Is it officially a word because it made it into Merriam-Webster? Your guess is as good as mine. Either way, here’s the definition of mansplain: “(of a man) to explain something to a woman in a condescending way that assumes she has no knowledge about the topic.”
I was going to say that people either love this term (usually because it illustrates a frustrating reality they’ve dealt with their whole life) or hate it (usually because it sounds like whiny name-calling).
Except that’s not true at all, because you are allowed to have a more nuanced attitude toward something than either loving it or hating it. Hooray! Freedom from extremes! Also, you are free to read this post and disagree with me.
I’m one of those in-between people.
For starters, I’ve never been in an environment where men repeatedly treated me like I didn’t know or couldn’t contribute anything. Sure, I’ve had conversations where someone underestimated my knowledge, clearly wanted to show off, or made me feel like they were about to pat me on the head. But they were mostly one-off encounters, not repeated interactions with coworkers or relatives. For the most part, I’ve been listened to and treated with respect, but for the ladies out there who haven’t, the term “mansplaining” probably rings true—and gives a feeling of being understood.
I also know that the point of the term is general cultural commentary on a widespread problem: men are often in charge, women often don’t stand up for themselves, and sometimes the person with the biggest ego (and biggest mouth) doesn’t have the greatest knowledge.
I’m just not sure the term itself is as effective as a social critique as it should be. Accusing someone of mansplaining tends to shut down dialogue instead of starting it because:
- It’s an unclear term that’s easily misinterpreted. (“Oh, so if a man explains anything to a woman, it’s not okay?” That may not be what you mean, but it sure is what the word sounds like it means, and that matters when communicating.)
- It puts the other person on the defensive, which can be a good way to make a dramatic point but a bad way to suggest growth and change in a way that will get results. (Who likes to be name-called into personal improvement? That’s right. NO ONE.)
- It assumes a position of superiority that sometimes comes across as meeting condescension with more condescension…which is the kind of cycle I try to zip out of as quickly as possible.
But most of all, I personally don’t like using the word “mansplaining” because it focuses on the bad communicators—often a minority of arrogant/oblivious people—and doesn’t let us point to examples of how to do things right. Which is way harder and way more important.
Basically, when we complain about mansplaining, I think we miss the chance to celebrate something about women.
Before I heard the term “mansplain,” I recognized that more women I knew communicated in a helpful and gracious way than men. I call that “supersplaining,” because I literally wrote it down in a list of real-life superpowers. (Two can play this making-up-a-word game.)
And the simple fact is that when I decided I wanted this skill, the majority of my role models were other women. (I have a mad-scientist habit of trying to snatch up others’ social/moral superpowers. I call it “mentor stalking.” There are apparently less weird ways of describing this, but why?) I included a few men in my watch list too, but the ladies were leading out. As I watched for examples of this skill in action, I found that supersplainers had a few things in common.
They weren’t so focused on what they wanted to say that they forgot the listener. Have you ever gone into a full-on rant or passionate speech…only to realize later that the person you’re talking to is already two steps ahead of you, two steps behind, deeply offended, bored to tears, or actually a potted plant? Me too. Good supersplainers pay attention to the emotions their audience is displaying. You know, subtle clues like expression and body language, less-subtle clues like someone clearly trying to interrupt you to say that they already heard this background information. That sort of thing.
They asked questions when explaining or giving advice. Sometimes before they started (“Are you familiar with…?”) sometimes during (“I feel like I’m not doing a great job of helping you visualize this—what is most unclear?”), sometimes at the end (“Does that sound like it’s describing your situation, or are you dealing with something totally different?”).
They made it possible for everyone to join in the conversation. I am an extroverted storyteller. This can accomplish useful things, but sometimes makes me a social bulldozer. I noticed this a few weeks ago when I was at a gathering chatting with a group, and after a while, another extrovert joined the circle. I pulled back, deliberately saying less and giving up control over the Topic Change Remote (it’s real) to the new person because the room couldn’t take both of us. Which made me wonder if I’d been monopolizing before Extrovert Two’s arrival. (There’s about a 90% chance the answer is yes.) A supersplainer isn’t a monopolizer. This person doesn’t always have to be the one talking, asks questions that are easy for others to interact with, and creates low-stakes ways for introverts in particular to be heard (giving time to think, letting pauses linger, having an option to give written feedback later, etc.).
They conveyed information without being condescending. Sometimes that means outright stating that, while they know their audience is smart, they have to cover some general background: “You’re probably already familiar with the basics of [topic], but here are the parts that are relevant to this presentation.” Sometimes they told a story about themselves in a role of ignorance to explain things for someone else: “When I started in this position, I thought it was all about XYZ, but I was surprised when I learned it was more about ABC.” Sometimes they allow you the chance to say their advice doesn’t apply: “I’ve talked to several people who said [this thing] was helpful. What do you think?” And it always sounds natural, not like they’re reading off a script, so that you barely even notice it.
They corrected and contradicted others with grace. My favorite trick is spotting little de-escalating phrases that slip in: “That’s what I thought at first glance too, but there seems to be…” “I can see your point, but…” “That’s something to consider, but let’s also think about…” All of these things are ways of conveying respect to the listener while not caving and agree with everything the other person says. I’ve read articles criticizing modifiers like this in women’s speech as a sign of weakness. Too much can be, but delivered with confidence and an actual opinion, I don’t think this is a concession to the patriarchy. This is actual social magic at work.
I’m not saying all women have this ability and no men do. Neither of those statements are true. But I do often see it in women, and when I do, I also see their wisdom and intelligence and kindness at work. To me, it seems more truly feminist to celebrate an area where many women shine, and seek to model it well to others, than to vent about mansplaining.
“Yeah, but that’s not going to fix my jerk of a boss who thinks he’s God’s gift to humankind. Or the chauvinist dad at the PTO meeting who lets me know I’m wrong about everything.” Okay, you’re probably right. But telling them to stop mansplaining probably won’t either, and at least this way you’ll have the satisfaction of the moral high ground.
Those people who talk down to you even after you’ve corrected them? They’re ordinary. Average. Totally unaware that there’s a hidden ability they could reach out for with a little extra effort.
You, on the other hand, whether you’re a man or a woman, can grow in confidence and learn how to communicate by watching the masters. They’re all around you if you know what to look for. Even with “secret identities,” superheroes are pretty obvious.