Is the term ‘mansplaining’ sexist? You asked Google – here’s the answer | Erynn Brook
Every day millions of people ask Google lifes most difficult questions. Freelance writer Erynn Brook answers this common query
There’s a short answer and a long answer to this question. The short answer is: no, it’s not.
The long answer requires a bit more background, so let’s start at a basic level and work up from there.
The term is commonly credited to Rebecca Solnit for her 2008 essay, which became a 2014 book Men Explain Things to Me. While Solnit did not coin the term, the book crystallised the concept and the term was born and quickly spread across social media and pop culture.
The technical definition of mansplaining is when a man explains something to a woman that she already knows, often in a condescending tone.
I like to use a modified version of genderlect theory, by Deborah Tannen, as a primer in how mansplaining happens. Please note that genderlect is not all-inclusive, and has many issues and valid criticisms, but I’ll get into those later. In the early 1980s Tannen coined genderlect theory to describe two observed communications styles which she termed “male” and “female”, however I prefer to call them “competition style” and “connection style”.
In competition (male) style communication the person who talks the longest and the loudest “wins”. Topics shift more frequently as speakers try to move conversation to their area of expertise/comfort, so that they can talk more, and thus “win”.
In connection (female) style communication the speaker “wins” by deepening connections with others. People tend to stay on topic longer in order to explore those connections and will pass the mic around/ask questions.
If you’ve ever done any teaching/speaking/group leading/camp counsellor-ing, you’ve probably used both styles, competition when you need to get everyone’s attention and connection when you’re leading.
Most people will have a primary style. You will develop it when you’re really young. Much like conflict styles, there’s not much rhyme or reason to it, you’ll pick it up from the adults around you and use what feels most natural.
So if we have a person whose primary style is connection, speaking to a person whose primary style is competition, they may pass the mic and then never get it back. What we have, much of the time, is two vastly different communication styles colliding, which overwhelmingly favour competition style, because as long as someone in the equation sees talking longest and loudest as winning, the other person has no chance of connecting.
If that broad overview helped solidify something for you, the next step is to expand beyond that into the power differentials and move past binary thinking. Let’s look at some other examples of “-splaining”.
The “-splaining” suffix has been applied to many situations: whitesplaining, cisplaining, hetsplaining, richsplaining … The important thing to note about these words is how they highlight the power differential. The word always describes the act of the person with the most power in the conversation, the man, the white person, the cisgendered person, the heterosexual person, the rich person and so. This is why terms such as “femsplaining” or “womansplaining” to describe the act of a woman speaking condescendingly to a man are not generally accepted.
Such “-splaining” terms are used to describe the experience of the receiver. These words are not meant for the sender to appreciate, enjoy or feel good about. This is in-group language to express a shared experience, which is why arguments about whether or not the word should be used or expressions of how they make you feel when used towards you will often go nowhere: they’re not for you. If someone tells you that you’re “-splaining”, it’s about the social equivalent of telling you that you’re being rude. The reason why it’s so much more jarring than simply saying “You’re not listening” is because it also calls to attention the power differential in the equation.
If it feels like suddenly words like this are more prominent or being thrown around more often, they’re not. It’s just that a lot of communication is more public than it used to be, so we’re able to witness in-group conversations through social media that we haven’t been privy to in the past. For a more complex look at communications styles and power relations, I highly recommend Deborah Cameron’s The Myth of Mars and Venus.
As a serial conversational rambler, I understand how easy it is to fall into “-splaining” behaviours. I know the intent is rarely to be rude, but having been on the receiving end of mansplaining, I can safely say that the intent doesn’t change the impact. Witnessing it also drastically affects group dynamics, and social media behaviour.
Some things that can contribute to “-splaining”:
Dismissing or downplaying someone’s feelings
We sometimes think that others are overreacting but it’s important to remember that feelings rarely come from nothing, and people are often showing us only a fraction of what they actually feel to protect themselves.
Sometimes we share similar stories or experiences in the hope of connecting with someone. This can sometimes come across as one-upping or subject changing, so it’s best to check if this is the appropriate time.
Many people like to debate, but not every conversation needs a devil’s advocate or a contrary point of view. The assumption that someone hasn’t heard a counterpoint before can be very patronising.
Here are some quick tips for “-splainers” who want to change their ways:
• Stop. Say: “I’m sorry, I’m just so fascinated by this topic,” and hand the mic back, so to speak – a simple “Could you tell me more?” will do. Ask more questions to try to keep track of how much talking you’re doing in the conversation.
• When it comes to someone else’s feelings, in your head, replace “drama” with “physics”. This will help you to see that emotions are rarely created out of nothing. They are a reaction to something. If the reaction is larger than warranted from the data you have in front of you, something else is affecting the reaction, something you may not know about.
• Take a quick inventory of power dynamics in a conversational situation and adjust accordingly. Look for all the possible -isms (racism, sexism, classism … ) and recognise that sometimes your presence prevents others from expressing themselves due to these power dynamics. Work to foster a more inclusive environment by making space for others to speak.
In conclusion, no, mansplaining is not a sexist term, but it upholds sexist power dynamics (just as other forms of “-splaining” uphold other power dynamics) and therefore we should all be aware of, and work towards, bettering our conversational behaviours.
• Erynn Brook is a freelance writer