A few months ago, I learned a new word: “mansplaining”. You may have heard it before, but I never had until this year.
The general idea is that very often, a man will explain something to a woman in a way that seems to be based on the assumption that the woman is incapable of understanding the concept themselves and requires the man to rescue them from their misunderstanding. Often it is very explicitly patronising or condescending. This is a mansplanation.
In recent weeks, I have seen people I greatly respect being treated this way in the online space, and they have called out the man in question by telling him that he was mansplaining. Quite often, he has responded with quite a bit of vitriol, claiming that the word “mansplaining” is in itself sexist and they were just “trying to help”. This very vitriol is of course really not supporting the man’s case, and tends to show that his assumptions actually are that the woman did need to be rescued from her ignorant state. You can see some classic examples of this sort of assumption in Fawn Nguyen’s excellent blog post “Baklava and Euler”.
I had formed the idea that mansplaining was really just assholesmanplaining, and it didn’t have all that much to do with your general everyday respectful man.
But then something happened that hit me in the guts. Megan Schmidt started a conversation on Twitter about notation, and it had a flurry of responses, all from men, one of whom was me. She tweeted separately that “the mansplaining game is strong right now”. I was not consciously responding from an assumption that Megan needed to be rescued from confusion, and yet the conversation was called mansplaining. Clearly Megan’s use of the word didn’t fit with my understanding that only assholes mansplain.
It was time to get to the bottom of this, so I asked Megan to help me understand what she meant and how she felt about it. I have to thank her a hundred times for the thoughtful and gracious responses that she gave. I hope I will do justice to what you taught me, Megan!
I learned that there are times when offering an explanation at all is actually mansplaining. Not because the explainer is an asshole, or because they meant to be condescending or sexist, but because the explainer is unwittingly playing to a wider cultural assumption that the woman needs an explanation at all.
When a woman expresses frustration or anger or worry at something, a man’s common response is to offer an explanation to clear up confusion. Do you see the disconnect there? The man is rescuing the woman from confusion, but the woman wasn’t expressing confusion. She didn’t need an explanation – she didn’t need to be “rescued”. It’s most likely that she actually does understand the nuances of the concepts involved. Indeed, she would usually have to understand in order to have the emotional response she is having.
An unfortunate part of it is that the majority of men in this situation, especially in a professional setting, actually do realise that the woman does have the same or greater experience and training. It’s just that they are culturally conditioned to offer explanations in response to frustration. Indeed, it seems to be that men in professional settings are expected to engage in more “academic” conversations than “emotional” ones. Yet by doing so, we are still mansplaining.
The problem is that it opens the door for assholemansplanations, which are sure to follow. Even worse, it is adding to the hundreds of tiny sexist events that occur for a woman every day. And it reinforces the very cultural norm that produces those daily tiny sexist events. It’s important to give the experience a loaded name like mansplaining to make sure that those of us who do care have our attention drawn to these problems.
But how, as a man, can I fight back? Well, I can certainly call out others when they are mansplaining. Assholemen need to hear it from other men to have a chance of hearing the message — they’ll never listen to a woman. Ordinary men need to know about the damage they do unintentionally.
And what about my own daily actions? All I can think of is to be more aware. I can listen to the actual words people are saying and notice the emotional part of what they say. I can choose to respond by asking for more information first, rather than launching into an unwanted and unnecessary explanation. It takes a lot of energy to watch your own words and actions, and sometimes I will slip (sorry in advance) but with practice I’ll get better at it. And then one day maybe I’ll find I never offer a mansplanation again.