“I wouldn’t say it’s spontaneous,” a random Twitter egg told astronaut Jessica Meir.
Meir, a comparative physiologist, had just tweeted a video of her in an artificial space zone so superheated that water “spontaneously boils.” This description rankled the ire of some guy who felt the need to correct her, saying that “the pressure in the room got below the vapor pressure of water at room temp. Simple thermo.”
It is simple thermo — so simple that Meir hadn’t really needed to get into the details in her tweet — but facts like that never seem to stop some people. People who’ve lately become known as mansplainers.
This brief exchange became the shot heard around the world earlier this week when one NASA-trained astronaut’s remarks were given a renegade edit by some internet rando. It’s as clear a picture of mansplaining as you could hope to find, but it’s also one that sent many men into fits of paranoia. What is mansplaining? We’re just trying to help. Are men just not allowed to talk to girls? Judging from a few tweets online, some men think mansplaining is a fake term invented by those wily feminists to keep men from exercising their freedom of speech.
Never fear. Mansplaining, while common, is actually very easy to not do. More importantly, it’s good to not do, because it’s sexist, and doing sexist things is terrible. That doesn’t mean you’re terrible. You might be a very nice guy who gives to charity and recycles. But even a lot of very nice guys pick up a few socialized sexist habits that we need to unlearn. Mansplaining is one of these habits, and it can be a tough habit to kick because it’s so engrained in our culture. But with this article and some self-reflection, it can be done. So let me mansp-… let me explain.
OK, so what is Mansplaining?
Let’s start with what mansplaining isn’t. Mansplaining is not just a term for a man offering helpful advice to a woman. Some particularly idiotic men will tell you that’s what it is because that gives them a great excuse to get mad, and men who mansplain love to get mad. “I tell you,” these men will say, “it seems like every time a nice guy like me tries to give a girl some helpful advice, the dishonest and corrupt media slaps him with the mansplaining card. When I am president, believe me, mansplaining will be protected by law, and we will Make America Great Again. Only I can solve!”
But offering helpful advice isn’t mansplaining at all. Offering helpful advice is a mark of a nice, helpful person. However, not all advice is created equal, and a lot of advice is definitely unhelpful. As a rule of thumb, advice that someone isn’t asking for is actually just criticism.
Think of it this way. Imagine you’re at the beach, taking a picture of your girlfriend as the sun sets. You snap a few photos and start to post one to Instagram when from a beach towel next to you, some strange man with dark, mussed-up, photographer hair says, “you know, Aire is actually a better filter for low light like this. And taking that photo from a slightly higher angle will have a slimming effect on your girlfriend’s body.”
Now, what this dude (who’s definitely one of those kind of photographers. Ugh, those types.) is saying is probably true. At the very least, it’s not wrong. But it’s definitely not helpful. You’re not looking to submit this photo to National Geographic. This isn’t for the cover of Vogue. Who are you anyway? Go take your own pictures of your own girlfriend, and put any weird filter you want on it.
That exchange would probably be a little upsetting to you. You might tell the guy where he can stick his Aire filter or you might just politely say “thanks” and then roll your eyes, but one thing you almost certainly wouldn’t do is appreciate his advice. You didn’t want it. It was none of his business. Whether or not he meant it come across as rude, it did come across as rude, because it sounded like he was calling your picture trash and your girlfriend fat.
What most guys don’t realize is that women get talked to this way literally so much. All the time.
Why make it about men?
Sure, both men and women get unhelpful, patronizing advice, and it sucks either way. The reason this has taken on a gendered sheen is that most men tend to underestimate the intelligence of women and overestimate the intelligence of other men.
This is a fact. A recent study of undergraduates found that male students tended to think of other men as being the smartest in the class, even more knowledgeable than higher performing female students. They were 19 times more likely to see other men as being more intelligent than women were.
So in a sense, most guys sort of see themselves and other men as low-key experts on everything. That’s why men feel comfortable trying to correct an astronaut’s definition of “spontaneously” or an Olympian’s idea of biking. They may see these gestures as helpful or polite, but the understanding underneath is this: I know better than you.
That’s why “womansplaining” isn’t a thing. Statistically, very few women see themselves as inherently smarter than the men they’re around. If a woman gives her input on something, she’s more likely than men are to be giving it from a place of actual expertise (whether or not men will listen to her is another question) instead of just imagined expertise.
This gets at something else too: Why the term “mansplaining” isn’t sexist. That argument — presented everyday, and most recently by John Lennon’s progeny — is a bastardized version of the old “you’re the real racist for calling me racist” line that people of color have been dealing with for decades now, and it’s as stupid in this conversation as it is in that one. Having a name for a sexist phenomenon isn’t sexist. Mansplaining is a gendered phenomenon, and pretending it isn’t would be to have a false conversation. We need to use real, useful terms to discuss these things and as portmanteaus go, “mansplaining” is a good one.
Oops. I mansplained. Now what?
When you’re accused of mansplaining, the easiest defense in the world is “How dare you call me sexist. You’re the sexist! Many people are saying Crooked Hillary has had the black lung for decades.”
This defense in and of itself is mansplaining, but let’s ignore that for now. A woman who’s spent most of her life being talked down to by men has recognized that it’s happening again, and she’s sick of it. Your intentions may have seemed innocuous to you, but that’s not the point. Remember, our cultures have taught us a lot of really sexist behavior without our even realizing it. Sexism is something you do more than it’s something you are, so acknowledge that something you did inadvertently or otherwise came across as rude and demeaning, apologize and learn a little. What you intended to do doesn’t really matter. How it impacted people does.
In the future, ask yourself why you’re trying to explain or correct something to a woman. Are you trying to correct something that needs correcting, or are you arguing a minor point into the ground? Is this a subject on which you’re actually knowledgeable, and does she have any reason to actually care? Are you just trying to show off? Often, mansplaining comes in the form of a man literally repeating (or rephrasing) an idea or contribution a woman has just made. This is the epitome of mansplaining and is seen often in offices, writing, interviews, the corporate world, everyday meetings, Facebook threads and conference calls. It’s insulting to have your idea repeated with a few words changed and then validated because a man said it. In the written world, we call this plagiarism, and it’s fucking illegal.
Maybe most importantly: How would you feel if your positions were reversed? Would you want you to say what you’re thinking of saying?
Another rule of thumb: If your advice begins with “actually,” take caution.
As far as I can tell, most attempts at mansplaining are actually rooted in one of three motivations. One: You want to impress a girl. Two: You’re mad that something wasn’t said or done the way you wanted it to be. Three: You want to contribute, but you don’t have anything original to say, so you paraphrase something you heard — something a woman might have said, but you’re sure you can say it better.
The third motivation has got to go. The second motivation is something you’ll probably have to deal with in the quiet of your own heart because life is a rollercoaster and not every twist is going to be to your liking.
The first is more understandable, but it’s still ill-advised. If you want to impress a girl, impress her with your listening skill and your ability to ask questions. Not only does this make you look like less of an idiot, it’s also the first step towards having a real conversation. And in the final analysis, maybe that’s the real heart of mansplaining: the lack of the very basic skill of knowing how to talk to someone else.