The Psychology of Mansplaining

A buzzword that's well-grounded in research (and super annoying).

Posted Mar 31, 2016

In a recent episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live, Kimmel “mansplains” the art of political speech to Hillary Clinton. He begins by mansplaining the concept of mansplaining:  

JK: Are you familiar with mansplaining? You know what that is?

HC: That’s when a man explains something to a woman in a patronizing way.

JK: Actually, it’s when a man explains something to a woman in a condescending way. But you were close.

Kimmel goes on to interrupt Clinton frequently, offering contradictory and sexist advice. Of course, he and Clinton were intentionally parodying the phenomena of mansplaining, but it reminded me of a conversation I’d actually had the day before:

Man: How do you calculate the area of a rectangle?

Me: Length times width.

Man: No, base times height.

In retrospect, my answer should have been that of course I know that—I’ve taken several advanced calculus courses and I teach statistics—and who is he to quiz my basic geometry knowledge anyway?

Taken together, the Kimmel-Clinton skit and my own experience piqued my interest in mansplaining more generally. The term has only been around since 2008 (Rothman, 2012) but it has attracted a great deal of popular attention, making the long list as a contender for Oxford’s word of the year (Steinmetz, 2014) and the short list in the American Dialect Society’s “Most Creative” category (Zimmer, 2013). According to the Oxford English Dictionary editors, mansplaining is “to explain something to someone, typically a man to woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing” (Steinmetz, 2014). The American Dialect Society defines it as “when a man condescendingly explains something to female listeners” (Zimmer, 2013). Lily Rothman, in her “Cultural History of Mansplaining,” elaborates it as "explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows more than the explainer, often done by a man to a woman.”

Rommel Canlas/Shutterstock
Source: Rommel Canlas/Shutterstock

Mansplaining as a portmanteau may be new, but the behavior has been around for centuries (Rothman, 2012). The scholarly literature has long documented gendered power differences in verbal interaction: Men are more likely to interrupt, particularly in an intrusive manner (Anderson and Leaper, 1998). Compared to men, women are more likely to be interrupted, both by men and by other women (Hancock and Rubin, 2015). Perhaps in part because they are accustomed to it, women also respond more amenably to interruption than men do, being more likely to smile, nod, agree, laugh, or otherwise facilitate the conversation (Farley, 2010).

Interruptions matter: They are linked to social power—in dyadic interactions, the more powerful partner is more likely to interrupt (Kollock et al., 1985). Unfortunately, researchers have tended to focus on easily quantifiable aspects of speech, rather than the content of speech. More research is needed to ascertain the extent to which the condescension mansplaining posits is indeed common and gendered (directed disproportionately by men toward women).

Mansplaining is problematic because the behavior itself reinforces gender inequality. When a man explains something to a woman in a patronizing or condescending way, he reinforces gender stereotypes about women’s presumed lesser knowledge and intellectual ability. This is especially true when the woman is in fact more knowledgeable on the subject. This aspect of mansplaining was central to the Kimmel-Clinton parody—clearly, Clinton has the greater expertise giving political speeches. It is also evident in Rebecca Solnit’s tale of a man trying to explain her own book to her, despite not having read it himself. It was her essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” and the subsequent book that many credit for sparking the dialogue that ultimately generated the term mansplaining. (To my knowledge, Solnit herself did not use the word.) Having had numerous men explain gender to me—both in a general sense and as relates to my own research—I can sympathize with Solnit.

But mansplaining is also problematic in the gender-stereotypic assumptions it makes about men (see Cookman, 2015). Misandry doesn’t promote equality, nor does it undermine misogyny. Yes, mansplaining is sexist and boorish, but the term isn’t fair to the many men who support gender equality (and don’t mansplain). Moreover, men don’t have a monopoly on arrogance or condescension—women are quite capable of both.

Mansplaining has caught the popular imagination because it provides a label for a common and offensive social reality: Women are often assumed to be ignorant and unintelligent, at least compared to men. Having a label for something is useful in that it makes it more visible, potentially working to erode both the behavior and the sexist assumptions that drive it. But it risks becoming a means of trivializing mansplaining as not worthy of real outrage and of degrading men generally (Cookman, 2015).

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