way you are taking up the role of a teacher when you show each other things. There are different training styles used in a professional workplace which can fit different situations. To be honest, any of these styles may still be perceived as patronising because in your relationship you are partners, equals; but in any kind of teacher-student situation you are not really equal.

If any teaching style is appropriate it would be "coaching". When someone is being "coached" in a workplace they are basically being shown as little as possible and rely on the learners existing skills. If in your responses to your girlfriend you always acknowledge her skillset then you are showing respect for her. Try and point her in the direction of things she may already be familiar with. So for example, instead of saying "Google it" (which has become kind of patronising), if you know the answer might be on Stack Exchange for example, and you know she already uses the site, suggest she search there. Or if you are explaining something new, try to connect it to something she already knows, or even better, something she showed you.

Also avoid being dogmatic about things. Rather than say "this is the best way", try "I've found this to be the best way because...". This shows that you also acknowledge there may be different answers to the problem and that you have been through a learning process yourself.

  • 1
    I like the way you formulate this, indeed it is wiser to acknowledge what she knows and want a confirmation and giving a direction than giving a reference and a dry answer. Indeed with computer, it is harder to link it to “soft skills”. – PCh Aug 7 at 17:46
  • But instead of “the best way,” try “I prefer.” – WGroleau Aug 8 at 12:21

I have two suggestions:

Because you interact well together when you're face to face, I assume you must be doing something different than when you're communicating by text. Find a way to express some of the things that you do face to face, in text.

For me I make a lot of faces and verbal cues. So in text I use phrases like 'hmm' 'uhhh' 'maybe something like' , etc. It's almost a "Stream of consciousness" way of writing.

I've found it signals "I'm not (and don't think I am), a god who knows everything I'm talking about". I learned this just from the way I knew I liked knowledgeable people to interact with me.

The choice to talk conversationally in text depends on the kind of person you're talking to. It can also signal to some people that you are not confidant in your knowledge. I like talking to my peers in this fashion but some take this as weakness. So in business you may not want to talk like this. Especially when trying to make decisions. But in your case it makes sense.

Don't delay. Just fire out your thoughts. As a teacher you're also trying to pass on how you think. One of the best things I heard during an interview was 'its ok to think out loud' after I sat silent thinking for a while on a question.

V: How do you do A by B?
Me: hmmm
Me: I don't know
Me: Probably C would work
Me: I read an article somewhere...
Me: <link>
Me: This agrees it should be C
V: How? Can you write it?
Me: uhhh one sec let me write that up
Me: Something like this:
Me: <code>

If that above transcript looks weird, its because my choice of 'in between words' is meant to sound like me talking in real life. You should use what ever you would usually say face to face.

  • 4
    This definitely depends on the person. I would hate to get spammed by uhh's and hmmm's over text messages, no matter who it is sending me those messages. – Apollys Aug 8 at 0:45
  • 2
    It shows that the person is active, in the process of producing a result. Otherwise the asker doesn't know if she could expect an answer anytime soon. – Lenne Aug 8 at 6:04

If you're replying over chat, share a link to your search results (don't use LMGTFY) and point out which results you think look promising. She's smart enough to know how to google, but, and this is the important bit, the expertise you're giving her is knowing what the right search terms are... This way you are helping her solve the problem herself... pointing her in the right direction.

Alternatively if it's something on the simpler you can try something along the lines of "Have you tried searching for B? You have? Hmm... What about C?" A lot of times the real key isn't knowing the answer, it's knowing how to look up the answer.

  • Sending a link to search results in my experience has the same effect as LMGTFY, but I do like your "alternative" approach, giving the asker small hints that help them find the solution by themself. – Raimund Krämer Aug 8 at 10:38
  • 1
    Totally, it'll depend on delivery.... if you JUST send a google link that won't likely go well... On the other hand a link plus "results #3 and 4 both look promising but I haven't clicked through yet" helps send the message "I'm working on this WITH you" – aslum Aug 8 at 12:57

Me: Ok the answer does seem to be C, according to this reference, this should work
V: How? Can you write it?
Me: (code solving A by B with C)
V: Ok thanks.
Me: Sorry for the delay, I was making sure I had the reference for it
V: Then you are very smart.
Me: Why are you upset?
V: Because you said like every dumb person would google that

That's an easy one. Just STOP after "V: Ok thanks."

(But I fear your GF may have been conditioned by the current 'offence' culture. Offer simple information, you'll be accused of being brusque. Elaborate and it's 'mansplaining'. You can't win this one.)

Perhaps the problem is that you're essentially spoon feeding her. While this may seem the helpful thing to do, it doesn't help build her confidence in her own abilities.

Perhaps at this point...

V: How? Can you write it?

... you needed to take a different approach, and try to encourage her to solve the problem herself, with the reference you've already found for her.

You could give her some guidance, or at least point her in the right direction, but ultimately she should be solving the problem herself.

I'm curious about how much time elapsed between you providing her the solution "C", before she decided that she needed you to implement it for her. I suspect it wasn't very long.

Perhaps you could try something like...

"I will be happy to help you, but I just need to finish (some important task you need to complete) first. Perhaps in the meantime you could see if you can find some other references for solution "C" showing more complete implementation details."

Hopefully by the time you've finished whatever busy work you find for yourself she may have been able to complete the implementation herself.

  1. A principle I've found useful in a number of situations is to imitate the other person's style of communication. Ask her questions and see how she answers you. Mirror that style back to her - not word for word of course but in essence.

  2. As others have indicated, "Thanks" is a way of terminating a conversation. It shows the other person has appreciated your reply and accepted it with good grace. Nothing else is needed.

  3. If someone asks for an answer, they are not asking for the methodology for obtaining the answer (even if they 'should'). If you answer as a teacher rather than as a fellow student of the subject, you are coming across as a superior/authority figure.

The context is everything here! When you answer a technical question, people will be very happy you solved their issue regardless of your approach, unless they have a personal issue with you. Like a co-worker who despises you, customer who is angry at a company you represent, or your wife/girlfriend who... God knows what. Think harder about this one. Could be your love life, your having cats instead of children, or 1000 other things. Technical questions have little to do with this one!

Your Answer

 
discard

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.