You’re a woman speaking to a male colleague about a common concern, when all of a sudden the conversation turns into a lecture by him to you. Pushing himself back in his seat, he proceeds to give you instructions about how to do something you know perfectly well how to do. Or perhaps you’re involved in a political discussion in which the subject of healthcare comes up. Having read the facts and figures, you feel that you have an excellent grasp of the subject. However, before you know it, your male conversation partner starts to provide definitions of Medicaid in very basic terms. He doesn’t even try to assess your level of expertise before launching into his monologue.
If you’re the man in this situation, perhaps you’re thinking your female partner is in need of instruction. You’re used to women not having particular expertise in policy or “numbers,” and the whole topic of healthcare is one that only policy geeks can truly understand. Perhaps, though, the topic is something less “wonky,” but instead one into which you feel you have unique insights to offer. In a recent Cosmopolitan story, Gina Mei related 17 examples of this sort of treatment in which men regard women as in need of education. One respondent relayed this situation: "I once had a friend mansplain to my roommate how to correctly pronounce her own name, because he thought she was doing it wrong.” In another case, a woman who worked at a racetrack for 14 years noted that, as she took their bets, her male customers would often “try to explain how gambling works.”
Although this type of behavior is not new, the term to refer to it has emerged only in recent years. Urban Dictionary defines “mansplaining” as this patronizing behavior of men toward women, or in their terms: “When a man speaks condescendingly to a woman on a matter he believes her to be ignorant of, when in fact his own knowledge of the subject is materially incomplete. The possibility that she may know more about the subject than he does is one that the mansplainer cannot fathom.”
Research in psychology and communications has yet to catch up with the topic of mansplaining, but a paper by Northeastern University’s Joseph Reagle (2016) offers some perspectives from so-called geek culture. Within this culture, there is an obligation to know what you can learn online or through manuals, rather than having to ask. Don’t ask someone to explain something that’s in the FAQ’s or in the manual, for example, because you can find that out yourself.
Geek Feminism, as Reagle discusses, developed because geeks are stereotypically seen as white men. If women try to enforce the obligation to know, they’ll be “accused of PMS” (p. 699). In online communities, relatedly, women are more likely to experience “aggression and harassment from trolls and haters” (p. 699). When they engage in “e-bile” directed against women, such individuals use “flame bait” to provoke angry responses from women, thus derailing the online conversation from the actual subject at hand. All of this can lead to “an environment which can be more embattled than ordinary geek contexts” (p. 700).
Reagle’s investigation of geek culture also identified as another concern the Unicorn Law, that “technical women, like unicorns, are rare and invisible until they choose to show themselves” (p. 702). Women who respond to the online taunts they receive from the trolls and haters will “show themselves” not in response to any sort of technical issue, but on the grounds of having to be the “online etiquette schoolmarm” (p. 699).
A related problem for women in this culture is the feeling that they are impostors in this alpha geek world (p. 702). Male geeks have no problem bragging about their technical abilities, but women are more likely to feel that their accomplishments aren’t worth noting. Mansplaining occurs, the authors suggest, because men become overly confident of their abilities and feel that the women are less knowledgeable and therefore need to be educated. Making matters worse, if women manage to overcome the affront constituted by this behavior to challenge the mansplainer, they place themselves in an awkward spot (being “accused of PMS” in the Reagle article).
It seems, then, that mansplaining occurs when men assume that they’re naturally superior to women based on an area of expertise being highly gendered, such as the computer programming community. Men can mansplain to each other, but without the element of gender, the phenomenon simply becomes one of condescension. Presumably, men who are the target of this variant of mansplaining will have no trouble confronting the men who are trying to outdo them.
Is there any recourse for you if a mansplainer is a part of your life? The answer is — most importantly — realize that it’s happening to you. The most annoying thing about mansplaining is the implicit assumption that you don’t know what you’re talking about, when in fact you know you do. This leads you to wonder whether you are deficient in your knowledge. Rather than question yourself and your abilities, you can instead label the behavior as someone else’s problem — not yours. Backing off will only reinforce the impression that you are in need of being "educated."
Mansplaining is easy to fix, as long as you know how to look out for it, whether you’re the target or the perpetrator. Fulfilling interactions depend on each person in the relationship showing respect for the beliefs, attitudes, and — in this case — knowledge possessed by the other individual.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Reagle, J. (2016). The obligation to know: From FAQ to Feminism 101. New Media & Society, 18(5), 691-707. doi:10.1177/1461444814545840