Midweek Musings: The “Mansplaining” Phenomenon

Man-splain [verb]

1. To delight in condescending explanations delivered with the slimy certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in this conversation.

(definition via www.runningahead.com)

The problems that feminism seeks to combat are vast and varied, affecting women of all backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses. Sometimes, these problems are obvious and glaring—the pay gap, for example—but far more often, they are unseen and extremely normalized in our culture. Larger feminist issues, like equal pay or safe and legal abortion, are battles against legislation, and change must be enacted on a national level. More subtle issues, on the other hand, are products of socialization that permeate our worldview. These issues are smaller, sometimes harder to detect and immeasurably more difficult to eradicate. Consistent devaluation of women’s speech and ideas continue to hinder social progress and promote belittling attitudes of female competence.

As children, girls are socialized very differently than boys, and this crucial upbringing lays the foundation for how we participate in our culture as adults. Boys are often raised by a clichéd “boys will be boys” motto that allows for rude, rough or otherwise undesirable behavior, while girls must be “young ladies” who epitomize meekness and politeness. As children become adults and enter society where men who are loud and disruptive are really just “assertive” and “opinionated,” all qualities that reinforce their masculinity and intelligence. Conversely, women who are loud spoken are “hysterical,” “bitchy” or “nagging.” Our society has cultivated a lengthy list of words specifically reserved for women who speak their minds, with the sole intent to shame, silence and degrade. Women are told from childhood on that the ideas and voices of men are more important and more valuable. When we make allowances for male dominance in conversation, we reinforce disgustingly antiquated ideas about female meekness, mildness and a submissive deference to male voices.

Studi es prove that men interrupt women in conversation with the intent to dominate or redirect discussion at an alarming rate. While women are told to value active listening over their own ideas, men are taught the opposite. As studies show, men often don’t even wait their turn to speak. We dismiss this behavior as typically masculine instead of socially acceptable disrespect.

Ironically, whenever I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to discuss this phenomenon with men, I’ve been told I was flat-out wrong. The studies mentioned show this pattern among men of all ages, but I’ve personally experienced this with mostly older men. Because of my age and my gender, middle-aged men automatically assume a sense of superiority over me, an arrogance that is palpable in the air and the diction used in conversation. Men are quick to dismiss these claims—and thereby affirming their existence—yet cannot possibly understand without firsthand experience. I’ve engaged in conversations with men who’ve interrupted me to say “I really don’t care at all,” or to completely change the subject to something more suited to his interests. Women’s opinions and speech are infantilized, likened to a toddler speaking improperly—but hey, it’s cute that you tried. I’ve had men call my words and opinionated dialogue “cute,” “sweet” or laughingly “adorable.” It becomes easy to deny the disregard for women’s voices when your voice has never been belittled.

Fox News recently featured an interesting segment that advised women to talk less and lower their voices in the workplace. As the female author of the accompanying book provided these troubling tips, one of the male hosts continually interrupted her to ask “for women, right?” as if to assure himself and anyone watching that these rules of subdued muteness don’t apply to manly men. Encouraging women to abide by sexist social norms that demand their submissiveness is only serving to operate in an inherently problematic system rather than seeking to correct that system and apply it fairly to all genders. These “tips” may advance your career, although often they do not, as abiding by rules that put women “in their place” may do just that. But at what cost?

Recently, a circulating ad campaign encouraged women to stop saying “sorry” unnecessarily, to stop apologizing for simply existing. “Sorry” is a mindset that women have been taught to apply to their entire lives—to always be guilty and to always be accommodatingly apologetic. This socially engineered politeness (i.e. deference to men) is one of many symptoms of the disease that is femaleness. Just by speaking, we have done something wrong, and any interruption, condescension or outright rudeness must be justly deserved.

These issues may seem minute or easily brushed aside, but the small subtleties of our culture are defining and therefore, inherently important. Positive cultural attitudes about womenunquestioned confidence in our voices, our minds, our abilities, our access and our freedomswill be the true marker of a progression toward gender equality. In a culture that finds it not only acceptable, but endearing for a random man to interrupt me saying, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” in any context is abhorrent and unacceptable. As women work to remove unwarranted uses of “sorry” from our vocabulary, we should also strive towards enough firm confidence and self-respect to add a phrase to our arsenal: “Don’t interrupt me.”


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