Um, actually: Mansplaining is not about you

Lately there has been a lot of mansplaining in my life.

My British colleague, a ridiculously talented design consultant with more awards from design than I have scars from skating, showed me a tweet in which a follower corrected her on what design is all about, starting with a ”Rather” to contradict what she said, and ending it with an “i.e.” (because, obviously, he needs to repeat it in simpler language so she can get her pretty little head around it).

At a party, my friend was showing a random dude her business card for her graphic design business, saying she worked really hard on it and was so proud.

The guy responded, “You should have outsourced it out so that you didn’t have to spend so much time on it.”

I chimed in, “Yeah, I often recommend outsourcing stuff you aren’t very interested in -- in my job as an ORGANIZATIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST – but only for things that aren’t strategic strengths, and obviously as a graphic designer, creating her own signature design to represent her work would be a strategic strength.”

“Nope,” he said. “Shoulda farmed it out.”


Plus, when it comes to saving my own sanity, I handled it all wrong.

And now, I will psychologist-splain mansplaining.  

We often think that mansplaining is something that men do specifically when they are talking to women, and sometimes that’s true, in that men are better at recognizing other men’s superior status when it comes to expertise on a given topic.

But if you’ve spent any time around groups of guys, you may notice that guys are mansplaining to each other all the time! In some groups of dudes, it’s their main form of discourse.

Sometimes they are trying to one up each other. But most of the time, sadly, they are just bellowing into the great void alongside other dudes doing the exact same thing, and calling it conversation.  

  • But dude, if you know anything about post-modernism you know that’s not what Foucault says.

  • I’m telling you, Piggers gonna go all the way this year.

  • Beyonce’s got one of the best videos of all time. OF ALL TIME.

This form of discourse is all like: Who cares whatever you just said, I don’t remember. I’m going to tell you stuff I know so you understand that I KNOW THINGS. And also, MY VOICE NOW. We are talking! I say stuff, and then you say stuff. It’s a conversation!

Why do they keep eating these stale discourse-burgers? Don’t they know there’s a whole bunch of other yummy possibilities on the menu?

Sir, may I suggest our most popular item, the house special, “Expressing curiosity about the thoughts of the person next to you?” Nope.

How about a simple, delicious side of “Yes and…”? Never heard of it.

Perhaps, for dessert, could I interest you in “Joining your conversation partner in interrogating reality to co-create shared knowledge?” HAHAHAHAHAHA.

Poor little stunted communicators.

Not all men mansplain, or do it to the exclusion of other strategies. Not all women have an exquisite palate for communication.

But generally, women are socialized to be a lot more sensitive to modes of discourse, as it’s a strategy traditionally adopted by those with lesser power. From all that time having to be hyper-aware of what’s happening in the room so that we don’t get run over by it, we have become like puppies with a nose for 1400 different fascinating and informative smells. And all they can smell is – OMG is that bacon? I love bacon! Bacon bacon bacon!

What to do about this?

First, a few things for your own sanity:

Don’t expect him to pick up on your hints. With the guy at the party, I was hoping he’d figure out that maybe he was out of his league trying to talk strategy with a person of my background, or at least take this revelation as a cue to up his game. He didn’t pick up on this AT ALL, and all it did was piss me off further.

Determine: Do you really need him to agree with you? Hey Twitter guy! Who’s an OBE? Oh – not you, huh? So sorry. If it’s already clear they’ve got the lower status in this situation, leaning out is the high (and smart) road.

Don’t expect your credentials to do the talking. It’s really tempting to be like, “As an ART MAJOR...” But – honestly? And this is the hard truth here -- no one cares, because this is not about you and your credentials. This is about them and what they have to say.

They want to engage. Everyone wants to engage. Everyone wants to contribute their thoughts. Everyone wants to feel heard and like their point matters. Everyone wants to join in to create a shared reality, whether they know it or not.

They are not trying to put you down. They are trying to build themselves up. Those are two different things. We often feel those things as incompatible because that’s not how female persons do it, on the whole. We have learned that that connecting and lifting each other up also lifts ourselves, and it’s a clear evolutionary winner. And for men, it’s different – distinguishing themselves in a dominance game feels really good.

Sure, their intent does not excuse the effects of their behavior. But let’s also take back the power in the situation and act to save our sanity.

So, what to do if you decide you want to (or have to) engage with the mansplainer?

Should you just get in there and one-up them some more, since they seem to like it so much?

No! That may be fine with them but it will just annoy you to have to eat dumb convo-burgers because they won’t to switch to sashimi.

Instead, use your finely honed skills and sensitivities to shift the conversation onto terms that aren’t about shared truth or one-up / one-down.

Socratically question them. On what basis do you say that’s not what Foucault meant? This is the best option if you feel you need to regain your status. Chances are good that they will change the subject – but if they don’t, you’ve got yourself a real conversation!

Shift convo away from the part that requires accuracy. Piggers, you say! When was your first game? I remember when…

Use humor to call out what’s really happening. OMG, dude, way to totally take over the conversation and distract from Taylor getting an award! Seriously, no one is even going to remember what her award is for, you keep talking like that. It is important to say this with (wince) a smile. I know, I know, but seriously, developing a sense of humor that feels legit to you is the number one way to break tension. It can transform so many awkward conversations, and it will let you speak the truth and get away with it! Just don’t take it too far and feel like you need to joke and smile all the time for the comfort of other people. That ain’t right.

 The point of adding these perspectives is not to explain it away. Mansplaining is real.

But if your only way to think about it is as an entrenched cultural phenomenon that’s out of your control, you will rightly be angry and defensive. Gaining an understanding that embraces the full level of paradox that is our weird world, you have a better chance of getting you more of what you want, which is probably to be liked, respected, and have a good time talking about the things you love.

 TL;DR: A lot of the time, people are self-centered and dumb. To save your own sanity, try not to make it all about you, and either dig deeper or shift the focus of the convo.

Kim Perkins