Have you ever been interrupted in midst of telling a story? Were you interrupted to be corrected, or to be taught why your statement was wrong, when maybe it actually wasn’t? Did the person go on to explain something to you that, if they had let you finish, they might have realized that you already knew? Was there any evidence to show that this person interrupted you based on their own prejudices or biases?
When it’s happened to me, it’s triggered a mixture of mortification and astonishment, followed by an irritating sense of incompetence that lingers. Until recently, there hasn’t been a word for this. When you don’t have a vocabulary to describe an experience, it’s hard to respond to it. You don’t see it as part of a pattern.
In 2008, the Los Angeles Times published an article called “Men Explain Things To Me,” in which writer Rebecca Solnit indirectly coined the term “mansplaining.” In her essay, she describes an encounter she had at a party where an older man stopped her to explain that the subject of a book she had written had already been written about. He went on to insist that she read the book that she herself had written, and when a friend tried to point out this man’s fault, he continued to argue the contrary.
Mansplaining describes this form of silencing not merely as an isolated incident, but as a greater cultural issue at work. Solnit’s essay went viral, echoing the experiences of many women. Solnit’s often humorous, yet deeply penetrating message generated a conversation about the lack of respect women often receive when engaging in the art of conversation with men.
Mansplaining happens all the time: in academia, at work, at the gym, on the street, in the news, even at home. Sometimes it’s blatantly obvious, but sometimes it can be difficult to identify. Often, men aren’t even aware that they’re doing it. Sometimes it happens subconsciously—a habit learned from movies and TV shows.
So how can you tell when it’s happening? Let me break it down:
When a man tells a woman how to do something they know how to do, that’s mansplaining. When a man offers his two-cents about a subject because he doesn’t think the woman knows what she’s talking about, that’s also mansplaining. When a man blatantly ignores a woman when she speaks directly to him, that’s also a form of mansplaining. Basically, to “mansplain” something is for a man to tell a woman how to understand an issue that’s central to them, which stifles them, sometimes keeping them from articulating really great points or ideas.
Personally, I don’t care for the term mansplaining. The definition isn’t easy to comprehend, and it’s often misused by both men and women—kind of like the definition of feminism. This makes the concept difficult to digest, difficult to argue, and even more difficult to prove.
In a way, women do this to women. Men do this to men. Sometimes this serves as a power struggle within the hierarchy of gender. But going even further, I’d argue that the dynamic behind mansplaining also exists independent of gender. In other words, it happens to anyone who is considered culturally and/or socially inferior. This is routinely found in any conversation where someone in a socially dominant position “explains” life to someone in an inferior position, as determined by our culture.
For instance, scholars explaining to indigenous people how their religion should be understood; white people telling black people how it feels to be a minority; straight people telling gay people why they don’t want marriage equity.
Any way you spin it, when someone offers some sort of unwelcomed magical insight, it generates this really unsettling feeling, rightfully so, because this is a form of silencing that basically says this person doesn’t deserve the same recognition that those of privilege are entitled to.
If you want to avoid being a mansplainer, ask yourself: Have you shown this person consideration by listening, or have you been taking mental notes and preparing your next response? Are you aware of this person’s knowledge on the subject of conversation? Have you acknowledged and trusted this person’s ability to comprehend their own experiences, or have you been preparing to explain their experience to them? Are you looking for a reason to explain your own experience, and does your experience show any pertinence to this conversation? Finally, before you speak, ask yourself; do you know enough about what you’re talking about to intelligently contribute to the conversation?
If not, maybe you should let them finish their thought before contributing yours.