When my son Evan was perhaps ten years old, he turned to me and said, “Dad, have you ever noticed that when people say “Good for you” they are often being condescending?”
Yes, my son understood the meaning of condescension at ten years old. He started talking at six months old and went on to major in English at the University of Chicago. And perceptively, he was correct about the fact that some people use the phrase “Good for you” as a sort of faint praise when secretly they either don’t really admire your achievements or are jealous.
More often than not
While subtle, that type of human dialogue is more common than we might like to think. It’s not always true that people say “Good for you” in a dismissive manner. But take a look around at the nature of communication on social media and it’s clear that people look for any minor advantage they can find. Everyone wants to be the winner.
It is also true that some people forcibly underestimate the ability of others. If you’ve ever worked for a boss with those instincts, it is incredibly frustrating. They project limitations and low expectations on you because they hold close to their own fears and insecurities. Ultimately, they’ll chase you out of their sphere if they feel threatened by the fact that you refuse to abide by their perception of you.
Those of us in athletics often experience the harsh lessons of being underestimated. If a coach doesn’t think you’re good enough for the team, you might never even get a chance to prove yourself. Even if you do make the team, and the coach views you as a chink in his winning armor, there might be bench time in your future.
Even in raw endurance sports such as running, where the clock is the seeming final determinant of success, teammates can play subtle power games with verbal manipulation. They may want to beat you badly enough to seek to undermine your confidence somehow, which is a brand of active underestimation.
This is especially true for athletes moving up the ranks. A runner who suddenly improves may have been underestimated by teammates and competitors for a while. It takes a bit of confidence to break out of the expectations of those who benefit by keeping you down.
When my children were in elementary school, I counseled them to be smart about their relationships. “Friends are just as likely to try to control you as people who don’t like you.” If that seems harsh, so be it. The truth hurts sometimes, and I would rather my kids understand the challenges of social dynamics than be broadsided by people who claimed to be your friends, yet through selfish or unthinking behavior might cause you pain.
I gave somewhat the same advice to a group of young people that I mentored in the INCubator program at our local high school. Their job was to come up with a product that they could all work together on and learn to market to the world. But I warned that it’s often difficult to embrace the ideas of others, and that conflicts could occur. That advice proved true for them, and what a life lesson it was.
The world is full of people pretending to be loyal even as they maneuver for advantage or to protect their own interests. It is a common tactic for these folks to underestimate others as a means to control them. The tools of this underestimation include gender prejudice, selfish interests, racist beliefs, ageism, political alliances, wealth, and religion. All these viewpoints are used to cast other people as inferior. Yet when the people targeted by their bigotry speak up or resist their impositions, the perpetrators of that prejudice claim to be victims themselves.
In gaslighting fashion, they’ll even calculatedly question the loyalty of those they are trying to control. It’s all a product of forceful underestimation. The sad, sick thing about all this underestimation is that entire factions of society buy into it in one way or another. Then it becomes a cultural belief unto itself. Those outside the sphere of that cultlike underestimation become the “other,” and live with the burden of those demeaning stereotypes. That’s exactly what all the unrest in America is about these days. People of many backgrounds are sick to death of being underestimated.
If you’ve ever been underestimated, you likely realize how much work it takes to break down those perceptions. But in athletics, when you finally run a great race and the coach or teammates that didn’t think much of your abilities are forced to look at you in a new way, there is a great feeling of liberation that takes place.
I follow a Linkedin group called The Female Lead. It’s principal province is to encourage women to buck the underestimation imposed on them in the work world. There are many men commenting on the posts within the group that exemplify the misogyny and male bigotry the group is specifically designed to resist. And they don’t get how blindly ignorant they truly are.
Fortunately, there are many great companies, programs and teams that do the opposite of underestimation. They are encouraging in their culture and eager to guide all others toward success. I just interviewed a female engineer who works as a director in what has largely been a male-dominated industry. She started out as a graphic designer, learned drafting and now runs the show in a large swath of the country. That’s how one blasts through the ceiling of underestimation.
But even within positive circumstances there are sometimes reasons to be frustrated. Old perceptions and aggressive habits die hard.For example, a running team that adopts a philosophy of overtraining going too hard all the time can turn out to be a toxic environment, and lead to burn out. Yet having the courage to speak up in the face of that culture puts one in a position of keen vulnerability. Admitting that you’re struggling with workouts even when other people are getting sick or hurt is a tough thing to do, because machismo is valued in so many sports. That is frustrating.
Yet that’s as true in the workplace as it is out on the roads. On one hand, it is harsh to be underestimated. On the other hand, it is scary to stand up for sound behavior and ethical balance in the face of an errant work culture. I once backed one of my employees in a dispute over massive overtime hours she was being forced to work on a company project while holding down her real job. The manager above us underestimated the time necessary to launch the new project and my employee was bearing the brunt of his mistake as she completed her day job to go out and work until eleven at night, often on weekends.
So my employee was exhausted, and in tears. So I turned in the forty hours of extra work to be paid to her, and the company reacted by punishing me for submitting those hours to be paid. They’d underestimated my commitment to principles and legality, but I was the one that paid the price. Unfortunately, that’s how life works sometimes.
If you’ve ever been underestimated, you’ll recognize those feelings. They’re not fun. But one thing is important to realize. You’re seldom actually alone in those feelings. And once one person builds the courage to speak up, others will typically join in. Certainly the #metoo movement in America is proving that. So is #blacklivesmatter. And what do we see in response to those movements. Those threatened by the truth of their forceful underestimation are retaliating and trying for force people back into place. People are even dying under the oppressive thumb of forceful underestimation and intimidation. The son of a female judge assigned was just murdered by a man whose hatred for women was used to justify the attack.
The Pre Factor
Injustice is everywhere. Four decades ago, it was athletes being told to be satisfied with amateur status by Olympic and AAU administrators who basked authority and even gained wealth at the expense of those athletes, whom they greatly underestimated. That era of suppression resulted in a revolution of resistance to false and selfish authority. One of those people was Steve Prefontaine, who along with running greats like Frank Shorter began to take matters into their own hands to change athletics from a falsely governed amateur sport to a paid vocation based on personal performance.
The same holds true with the likes of marathon runners such as Katherine Switzer, who defied the limitations and underestimations being placed on her by men to run the Boston Marathon.
The lesson is that it’s always dangerous to underestimate somebody. You never know who you’re facing in this world. Some of us refuse to take that shit anymore. They might call us anarchists or liberals, fake news or Antifa, Feminazis or n*******, but that won’t stop the pushback against fascist control of the streets of America.