The Real Reason Some Men Can't Stop Mansplaining

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Mansplaining — it's one of life's strange experiences that only women can understand. The behavior has sparked tons of infuriating Twitter discussions, many featuring a man explaining to a woman what, exactly, mansplaining is.

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Rebecca Solnit's 2008 essay and 2014 book, both named "Men Explain Things to Me," are credited with catapulting the concept into the public's consciousness. Solnit opened the essay with an anecdote about an older man who kept telling her about a new book she should read. After her friend repeated at least three times to "Mr. Very Important" that Solnit herself had penned the book, finally the information sank in.

"That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn't read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless — for a moment, before he began holding forth again," Solnit wrote. She didn't actually use the word "mansplaining" in her essay, but readers instantly recognized the behavior.

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The Oxford English Dictionary pinpoints the word's first-ever use, in 2008, in a sarcastic comment on a blog: "Oh, gosh, thank you so much for mansplaining this to us!" The OED officially added the word in January 2018 (per Independent), and The New York Times included "mansplainer" as one of the words of the year for 2010.

Mansplaining is widespread

Though the word itself is new, the condescending behavior of a man explaining (usually at length) a concept to a more knowledgeable or experienced woman has existed seemingly forever.

A piece in The Atlantic about the cultural history of mansplaining references an article from more than a century ago, also in The Atlantic, that provides an illuminating example of the behavior. Theologian Lyman Abbott penned the 1903 piece explaining how women didn't actually want suffrage. He wrote, "She is more than content that her sons, her brothers, her husband shall protect the life to which she ministers, and shall determine how it can best be protected, if she is left to minister to it directly, in peace and safety." Abbott claimed to speak for all the "silent women."

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And the patronizing behavior is not unique to North America. An article on Medium crowdsourced 34 translations of the portmanteau from around the world, ranging from Spanish — "hombrexplicar = hombre (man) + explicar (explain)" — to Icelandic: "hrútskýring = hrútur (ram, an uncastrated male sheep) + útskýring (explaining)." An Icelandic brewery embraced the concept in 2017 by releasing a beer named Hrútskýrir (per Iceland Monitor), and a union in Sweden ran a mansplaining hotline for a week in 2016, to bring attention to the pervasive workplace issue, according to The New York Times.

Why this patronizing behavior keeps happening

The root causes of mansplaining lie in the widespread power imbalance between men and women, and in how the genders have been socialized differently throughout the bulk of human history. Women unknowingly follow many social rules that are ultimately unhealthy. Study after study confirms it: Women speak up less than men in mixed groups, women ask fewer questions than men in academic seminars, and women are less likely to interrupt their male colleagues to make their point heard — even at the Supreme Court level.  

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Julie Zeilinger, author of "A Little F'd Up: Why Feminism Is Not a Dirty Word," spoke with MPR News about the phenomenon of mansplaining. "It's about the way we're raised, the way women are raised to make themselves smaller and men have this incredible confidence. It's about interrogating that, rather than blaming men," she said. "It really points to this deeper presumption that women don't know what they're talking about, or what they have to say and what they think isn't legitimate."

Fighting back against mansplaining sometimes feels risky

Professor Kate Manne told The New York Times, "Inherent in patriarchy is men's entitlement to all valuable human goods: things like love, care, adoration, sex, power — and knowledge." She said, "Correcting someone is an inherently hierarchical act. It's saying 'You're wrong; I'm right.' Jumping in when he's mistaken or less expert is inverting the gender hierarchy." Subverting that hierarchy is often seen as rude, and it can even lead to violence, "because it disrupts the status quo and overturns his position as the default authority in the exchange."

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In her book "Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women," Manne described philosopher Kristie Dotson's concept of testimonial smothering, "where a speaker self-silences, due to her anticipating that her word will not receive the proper uptake, and may instead place her in an 'unsafe or risky' situation." Sometimes, a woman may feel that the safest course of action is to stay silent and let the mansplaining continue.

How to deal with mansplaining

It can be challenging for a woman to respond to mansplaining and its equally unwelcome siblings, manologues and manterrupting. Forbes offers suggestions for women who experience such patronizing behavior, including immediately calling out the perpetrator, using humor, and demanding respect. Bustle offers tips such as citing statistics, asking incisive questions, and countering baseless generalizations by mentioning specific lived experiences. Much of the advice is also useful for dealing with mean people.

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Kate Manne listed for The New York Times the questions that a man should ask himself if he doesn't want to be perceived as a mansplainer: "Is she interested? Did she express some desire to have this information imparted to her? Do I know this? Is she more expert than I am? Might she be asking a merely rhetorical question?"

As a similar public service for any man who doesn't want to become a toxic person or indulge in behaviors that turn people off, the BBC shared a viral hit titled "Mansplaining, explained in one simple chart." The flowchart starts with "Did she ask you to explain it?" and, after a few more questions, points to results ranging from "Probably mansplaining" to "Definitely mansplaining" to "Just stop talking now."

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