Recently, a new term has come into general usage: mansplaining.
It describes that tendency of men to explain issues to women, as if they don’t understand, or to help them understand correctly.
It’s not about the actual knowledge, training or skill of the man in the subject matter. It also has nothing to do with the knowledge, training or skill of the woman. The inclination assumes the woman doesn’t know or understand, so the man must explain it to her.
She may have a PhD in engineering, and he could be a high school football coach, but he’ll “explain” why the car isn’t running.
A female executive expresses frustration at not being paid the same salary as her male counterparts, and a male co-worker “explains” the realities of the workforce.
A woman is alarmed at the obscene catcalls she receives walking down the street, and her male friends “explains” to her that she’s over-reacting, and "the guys" are just having some fun.
Michelle Obama talks about living the White House, built by slave labor, and Bill O’Reilly “explains” that the slaves were given plenty of food and lodging by the government for the work.
Mansplaining is a reality.
It’s generally patronizing, condescending and (consciously or unconsciously) comes from a place of chauvinism and sexism. (The most preposterous example I’ve seen in recent years is Republican men blatantly “explaining” reproductive rights to women.)
From my experience in conversations and discussions, ‘Splaining extends beyond the male-female dynamic; I see other examples as well. There are those times…regardless of the topic…when someone feels the need to “explain” to the other(s) in the discussion.
I’ve taken the liberty of categorizing a few examples I’ve observed—some of the ones I’ve encountered most often, and (to be helpful), I’ve coined my own words:
WhiteSplaining: A black person talks about the fear of being stopped by a police officer, and a white person “explains” the need to be respectful to the cop.
StraightSplaining: An LGBTQ person addresses oppression or equality, and someone who is not LGBTQ “explains” that everyone has the same rights. Or "explaining" that homophobia isn't real. Occasionally, a straight person will attempt to sound enlightened with something like “what you do in the privacy of your home is no one’s business.”
A trans person talks about gender pronouns and gender identity, and a Cis person informs them there are only two genders, and we are either born male or female. (You know, like the Bible teaches!)
A lesbian couple talks about being afraid to walk down the street, holding hands, and a straight person “explains” that’s flaunting their sexuality, or shoving it down their throat.
(e.g., When we were searching for a church, I stated that we needed to feel comfortable as a gay couple. One woman chastised me: “Going to church is not about sexuality.”)
RepubliSplaining: When I offer my thoughts on a national issue (guns, poverty, hunger, equality), a Republican passionately “explains” to me why such matters are not that bad, or they are too complex, or they cannot be changed, or that I’m unpatriotic.
FundaSplaining: A person shares what they believe about God (or church, or the Bible), and a Fundamentalist immediately “explains” how that can’t possibly be true because of how they understand the Bible, or what their church teaches, or how they’ve experienced God. (It will usually involve some version of the question: “Haven’t you read the Bible?” or the blunt statement “The Bible is perfectly clear…”)
MediSplaining/NutrioSplaining: I talk about my health (e.g., for me, it's my cancer, but I've seen it with those who have diabetes, Fibromyalgia, depression, HIV) and someone wants to tell me what I should/should not be eating, that I need more exercise, or sunshine. I'm told to think positive thoughts, pray this prayer, try this miracle "cure." Sometime, they will dismiss my sickness as "not that bad," or assure me it could be worse.
For the record, there’s nothing inherently wrong with explaining what I think, what I believe, what I know as part of an exchange of information and ideas. In a conversation, I can offer my perspective or share my experiences. If someone is requesting information, or if I want to make a salient point about the topic being discussed, I might explain how I see it, how I understand it, how I learned it. I can explain how I interpret a passage in the Bible, or why I hold a specific political positions.
To me, that’s not the problem.
Like "mansplaining," these tirades are not about disagreeing with another person’s opinions, beliefs, preferences or tastes. They are not about merely stating one's own opinion, offering a personal perspective, or providing facts to back up a personal belief.
'Splaining proceeds from a different attitude and involves a distinct motivation.
When we listen carefully, the clue...the distinction...is in the way they speak:
“What you need to understand is…”
“It works like this…”
“What that means is...”
“Let me tell you why that’s not correct…”
“Here are the facts…”
“You can’t possibly believe…”
‘Splaining is not about conversation, but condescension.
It's directive, not discussion.
It forgoes listening and opts for lecturing.
It jumps in with instructions rather than support.
‘Splaining grows out of an arrogance that compels me to correct others; to show my knowledge of a subject rather than trying to understand the other person’s experience, emotions or education.
It’s particularly obnoxious when the ‘Splainer is completely disconnected from the reality of the person they’re correcting. (e.g., I regularly have people tell me “You should read your Bible.” The reality is: I’ve spent 40+ years studying and teaching Scripture, including advanced theological training and a combined 7 years of biblical languages. I might not be an expert, and I might not agree with their interpretation, but YES, I have read the Bible!)
It's not that 'Splainers are wearing blinders, unable to see the plight of others. Those blinders function as virtual reality glasses, creating their own world, which they must protect and impose.
Too often, ‘splaining spews from the limited perspective of privilege, even prejudice:
- They’ve never had a chronic illness, so they downplay symptoms because they can’t relate to the debilitation effects.
- They have never been poor, so they contend people on Welfare are freeloaders, looking for a handout.
- They’ve never struggled with weight, so they tell fat people to have more self-control.
- They aren't a person of color, so they don't believe discrimination exists.
- They’ve always been told their God/their faith is the only one, so they can’t imagine (or accept) any other belief.
In the midst of a conversation, discussion or dialogue, when we give into that compulsive need to “explain” to another person, we’re sending other clear messages:
Your beliefs are less valued than mine.
I’m superior, and I’m going to enlighten you.
I don’t need to understand you.
You have nothing to teach me.
I’ll talk, you listen.
What you experienced is not as important as what I’ve experienced.
I think it’s important to recognize that occasionally, we all might be guilty of ’splaining.
For me, it’s especially tempting when the other person is so obviously wrong. (“The Bible says ‘God helps those who help themselves.’” “Homosexuals have thousands of sexual partners.” “Donald Trump is doing a great job.”)
There are ways to resist falling into the role of ‘Splainer:
Ask questions instead of issuing directives.
Use “I” rather than “You” statements.
Allow for differences.
When ‘Splainers insert themselves in our conversations, it might be futile to argue about “facts” being presented, or beliefs being put forward, or experiences being presented. They tend to be intransigent, hence the need to ‘splain.
Instead, I politely assert that my beliefs, my experiences, my opinions are different, but affirm that they have valuable. I also insist they not be dismissed.
If the other person refuses to recognize and acknowledge what I’m saying (Which happens way too often!), I typically say something like, “I’ve heard what you’ve said, and I’ve shared why I disagree. I wish you all the best.” Or I say simply “Have a nice day.”
I then terminate my interaction with them.
If/when they persist, I firmly reinforce my earlier statements, and my decision not to argue. I will ask them to “move on.”
On a few occasions in online conversations, I’ve had to delete their comments, or ban them from my page.
And yes, I know I’m “explaining” why we shouldn’t ‘splain, and “explaining” how to deal with ‘Spaliners.
The irony of this post is not lost on me, but I can offer no ‘splanation, beyond the hope that it helps.