Dr. Helen

People Treat Me Like an Adult and I'm Too Polite to Correct Them

I was reading Dalrock’s blog and saw a post from a mom blog about a woman who is upset because she is treated by others like a child:

When I was a little girl, adults would often brush aside my viewpoint or do things for me because of my age. I couldn’t wait to grow up and take control over my own life. Fast forward a couple decades later. I’m a mom in my 30′s, but I still find myself being treated like a child by other adults and I can’t figure out how to stop it from happening without being rude.

I should start by saying that I’m not a particularly small or helpless person. Sure, I’m 5’4″ in sneakers, but I’ve always been athletic and loud, by no means a shrinking violet. My peers have never felt the need to baby me, in fact, when I was in college and on vacation with my sorority sisters, they once told me that in the event of a burglary, I was the one they would turn to for protection and a plan of attack. But those older than me treat me like I wander through life with my shoes untied and a teddy bear dangling from one arm, and I can’t seem to get them to stop.

The author of the piece goes on to complain that people do too much for her and provide with help and assistance:

Bosses have refused to let me walk a city block alone at night to the parking garage, even though my coworkers go without being questioned. I’ve been passed over for assignments involving incarcerated individuals lest I get hurt and given assistance I didn’t ask for with boxes or files. Whenever I have voice my distaste for being treated like I’m an incompetent toddler, people get offended and tell me they are just trying to be nice, and I feel like an evil witch.

I have always had the opposite problem. People have always treated me like adult as long as I can remember. I am not that tall or large –around five foot six and 120 pounds, but people always think I am taller and much larger than I am. I have rarely been given assistance for much, walked alone in NYC without so much as an escort, and usually was the one people asked for help, not the other way around. I have worked with incarcerated individuals for years and lifted my own boxes and files without assistance (unless I asked my wonderful husband!). In short, I have been treated as a competent adult for most of my life–and maybe it’s because I acted like one or maybe it has to do with one’s facial appearance or a combination of physical and psychological attributes.

The mom blogger might pick up some tips from trial consultants who try to determine how people stereotype others based on facial features:

Several stereotypical or automatic evaluations of people are based on facial appearance. One prominent example is the so-called “baby face” stereotype. People with babyish facial features (large eyes, thin eyebrows, large head, curved face) tend to be evaluated as less mature, more innocent, but also as less responsible (Zebrowitz & Montepare, 1992). In the defendant, these features are beneficial, but they are detrimental to the witness. High competence, on the other hand, is associated with an angular jaw and close eyes and eyebrows (Olivola & Todorov, 2010).

Another example of stereotypes arising from facial appearance is the “glasses stereotype”. Individuals who are wearing glasses tend to be seen as more intelligent (e.g., Brown, Henriquez, & Groscup, 2008; Hellström & Tekle, 1994), but less attractive (Hasart & Hutchinson, 1993; Lundberg & Sheehan, 1994). In a modified and more modern version one would also call it the “nerd stereotype”.

If the mom blogger wants to be taken more seriously, perhaps glasses and even changing her makeup might help. Speaking and acting in a more competent fashion might also help; for example, lowering her voice and body language can make one appear more competent. She might find though, that people being nice to her wasn’t really all that bad once the niceness stops.