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Musings on Mansplaining

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If you’re female, you’ve probably experienced this far too many times, going back to before there was a word for it. I seem to have encountered quite a spate of it recently (both as recipient and witness), and it’s got me thinking about what exactly is going on.

The first thing I’ve been mulling over is a question a male friend asked me over a year ago: how does mansplaining differ from the kind of dominance displays men enact on each other by showing off their knowledge on a subject? The key dynamic of mansplaining, I articulated to him at the time, is not merely the lecturing of one person by another, but that the woman being lectured to is in fact an expert in the subject the man is telling her about, but he isn’t. (If you don’t know the story that inspired the coining of the term, you need to go read it.) I don’t know why blokes do this, by the way, since it makes them look stupid, but it’s well documented that they do.

And I think this is different from the male-male dominance display dynamic. My impression, as a non-participant observer, is that men like to jockey with each other for authority in areas where they both have a claim to status, but that where one is genuinely expert, the keen amateur will usually respect the pecking order and ask questions rather than seek to inform.

So a question that has arisen for me recently is: does the lecturing man have to know that the woman is expert for it to count as mansplaining? If he is merely holding forth on the assumption that he knows things and that she will be grateful to be told, that may be patronising, but I’m not sure it’s actually mansplaining. Men do like to lecture to women, I have observed. (And, guys, if you want to respond along the #notallmen line, you’re going to have to keep it awfully brief to avoid proving my point.)

I started wondering about this after a couple of incidents that felt like mansplaining, but where I had reason to doubt whether the splaining man actually knew the splained-to woman’s credentials. The first was in a discussion in facebook group, where a man ‘corrected’ a woman’s comment (the inverted commas because she was in fact right and he wasn’t). I happen to know her in real life and know that she holds a PhD in the subject they were talking about, but I don’t think he’d have had any way to know that.

The second was when someone who had just been introduced to me and clearly didn’t know much of my background told me at great length about the processes of choral rehearsals. In that case, I was operating in the role of musical leader, but he wouldn’t necessarily know from the context that I do this stuff for a living, and write books about it and all. He didn’t spend all the time telling me about my job, he spent quite a lot of it talking about himself, but the conversation was quite remarkable for the complete absence of the concept of ‘turn-taking’.

This second experience gave me some interesting extra points for reflection. (I had plenty of time to think, not being required to make any verbal contribution to the interaction, ahem.) Part of me was inclined to cut the guy some slack as he was clearly out of his comfort zone and a bit nervous, and verbal diarrhoea is a common symptom of those feelings.

And then I wondered: was part of what was making him jumpy having to deal with a woman in a position of leadership over him? That in fact he didn’t have to know my qualifications to feel that he was in a situation which went against his sense of ‘natural order’.

And this in turn made me suspect that the underlying dynamic of the urge to mansplain is precisely discomfort in the face of female competence. The classic holding-forth without listening or space for dialogue when in the company of female expertise looks in this light like a defence mechanism, the torrent of words being a means to hold at bay the dangerous fact that there exists a woman who knows more than him about something. The bloke isn’t trying to show off to us, he’s trying to protect himself from us.

So this is why the Facebook example felt like mansplaining even when the less-informed guy probably wasn’t aware that the person he was ‘correcting’ was far more qualified than he was. She had merely been conspicuously well-informed, and that was enough to trigger the misplaced dominance display.

I’m not sure how useful these insights are going to be. It has made me realise that when a bloke is going on at you at length, it may not be because he wants you to be interested in all his facts, it may simply be a tactic to avoid having to listen to any of yours. So I may stop trying to turn these interactions into dialogues and just bail out of them as fast as is practicable. What might in the past have felt rude may in fact be doing a kindness to the poor chaps defending their ego boundaries, and it will make my life less boring.

There are, after all, lots of nice normal people to hang out with instead.

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