Sometimes I get confused between complacency and condescension, thinking they are the same thing. I am trying to understand the difference.

Both seem to be attributes of a person who is more confident than others, or think less of others.

It seems to me that acting in a condescending manner and acting complacent are very much alike, although complacency seems to be a little bit more about carelessness than smugness.

Can someone explain what is the difference between these two? How can I recognize that someone is acting some way or the other?

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    I'd say complacent is how someone acts about himself, being smug. Condescending is how someone acts towards another. I can be complacent without specifically being condescending to others.
    – oerkelens
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 17:42
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    The words are high in contrast . I don't know how you even get the idea they are similar .. You can check any dictionary .merriam-webster.com/dictionary/complacent
    – Argot
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 17:46
  • @oerkelens Thanks, that is helpful and coherent with Barrie's answer.
    – elias
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 18:12
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    @Argot Sorry, English is not my primary language. I've checked the dictionary and I was still having trouble -- to me the ideas were still related. The distinction made in the answers here helped.
    – elias
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 18:16

4 Answers 4


I don't see the words as being extremely similar.

Smug is exhibiting or feeling great or offensive satisfaction with oneself or with one's situation; self-righteously complacent, where synonyms are self-satisfied, superior, complacent, conceited, self-righteous, holier-than-thou, priggish, self-opinionated. The stress is on the self-righteous attitude accompanying being pleased with oneself.

While I know that complacent means satisfied with how things are and not wanting to change them, I think the connotation is one of unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies in oneself or something one is a member of, for example, a political party or a church

I think, for example, that much of the world has become complacent about AIDS. We just don't worry about it as we once did.

Condescending means showing or characterized by a patronizing or superior attitude toward others, showing that you believe you are more intelligent or better than other people.

  • I entirely agree with you and feel that Barrie England's answer misses this point. see my answer.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 18:25
  • I've accepted your answer, since it seems to be more accurate about the broader meaning of complacency. Thanks!
    – elias
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 18:50
  • So, one could say that complacency is a bit like (or leads to) apathy, right?
    – elias
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 21:46
  • yes. It definitely can lead to apathy. If one can't recognoze it in oneself, one stops moving forward. Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 21:51
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    Just a point of trivia...in older cultures, where people think that rank is really meaningful, condescension isn't necessarily a bad thing. Someone quoted 'Jane Eyre' on the other English board, a sentence where Jane was happy that Rochester condescended to her, because even as she believes that all people are equal before God, she recognizes that his rank is far above hers, and their society doesn't require him to be friendly to her at all. Mr. Collins in P&P thinks that Lady Catherine's condescension to him is a virtue, but the author doesn't think so.
    – swbarnes2
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 23:03

Complacency is an internal sense of smugness. You can be complacent without involving other people. Condescension is an external sense of smugness. You can only be condescending towards other people.

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    I disagree with this answer. Please see mine below.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 18:27
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    I've changed the accepted answer for the Susan answer, since it seems to be more accurate. This answer, however, is very useful because it explains quickly how to distinguish someone acting condescendingly from someone acting complacent.
    – elias
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 18:47
  • @WS2 You "disagree" with the answer? This answer is correct - what's there to disagree about?
    – Josh
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 21:19
  • @Soylent Green If you read my own answer, below, you will see what it is that I disagree about. Also please read the answer supplied by Susan.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 21:30

The idea of 'complacency' as a sense of smugness is only one part of its range of meanings, and in my view not its most up-to-date sense. Unfortunately the most recent quotation which the OED provides is from 1875 !

My own view is that the modern sense in which 'complacent' or 'complacency' is most commonly used does not centre on an idea of smugness. It rather focuses on a presumption that everything will turn out fine, when the likelihood is that it may not, and stresses an ignorance on the part of the complacent of potential pitfalls.

'The Manchester United board, in making a simple managerial change, were guilty of complacency that last season's success would be easily repeated'

The above does not necessarily mean the board were smug. It simply means that they thought the task in hand would be easier than it turned out to be.

In fairness to the OED, though it is clearly behind the times with its quotations, does provide as its first meaning, one in which 'smugness' (according to ODD 'having or showing excessive pride in oneself or one's achievements') is neither mentioned nor implied.

Pronunciation: /kəmˈpleɪsənsɪ/ Etymology: formed as complacence n., with the later form of the suffix, -ency suffix. Thesaurus »

  1. The fact or state of being pleased with a thing or person; tranquil pleasure or satisfaction in something or some one.
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    Sorry, WS2, this answer is a bit of overkill, IMO and FWIW, your Manchester United example is dripping with smugness. This answer includes archaic definitions that if used today, would most likely be misunderstood. Barrie's answer is crystal clear and Susan's also accurate. Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 19:35
  • @KristinaLopez I'm afraid I don't understand you. Who was smug? The MU board or me? The fact that the references are archaic is precisely my point. There is nothing in the OED since 1875 ! I cannot see how Barrie England and Susan can both be correct. The former links complacency to smugness and the latter goes to some lengths to explain why she thinks it is not to do with smugness.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 19:43
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    @Barrie's answer is very helpful in the sense that it removes the confusion I was having -- and maybe other people may have.
    – elias
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 19:47
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    @elias Yes, I agree with that part of his answer. It did clear up the problem. But it also suggested that 'smugness' was inherent to the idea of 'complacency'. ('Complacency is an internal sense of smugness', he said.) I disagree with that. I think it is perfectly possible to be complacent without being 'smug', and I draw attention to Susan's description of the meaning of 'smug'.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 19:57
  • The MU was smug in not making changes (out of complacency) but because of a smugness that no changes were needed and that their success would continue unbridled. (not you, WS2!) :-) Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 20:09

Since the other answers here are long and (I feel) overly complicated, let me attempt to provide a rather simple answer in layman's terms. [Disclaimer: I haven't looked these words up in the dictionary... I am going off of what they mean to me.]

Complacent - If you are being complacent, you aren't taking action. You have no drive to improve. It would be like a tennis player who has accomplished a lot, and then becomes complacent -- doesn't have a drive to continue to improve -- and other players soon surpass his skill.

Condescension - you behave as if you are superior to others, and must 'condescend' to their inferior level.

The two really have nothing to do with each other.

  • Very well expressed. But there are ways of being complacent which have nothing to do with your own performance, or lack of it. We may, as a society, be complacent about the effects of violent video games on children.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 21:25

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