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How to fight back against ageism — without starting a fight

By Morey Stettner

The older you get, the more likely you'll face ageism. People will make faulty assumptions about you because of your age.

When that happens, you have a choice. You can shrug it off or fight back.

Context plays a key role in influencing your response. It can sound endearing when someone calls you "honey" or "sweetie" but still make you feel like a child.

Read:Yes, ageism is actually bad for your brain. Here's how to reverse it

That's not as bad as conferring with a doctor who speaks slowly and loudly as if you're incapacitated--or family members who disregard your comments because they deem you old-fashioned or out of touch with cultural mores.

"It depends on your relationship with the person," said Sara Breindel, co-director of Changing the Narrative, a Colorado-based campaign of NextFifty Initiative which raises awareness about ageism. You may feel more comfortable asserting yourself if you have an easy rapport with, say, your hairstylist or dental hygienist.

Read:Retirement isn't what it used to be: 6 things to know about growing older in America

Lack of awareness leads many people to define others by age. They don't realize that they are embracing stereotypes (of age-related enfeeblement and helplessness) and overlooking one's individuality.

Assuming good intent, rather than rushing to scold someone, works best, Breindel says. If a salesperson calls you "sweetie," for example, reply, "Thank you for your help. And please call me Sam."

Better yet, respond with a question in a polite tone. If someone implies that you're tech illiterate, you can ask, "Why did you say that?"

"Asking questions gives them a moment to reflect," Breindel said.

Another tactic is to hold a mirror up to what you hear. If you're told, "You're still looking great," reply, "You look great too." If they say, "Wow, you're still working," reply, "So are you."

Read: 'You don't want to die at your desk sending an email.' Beyond the numbers, are you ready to retire?

A friendly rejoinder can heighten someone's awareness of ageism without triggering defensiveness, Breindel says.

It also helps to consider how others define their sense of self. Most of us have three core needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness, says Jessica Nordell, a Minneapolis-based professional speaker and author of "The End of Bias."

When you encounter ageism, tie your response to those needs. To reinforce one's competence, you might reply, "You're clearly good at what you do. You may want to know that by assuming I'm retired, it can be off-putting."

Read:Beyond 'Where's the beef?' Older people, especially women, have economic power

"That way, you're not belittling them or denying that they have the capability to do better," Nordell said. "You give them the benefit of the doubt."

To appeal to their autonomy, you can say, "I don't want to tell you what to say. I would like to let you know how I feel..." And when it comes to relatedness, say, "Our relationship is important to me. And that's why I want to level with you about..."

"It shows you want to keep the connection," Nordell said.

Maintaining your cool may require considerable self-control. No one likes to feel invisible or overlooked because they appear older, and they may resent others who strike a condescending tone.

"You might feel anger, embarrassment and frustration," Nordell said. "It's an emotionally fraught situation."

Preparing your response can help you decide what to do when it counts. Otherwise, you can become inured to ageism and stew in silence.

Knowing that you can ask questions, mirror what you hear or appeal to someone's core needs gives you some options. These strategies also reduce the risk of engendering ill will.

"Some people are uncomfortable with conflict, but it's important to stand up for yourself in nonconfrontational ways," said Erin Yelland, Ph.D., an associate professor at Kansas State University.

Repeatedly letting others exhibit ageism--and not shining a light on it--can actually make you feel worse. Your self-esteem can plummet with each passing reference to your presumed grumpiness or reliance on medications.

"Internalizing ageism is detrimental to our overall health and well-being," Yelland said. "So it's important to address it first in ourselves and battle it internally."

Adopting a mantra such as, "I'm a strong, capable person" can work well. Or try setting a goal of subverting others' expectations at least once a day to prove that you're not bound by society's perception of your age.

-Morey Stettner

This content was created by MarketWatch, which is operated by Dow Jones & Co. MarketWatch is published independently from Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal.


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05-12-23 1405ET

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