Explaining Mansplaining

It might be about more than misogyny


So the thing about mansplaining is…..

It’s a portmanteau of man and explaining. It’s an internet coined term to describe a situation where a man condescendingly explains something to a woman which already knows, presuming that she has an inferior understanding of it because she is a woman.

It’s commonly thought to originate with…

I’m glad you asked about that. It comes from an article written by Rebecca Solnit in 2008. In which she described how her and a friend were buttonholed at a dinner party:

“So? I hear you’ve written a couple of books.”

I replied, “Several, actually.”

He said, in the way you encourage your friend’s 7-year-old to describe flute practice, “And what are they about?”

They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, my book on Eadweard Muybridge, the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.

He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?”

So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingenue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book — with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.


So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, “That’s her book.” Or tried to interrupt him anyway.

But he just continued on his way. She had to say, “That’s her book” three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a 19th century novel, he went ashen. 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. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing.

Well sort of. While the emergence of the term has been linked with the reaction to Solnit’s article, her original piece doesn’t include the term and she was initially sceptical of it…..

But she and other women who feel this is about sexism are problem mistaken. It’s not about hierarchies between genders but differences in how they typically communicate.

A recent post on the Economist’s Prospero blog recounts that:

“Mansplaining”, before it was so named, was identified by Deborah Tannen in her 1990 book “You Just Don’t Understand”. Ms Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University, described a dinner at which the female scholar to her left shared her research agenda, and the two happily discussed their work and their overlap. But when Ms Tannen turned to a male colleague and briefly mentioned her research he, not a linguist, began going on and on about his own work that touched on neurolinguistics. Leaving the conversation she realised that she had just played the embarrassing subordinate role in the scenarios where she was the expert.

But Ms Tannen says “the reason is not—as it seems to many women—that men are bums who seek to deny women authority.” Instead, she says, “the inequality of the treatment results not simply from the men’s behavior alone but from the differences in men’s and women’s styles.” (In everything that follows, “men do X” and “women do Y” should be read as on average, men tend somewhat more towards X and women towards Y, with great variation within both sexes.) In Ms Tannen’s schema, men talk to determine and achieve status. Women talk to determine and achieve connection. To use metaphors, for men life is a ladder and the better spots are up high. For women, life is a network, and the better spots have greater connections.

What evidence shows that male and female styles differ? Among the most compelling is a crucial piece left out of the “simple sexism” explanation: men mansplain to each other. Elizabeth Aries, another researcher, analysed 45 hours of conversation and found that men dominated mixed groups—but she also found competition and dominance in male-only groups. Men begin discussing fact-based topics, sizing each other up. Before long, a hierarchy is established: either those who have the most to contribute, or those who are simply better at dominating the conversation, are taking most of the turns. The men who dominate one group go on to dominate others, while women show more flexibility in their dominance patterns. The upshot is that a shy, retiring man can find himself endlessly on the receiving end of the same kinds of lectures that Ms Tannen, Ms Chemaly and Ms Solnit describe.

When men and women get together, the problem gets more systematic. Women may be competitive too, but some researchers (like Joyce Benenson) argue that women’s strategies favour disguising their tactics. And if Ms Tannen’s differing goals play even a partial role in the outcome, we would expect exactly the outcome we see. A man lays down a marker by mentioning something he knows, an opening bid in establishing his status. A woman acknowledges the man’s point, hoping that she will in turn be expected to share and a connection will be made. The man takes this as if it were offered by someone who thinks like him: a sign of submission to his higher status. And so on goes the mansplaining. This is not every man, every woman, every conversation, but it clearly happens a lot.

That may play a part but it’s transparently not the whole story. And that post you just selectively quoted explicitly says it’s not. If it were when Ms Solnit’s friend pointed out who wrote the book that display of knowledge should have shut Mr Know It All Down. He didn’t suggesting that he had an ingrained assumption that she wouldn’t have anything to add.

Is there anything else I can explain for you?

I give up!


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