After learning about Sweden’s new “Mansplaining Hotline”, and the controversy surrounding its launch, I did some research about this gendered pejorative. Rooted in the analysis in Rebecca Solnit’s book Men Explain Things to Me, a “mansplanation” is said to take place when a man explains to a woman something she knows more about than he does. I wanted to find a quick and easy resource for people looking for constructive ways through the morass of trying to talk with one another, and work with one another, while we still live in a society rife with inequalities.
While I have experienced my share of explication of things that I already know, generally, I have had more positive than negative experiences with men. I like to work with them, and I do believe we can find a path forward together. In my research, I found lots of tongue-in-cheek sites directed to men, and some angrier sites offering suggestions to women. Trouble was, there was a lack of constructive commentary on the subject intended to be read and taken seriously by people of different genders and across diverse social locations. With awareness of the irony that I am explaining something, the tips in this blog post are meant to be resources about mansplaining that are intended for both women and men, as well as anyone who identifies otherwise. They are only meant for those who actually want them, so, if you aren’t interested, or are more expert than me on this subject, read no further.
1. Look people up before you meet with them
Look people up before you meet with them. It has never been easier than it is at this moment to learn copious amounts of information about a person you are meeting. Advance preparation for a meeting can take only moments but it can be tremendously useful. It is a wise idea to do internet and social media searches of a person’s name just before meeting colleagues or business associates. This will help us all avoid the embarrassment of assuming a woman sitting next to a man is the administrative assistant and vice versa. It has the added bonus of providing a window into what a person is interested in, and can help ease conversation. This is not just a tip for new acquaintances: it is useful to do even when meeting with longstanding colleagues.
2. Check In – If the shoe fits
To check in about your social location, look at your shoes, and look at the other person’s. It’s a way to become more grounded and instantly more mindful of social location in a work setting.
Social locations are complicated and tricky. As others have noted, while inequalities creep into social location on the basis of unconscious gender bias, other intersecting dimensions of social location can produce related problems. While the word “mansplaining” is the one that has caught on in popular parlance, the phenomenon of inappropriate silencing and explanations made condescendingly is documented wherever members of underprivileged groups have conversations with those more privileged. For example, the Urban Dictionary defines “whitesplaining” as a white person explaining racism to a person of colour. This makes me sheepish because I am a white person, who is straight, and able-bodied, and a comfortably middle class one. I’m not innocent in hierarchies of privilege and oppression. In fact, I distinctly, and awkwardly remember a time when my younger self explained LGBT community issues to several people who were members of the community but in the closet.
I have a suggestion for a way to check-in about your social location. I call it the “shoe test”. Look at your shoes. Are they expensive? Are they comfortable to walk in? Fashionable? If you are wearing $600 Manolo Blahniks, you are probably privileged on one axis of social location (socioeconomic status), but have some challenges on the gender one, because those are about as reasonable and functional as footwear and ancient Asian foot-binding, and the soreness of feet you are walking in are the ache of oppression.
3. Assume, and Demonstrate, Good Intentions
* Assume the best of someone who is explaining something to you. As far as he (or she) intends, the unsolicited explanation and advice they are giving are very likely intended to be helpful. To quote the “Good Men Project”,
“Guys are socialized to believe that fixing things is a sign of our value. Hell, I’ve ended up offering unsolicited – and ultimately unwanted – advice more times than I care to think about. We don’t mean to come off as condescending. However, the fact that you don’t mean to be insulting doesn’t mean that you weren’t.”
* If you are thinking of explaining something to a colleague, or of offering suggestions, ask this question first: ”are you looking for suggestions or advice in this conversation?”
If someone specifically asks for help or advice, then by all means, do contribute. Until then however, assume that you are not being asked for instruction.
4. Substantively Establish Expertise
Intentions are only one side of the communication equation. We have to take responsibility for how we are received and perceived, and the effect of our speech. If someone is speaking to you condescendingly, or if you are seeking to offer suggestions or an explanation and you want to be sure it is a useful one, you can negotiate towards more credibility, and root your comments in facts, by:
- Asking what they think of a competing theory or a hotly debated experiment in the field
- Explicitly referencing experience “ when I did this… when I lived here”
- Explicitly referencing authors/ studies – if the explainer does not acknowledge your expertise, maybe they will accept a different authority
- Referencing statistics
If the more subtle strategies above aren’t working, specifically and expressly state that you don’t need a concept explained. I would recommend against using the word “mansplaining”. Rebecca Solnit does not use it. It is a gendered term for a legitimately gendered phenomenon that can fairly be used in analyses but it is unlikely to be helpful if used directly in constructively moving towards more egalitarian conversations. If possible or necessary, you might want to adjourn a meeting, and defer the conversation. You can seek advice and send resources, whether you think you may be offering unnecessary explanations, or receiving them.
Dr. Rebecca Bromwich, P.D., LL.M., LL.B., B.A.(Hon). is a writer, lawyer, and law professor. She is the Director of the Graduate Diploma in Conflict Resolution program in the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario Canada. You can follow her Twitter or learn more about her work here.