Mansplaining is when a man explains something to a woman in a condescending and sexist manner. Usually the explanation is not needed, and it’s frequently inaccurate. Often, the woman knows more about the subject than the man.
Mansplaining is sexist and infuriating, and it’s a barrier to women’s success in the workforce. And at least when women are in charge, men who mansplain aren’t doing their careers any favors. And they’re still being sexist and infuriating.
A good general rule for men who don’t want to mansplain is to not explain unless a woman asks you for an explanation. But in truth, the issue is more nuanced than that.
Fortunately, I have plenty of experience with mansplaining, so I can tell you about some of those nuances. Here are four signs a guy is mansplaining himself into a hole.
- He Sounds Like a 19th-Century Novel
One bizarre thing about mansplaining is that men who do it and normally talk like modern humans frequently switch to language that sounds like a 19th-century novel when they mansplain.
Note here that I said that this is a sign in men who normally talk in a modern style. This indicator doesn’t necessarily mean anything when a man is on the autism spectrum, has limited English language skills, and so forth. In such cases, a guy might use old-style language because that’s just how he talks.
The key difference is that the mansplainer switches his language style in an attempt to sound more authoritative over the woman he’s mansplaining to. For example, check out this email excerpt, which is from a male writer who had just been warned for plagiarism by a female editor:
“I find the characterization of being labeled as a plagiarist as one that attempts to place me in company with scoundrels and villains, and I do not believe, honestly, that I have earned that level of derision.”
The writer didn’t address the claim or the copious evidence the editor provided and instead accused the editor of being a character assassin. His pompous language is a wanna-be effort at authority, which he somehow expects the editor to respond favorably to.
This kind of condescension is bad for women because we have to deal with it. And it’s bad for mansplainers because this sort of response makes them seem unprofessional, disrespectful, and unstable, which this guy did turn out to be.
While being unprofessional and disrespectful is sufficient reason for an editor not to offer a writer future opportunities, the volatility displayed in such communication is just scary. This excerpt was just the beginning of a string of alarming messages.
Because mansplaining is frequently a sign of deeper issues, women often avoid men who do it. And if you want a job as a writer, you don’t want editors to avoid you.
- His Mindset Is Rooted in Sexism and Selfishness
When women bring up mansplaining, we frequently get a response from a man who decides to mansplain mansplaining. “Women can be condescending too!” he says. And yes, dear child, we can. Case in point, that last sentence.
But mansplaining is more than condescension, and a man can be condescending toward a woman without mansplaining. Mansplained explanations aren’t just disdainful or patronizing. A mansplainer doesn’t just explain something unnecessarily. He talks down to women in a way that betrays sexist assumptions.
A good example is Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice. In most adaptations, his condescension is fueled by sexism and an inflated sense of self-importance. While his interactions with Mr. Bennet and Mr. Darcy are obnoxious and show a lack of social awareness, Mr. Collins’s treatment of Elizabeth and women in general is something else.
Mr. Collins is the sort of man who says that woman is God’s gift to man and then acts like he is God’s gift to women. [i]
And, just, ew on both counts.
My favorite Collins satire of mansplaining is in Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy. While the movie isn’t my favorite Austen adaptation, it’s a delightful satire of U.S. Mormon culture (of which I’m a part — not just bashing a random religious culture here). And Collins, who tries to help Elizabeth understand “glorious womanhood” and berates her from the pulpit for rejecting him, is the crown jewel in that skewering.
Collins is also helpful in showing us when we can cut mansplainers some slack.
Ricky Collins of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries certainly mansplains, and he suffers from benevolent sexism. However, I also don’t think that calling Ricky Collins a mansplainer is helpful. Ricky Collins’s obliviousness apparently stems from some sort of condition that makes it hard for him to understand social dynamics. Sexism isn’t essential to LBD Collins’s worldview. It just got included in his rules for relating to people because patriarchy is a thing, which he hasn’t picked up on. LBD Collins comes off as oblivious more than power-trippy.
But while LBD Collins doesn’t want to hurt people, LDC Collins doesn’t care. In fact, after Elizabeth rejects him, he has a public tantrum. Whether LDC Collins is on the spectrum isn’t particularly relevant. Entitlement is a problem; autism isn’t. His mansplaining isn’t adorkable or merely annoying: it’s a harbinger of the misogyny that explodes out of him later.
- He Thinks He Makes Women’s Careers
If you supervise women, then you can’t necessarily wait for them to ask for explanations. It’s literally your job to correct them when they’re wrong. If you’re a man who has to correct a female direct-report, then be right, don’t explain things unnecessarily, and don’t have a sexist attitude. Ask questions to see what she understands before you explain something.
One particular attitude to watch out for includes that of the career-maker, or a man who considers himself the key to a woman’s professional success and who may even take credit for it.
Enter Mitchum Huntzberger.
If Mr. Collins demonstrates a stereotypically conservative view of sexism, then the Mitchum Huntzberger type showcases this more stereotypically liberal sexism. The Mitchum Huntzberger type allegedly believes that more women should succeed in the workforce, and he sees himself as the good guy who makes feminism a reality. You know, because he’s so kind to hire women and treat the most talented of them as people now and again. And if he doesn’t think they’ve “got it,” they can always be his assistants. Because he’s a great mentor, but he doesn’t have time to help women fulfill their potential.
Don’t get me wrong: mentorship is good, and male managers may need to go to specific effort to make sure they’re recruiting, promoting, and retaining women as well as men. But treating women equally is not a feather in a Good Boss cap.
If a man does a particularly good job of creating a workplace and industry friendly to women, then believe us: we will tell the world for you. If “mentoring women in the workforce” is an item on a man’s résumé and not just part of his professional reputation, I will raise my eyebrows.
- He Overlooks Large Portions of the Message
Mansplaining is also different from discussing or arguing. The key difference is that in a discussion or an argument, both parties discuss the same points and issues. Talking to a mansplainer, on the other hand, is about as productive as talking to a brick wall.
For example, let’s say that an editor tells a writer that she sees quality issues in his work, as demonstrated by x problem in manuscripts a, b, and c. The writer-man can disagree and ask for clarification, and maybe he’ll offer his reasoning for style choices d, e, and f. Even if the writer’s perspective is limited or inappropriate for the editor’s publication, this communication isn’t necessarily mansplaining.
However, in this situation, a mansplainer would more likely say, “But my writing is always high-quality, and I’m the provider for my family,” and the like, over and over. His responses indicate that his opinion of his own greatness and purpose should be the determining factor in his standing with the publisher. He likely doesn’t even address the editor’s detailed professional analysis.
The editor knows the writer got the email because he’s responding to the general topic, but his responses read like he just read the subject line.
Such a man probably doesn’t have a great professional relationship with women he works with.
What other symptoms of mansplaining have you noticed?
[i] Sure, Catherine de Bourgh escapes his lectures because she’s rich and condescending in her own right, but I’d say that’s an instance of classism and sycophancy, not an absence of sexism.