I love the term “mansplain.” For me, it’s such a satisfying, succinct way of putting my finger on the kind of arrogance that can occur from a specific type of privilege— the privilege of living in a society where we tend to assume men know about more things or know things better than women.
To borrow from Urban Dictionary, mansplain is:
To delight in condescending, inaccurate explanations delivered with rock solid confidence of rightness and that slimy certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in this conversation.
The term came into popular use after Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 LA Times article Men Who Explain Things. It starts with a very amusing story in which some boor at a party tries to educate Solnit about a new important book that came out—one that she, in fact, wrote. Many women who read the first page of the article may laugh or roll their eyes and say “that sort of thing happens to me all the time.” If you read further though, Solnit makes some deeper, compelling points about the phenomenon of mansplaining and how it is a reflection of the ugly fact that “billions of women are out there […] told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever.” This has very real consequences for women’s personal safety and livelihoods.
Some feminist bloggers have a problem with the term that has emerged from discussion around the article (Solnit doesn’t actually coin the term herself in the piece). They assert that even though mansplaining exists as a fairly common phenomenon, the word is also problematically gendered.
Lesley, in xoJane, writes:
For one, it’s mad essentialist, and by this I mean it assumes a certain universal set of truths shared by all men. Men mansplain, because they are men, and this is an attribute of a masculine gender…
If I am going to lose my freaking mind when a dude attempts to discredit me based on what he believes is a set of universally shared characteristics of my gender, I kind of feel weird about doing it right back.
In some ways, I quite agree. I’m not really a fan of ascribing gendered traits to anyone, male or female. But an article by Annie-Rose Strasser published in Viewpoint provides an appropriate counterpoint:
That argument totally ignores the fact that “mansplain” was invented to uncover privilege -– specifically, the privilege men have to assume that they are right, that women are wrong, and that their responsibility is to explain something to the poor woman who just can’t understand it.
Strasser still has a problem with the fact that mansplain is a gendered term, however, but for a different reason: It’s exclusionary.
It doesn’t address other types of systematic repression, narrowing concern over the dynamics of condescension to male-female interactions. A white woman can’t ‘mansplain’ to a black woman what it means to be discriminated against, but she can certainly be patronizing about the experience that black woman endures, approaching that interaction with all of the privilege of a mansplainer.
So, while I started this article with the idea to write a simple guide of “How to Stop Mansplaining”, I decided to make it less gendered and broader. Because we all need to be aware of our privilege in conversation—not just in the context of gender, but in the context of race, ability, class, orientation, and every other thing that can give you privilege over others.
So, without further ado: Your guide to Having a Conversation and Not Sounding Like an Asshole.
1. Are you explaining things about a certain identity group to which your conversation partner belongs?
This is the most basic rule. If you’re talking about an identity group different than your own, acknowledge that you have no personal experience. Don’t speak in absolutes. Listen more than you speak. Don’t tell your partner what it’s like to be them.
2. Does she have life experience or perhaps an advanced degree in the subject you are discussing?
This is something a lot of women complain about, specifically in the context of mansplaining as a gendered concept. If you’re interested in the topic, for the love of god ask questions. Don’t start explaining string theory to a woman who just got her PhD in particle physics (I mean, probably don’t do this to a guy either, but be especially aware of your privilege in the conversation if you are a dude talking to a gal)
For some squirm-worthy, enraging treasures on that front, I’ll direct you to the brilliant tumbler Academic Men Explain Things to Me.
3. Note the flow of conversation
Dialogue is a give and take. Take a second to think if the giving part is actually happening, or has your conversation morphed into a monologue of Shakespearean proportions? If you’ve noticed your conversation partner has been silent and nodding politely for more than 60 seconds you should probably shut up and let them talk.
4. Check body language.
Are they shifting impatiently? Rolling their eyes? Trying to get a word in edgewise but failing? Your conversation partner may have things to say but can’t get them out over your droning.
5. Unpack your motivations
If you notice you’re explaining something that your conversation partner probably knows, why exactly are you doing it? Are you unfamiliar with an identity group to which your conversation partner belongs, and is it causing you discomfort*? Are you trying to come out of the conversation as the alpha dog? Are you attracted to them and trying to impress**? Are you nervous or intimidated by your conversation partner and trying to come up with things to say?
*Don’t be scared, we’re all just people even if we’re different! Talk to your conversation partner like a human being.
**Spoiler alert: if you are trying to flirt with someone by explaining things to them, you’re probably going to come off sounding like an asshole.
This is an incomplete list, but I think it’s a start. In short, be aware of your privilege, think about what you are saying, and tune in to the reactions of the people to whom you’re speaking. And huzzah, you’ll sound like a thoughtful individual! At least, you will to me. And I’ll appreciate it.
Did I miss something? Can you think of more? Let me know in the comments!