How to Avoid Mansplaining

All right, mansplaining.

I know.  I’m a guy and I’m about to explain how to avoid mansplaining.  I’m gambling on a few things here.  I’m fairly confident there’s a form of explaining that avoids the pitfalls of mansplaining; what’s not clear to me is if it can work here, or how much (especially given my own history with mansplaining) I’m up to the task.

One strategy I came up with to deal all this is to address this post exclusively to men.  Of course this would be done in full knowledge that women are reading too; the idea is that if I did end up mansplaining (despite my best efforts to the contrary), at least I (a male) would be doing so to men instead of women.

For a number of reasons, I found myself uncomfortable with this approach. It seems itself rather patronizing (which is a lesson in itself!).  Also, I’ve just never been comfortable with excluding anyone from a conversation like this.  Just doesn’t feel right, for reasons I can’t fully articulate.

Thinking about it for weeks, it seems my only option is to be empirical.  That is to say, I could continue playing around with the idea in my head, but won’t find out for sure if it’ll fly unless I actually try.  So here we go.

What is mansplaining?  Most accounts describe it as uniquely patronizing, condescending, or even infantilizing way of men addressing women.  Now while I by no means disagree with this definition, I don’t think it’s quite enough to help stop a lot of the mansplaining that takes place.

I prefer to see mansplaining as a genderized form of hierarchical monologue.  Now I don’t see my understanding as in any way at odds with the previous understanding.  What I do think, and I’ll offer this for your consideration, it that it might be a bit better in terms of helping us unpack what’s really going on inside mansplaining.

Mansplaining is hierarchical in that its primary purpose is to promote power relations.  It’s genderized in that it does so along gender lines, specifically according to the dictates of patriarchy.  And it’s a monologue in that it’s a one-way form of communication.

The end result, it seems to me, is a form of discourse where what’s communicated is a view of men as superior to women, with very specific demands made on the listener.

As an aside, here’s where I may differ from others.  I think conversations like these have been happening since time immemorial across race, class, religion, social, and economic lines, as well as between adults and children.  This leads me to suspect (and I may be on thin ice here) that the genderized piece is secondary to the hierarchical one.

Now you may disagree with me completely here, and your options are far from limited.  You could say there is something qualitatively unique about genderized inequality as a matter of history, and that this makes the gender component primary rather than secondary.  You could also say that situating mansplaining within the broader context of power relations intrinsically diminishes the gender component, thereby relegating it to secondary status.  This could even be seen as yet another instance of simultaneously and covertly masking male privilege while reinforcing patriarchy (ouch).

In defense of my definition, I think it allows us some important conceptual and political flexibility.  It follows from the sketch I provided that while mansplaining is typically and predominantly done by men, it can be done by anyone who identifies with male privilege.  That is to say, in this view mansplaining is (usually but not always) men explaining things to (usually but not always) women in an uniquely condescending, patronizing or even infantilizing way.

Can women do it?  I suppose so, in the sense that oppressed groups often act out among themselves the inequalities, injustices and injuries visited upon them by outsiders.  Have to say, though, the vast majority of mansplaining I see is done by men.  And to anticipate another set of objections, I don’t think that’s completely because of biology or anything essential to the concept of maleness; I think, rather, that it’s largely due to men being raised to think and behave along particular lines.

So while this doesn’t absolve men of the responsibility to cut the crap (instructions provided below), it does suggest powerful social forces are at work in mansplaining, alongside often critical personal and moment-to-moment choices, as well as qualities.

Now I don’t think we have to agree on what comes first or is more important (the gender or the hierarchy) to have an effective dialogue on mansplaining.  I could be wrong here, perhaps even egregiously so. Nevertheless, I still think the key point is that both get mixed up in an interesting way such that what’s being communicated is not so much information but (the importance of) a patriarchal relationship.

So what’s inside mansplaining?  It occurs to me that the mansplainer is attempting to sell you (his target) a number of Very Important Ideas, ideally without question.  I’m assigning them numbers not so much to rank them in order of importance (though some of them do depend on others) as to make it easier to refer to them in case they provoke any discussion:

  1. that they possess something you lack (usually knowledge or expertise, but sometimes also wisdom, maturity, or even moral fiber)
  2. that this something is not just a quality or skill, but a human virtue
  3. that this is not just true of you but everyone in your (let’s say gender) group
  4. that this makes it even harder for you to understand what the mansplainer is trying to tell you (or, in some cases, appreciate his wisdom or brilliance)
  5. that this, in turn makes any difficulty understanding or accepting what the mansplainer is trying to say (or any communicative failure at all) entirely your fault
  6. that all of the foregoing makes the mansplainer qualitatively better than you (once again, along some dimension of consequence), which in turn justifies a number of attendant social, economic, and political privileges
  7. that this is (or ought to be) as clear to you as it is (or ought to be) universally acknowledged
  8. that your primary socially obligations are to internalize all of these Very Important Ideas (e.g., believe them deeply and without question), work hard to promote them, and prove to any and all mansplainers that you have done so to their satisfaction (usually through a display of social deference; professional titles are especially helpful here)

Another thing: while the bulk of the communication is verbal, there are often important non-verbal components as well, such as a sigh or a well-timed eye roll. All these combine to reinforce the “I am better than you and you’d better publicly agree” message.

The sum total of the interaction is to make the mansplainer feel better than the listener at her expense.  That is to say, it’s one of many ways people have of boosting their self-esteem by taking someone else’s down. When this happens in a blatant or egregious manner, it’s easy to see and call out.  However, I think it happens far more often in far more subtle ways.

This brings me to the notion of microaggressions: tiny little paper cuts to the self-esteem that add up over a lifetime to destabilize or even erode the listener’s own confidence in her intelligence, perceptions, virtue, or even adequacy.  It’s saying “I’m better than and in charge of you” or “you are defective compared to me” through a gesture, a tone of voice, an image, an advertisement, a song, etc.

Now it’s bad enough when this happens to grownups, who’ve already had some chance to build up a sense of self as well as self-efficacy and self-esteem.  Here we’re annoyed at best, but our basic confidence in ourselves and our abilities remains intact.  You can imagine the damage it can do when it’s targeted at a group of people from the earliest age.

So that’s the basic process I see at work.  Given this analysis, how do we stop it?

One hope I have is that a greater awareness of the viciousness and cruelty that lies at the heart of mansplaining goes a long way towards eradicating it.  But I’ve also come up with more specific suggestions as well.  I saved them for the end because I don’t think they have quite the same power without a closer look at the power dynamics, psychology, and social role of mansplaining.  Once again here they are, and in no particular order, although some typically occur before others:

  1. If you haven’t already, brush up a bit on gender and privilege (and especially if you have, resist the temptation to think you know all about it already).  Keep in mind nobody’s completely free from the effects of bias, prejudice, and bigotry; specifically, that everyone has biases and is victimized to some degree by inequality.
  2. Be careful about thinking of individuals as representative of particular groups, and privately acknowledge any biases you’ve likely inherited from your family of origin or the larger culture.  As with any belief, keep in mind the all-important difference between having a bias, reflecting on it, and acting on it.
  3. Keep in mind the difference between taking effective responsibility for bias and shouldering blame.  Blame is often an invitation to feel worse about something and can be deflating.  Responsibility, on the other hand, may include remorse but empowers individuals to make bad situations better.  Put another way, it’s one thing to make you or someone else feel bad about having bias, it’s quite another to say and do things that encourage people to roll up their sleeves and get to work on it.
  4. When your bias or privilege is exposed without your knowledge or consent, treat it the same way you’d treat falling trousers.  That is to say, don’t pretend it didn’t happen, just smile, realize everyone has a derriere, pull up your pants, try to extract the appropriate lesson, and move on.
  5. If you haven’t already, ask someone who knows and/or who’s studied it about the concept of microaggressions.  Learn about how they can affect the quality of a home, workplace, or relationship.  Learn how they add up over the course of a brief period or a lifetime to demoralize, deflate, and oppress individuals or entire groups of people.
  6. If you’re feeling especially bold, look into the ways we deauthorize people as knowers on a regular basis, often without knowing it.
  7. Before explaining anything, ask yourself if you’re really in a position to do so.  Some questions to consider here: do you really know more about the topic than your listener?  Is this really the best (or even the right) place and time for it?
  8. Ask yourself if you want the explanation to be more of a monologue or a dialogue.  Be mindful of the differences between both forms of speech, especially the different expectations each makes of its intended audience.  Have some plan to handle the frustrations that typically arise when certain expectations aren’t met (in this case, when you set out to have one kind of conversation and instead get the other).  Also beware of taking this frustration out on your audience; if you feel it’s appropriate or useful to share, consider using the most respectful words possible.
  9. Make sure you have at least one way of explaining the thing you want to explain.  Wonder to what degree these different ways of explaining take into account someone’s level of knowledge as opposed to social status.
  10. Consider also any effects your different explanations or styles of explaining could have on your listener as well as the larger audience, especially if there’s a mismatch along any key dimension.  How will you know if your style or mode of explaining is succeeding?  How will you know if it’s failing in some important way?  What adjustments are you prepared to make or willing to consider as a result?
  11. Remember that you are no more your explanation than your listener is their response to it.  That is to say, your explanation can succeed or fail without this saying anything whatsoever about how good you are in any of your most cherished roles (parent, teacher, supervisor).  Likewise, resist the temptation to judge your listener by the success (or failure) of your explanation, or their response to it.
  12. Be prepared to look at your explanation as pragmatically and non-judgmentally as possible.  Also, when listening to feedback, let past experience be your guide here, and don’t dismiss someone’s experience simply because you don’t share it.
  13. Ask yourself if you think the knowledge you’re about to impart makes you a better person than your listener. If the answer is yes, ask it again until you get the right one.
  14. Wonder how useful your information is likely to be to your audience.  Wonder how you might handle it if they disagree with your assessment of its value.
  15. Wonder about hierarchies and emotional overtones.  Will the explanation help empower someone, let’s say bring them up to your level of (not virtue but) expertise?  Or will it keep or even push them down?  Be especially careful here about sharing information that’s designed simply to show off what you know or make someone else feel stupid.  If you suspect that’s happened, ask, and if so, apologize.
  16. If you get into a back-and-forth (and especially if you didn’t set out to), keep in mind the crucial difference between positions and persons.  That is, it’s one thing to say a position (belief, view, etc) is wrong and quite another to say a person is wrong (i.e., don’t say “you’re wrong”).
  17. If you find frustration mounting (yours or your listener’s), take a step back and beware of taking it out on your listener.  One often key mental step is to avoid thinking (and saying!) that your interlocutor lacks certain virtues or values.  While entirely possible, more conversational (and hence more persuasive) opportunities are opened up by assuming the other person simply has values other than yours, however well they’re articulated or even known to either of you.  Put another way, assume everyone acts according to principles and that, for the curious, it’s just a matter of patiently discovering what they may turn out to be.
  18. If things get heated, consider the possibility that maintaining the relationship may now be a greater priority than communicating the explanation.  Be especially aware of threats to the respect of all parties to the conversation, such as the temptation to engage in name-calling and insults.
  19. When you’re done explaining, listen.  Keep an ear open to the possibility you may not have explained well, that you used the wrong words, or that others’ equally valid experience produced complementary or even contradictory information.
  20. Be especially tuned in if you find yourself losing self-esteem or social status if your listener doesn’t agree with you more or less completely.  That’s often a sign, in my view, that what’s at stake here isn’t sharing information but reinforcing power relations.  If so, allow yourself a small chuckle at your expense, go back to the beginning of this list, and start over.

I’m sure I’m going to be revising this list and post down the road, so be generous with your feedback 🙂