Updated: Jul 21
Mansplaining is the verbal equivalent of manspreading: both assume the importance and priority of the masculine; both assert power and control as the norm or default in our society. But in 2023, neither the space-dominator nor the speech-dominator are acceptable.
An effective response to manspreading employs an intense stare at the prominently displayed anatomical bits, and a smirk or snicker. Spoken responses can freeze out the parallel habit of mansplaining that irks so many nonmales on the planet. Displays of power no longer earn a better mate or more effective way to ensure genetic immortality; it’s a behavior trait which, in fact, has negative effects, shrinking the … ability to be attractive or important.
Throughout most of the history of the Western world, male dominance was the norm as both church and state treated women as inferior, unreliable, devious creatures useful for trading for something of value like a larger plantation, and necessary for childbearing and housework, even as recently as the 1950s, when men took back their jobs from Rosie the Riveters.
'Wait until your father gets home!' was a frequent threat in most households, teaching male dominance to the next generation. Female teachers sent kids to the male principal, whose role as enforcer diminished the teacher’s authority. Homes were owned by men, bank accounts were in the husband’s name; married women dropped all identity – even their first names – and became 'Mrs. John Smith' – not 'Mrs. Susan Smith.'
The male voice was the normal voice. The default opinion had an Adam’s apple and claimed the right to explain … everything. Still does in classroom and boardroom and many family discussions.
Frequently, men at work and socially raise their voices over those of women. Or interrupt. Or repeat what the woman just said and claim credit for it. Men assume women will bring the coffee to meetings and clean up the bagel crumbs after. Or, having received a corrective 'I am speaking!', the male will over-act a tolerant pose and wait for the little lady to finish, then once again grab attention.
Condescension is not a harmless quirk of behavior nor an innocuous innocent mistake. Behavior that diminishes others is never harmless.
The harm begins
early; if a person is perceived as and treated as less important, that individual’s resultant self-image becomes one of lesser expectations and can last a lifetime.
'Mansplaining illuminates a much deeper problem than the bore of patronizing monologues,' according to a New York Times article quoting author Rebecca Solnit. It 'crushes young women into silence' by telling them 'that this is not their world.' She adds, 'It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.'
Author Kim Goodwin put it this way in a BBC article: 'Mansplaining may seem like a trivial issue in isolation, but how we communicate tells other people how much or little they are valued. And in my experience, humans feel better, work more effectively, and behave better when we feel valued ourselves.'
The cultural dynamic is changing: Women work in every field; working women expect more support at home; girls are considered equal in classrooms and sports. Women are decision-makers and power players in politics and in business.
Change is always uncomfortable. Sociologists call this cultural lag. Psychologists consider mansplaining to be a symptom of male insecurity. And perhaps it is a little scary to identify as male in 2023. Maybe it’s hard to know whether to hold a door open or to give up seat-space on public transportation; maybe it’s hard to work for a boss of a different gender, as women have done for many years. (Just a little woman-splaining here!) Common sense can come to the rescue. Hold the door if it would help, offer the seat if it’s a kindness, listen to your boss. Regardless. Simple courtesy tells us to wait our turn, speak only when the other person is finished, explain only when asked.
Women are exceptionally talented in employing the verbal equivalent of a withering stare.
Sharon Kourous is a retired teacher and member of Stronger Together Huddle, a group engaged in supporting and promoting the common good. She resides in Monroe and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.