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Mansplaining 101 for Men: Why We Do It

A fear-based need to project competency is at the core of mansplaining. But you already knew that.

Mansplaining is a harsh and unforgiving label for a particular mode of masculine communication in which men, in conversation with women, behave as if they are the expert on a subject when they actually aren’t. Additionally, woman who may know more than these men, can’t get a word in edgewise.

I would hasten to add that when the mansplainer is not condescending to women, he is busy condescending to other men. We don’t like him any better than women do, but given the historic imbalance of power for women, mansplaining is particularly galling for them.

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Mansplaining is rooted in how men are trained to connect and form relationships. For generations, America’s culture of masculinity has taught boys and men to suppress their emotional expression. To this day, we coach our sons to present a facade of emotional toughness and our daughters to admire that facade in men. Even in infancy, little boys are expected to begin modeling emotional stoicism, confidence, physical toughness and independence. The strong and silent type remains a central American symbol of “real manhood.”

The process of teaching boys to hide their emotional expression goes on in very public spaces and in very public ways. Boys form their friendships amidst a relentless barrage of microagressions, bullying, call outs and sarcasm designed to weed out any atypical performances of manhood, force social conformity, and slot boys into the pecking orders that make up their social world.

Instead of connecting in authentic ways individually, boys are encouraged to connect socially in the context of groups and organizations; in schools, or scouts or on sports teams. It is in these group contexts that the template for American male friendship is formed.

By the time we reach adulthood, men have learned to seek friends in the safe but highly conforming contexts of the workplace, team sports, church, or our partner’s social or familial connections. We become friends with the parents we meet at the PTA. We rely on the Lions Club, a fraternity, or our son’s scout troop for what many are calling friendships of proximity. We connect through organizations, tracking and performing friendship in the ways that are collectively deemed to be appropriate. If we change our workplace, those friendships disappear and a new set arises. This creates a high degree of homogeneity in how we express, engage and perform friendship.

“Joe is my friend because Joe comes to bowling every week, not because Joe is necessarily someone I connect with on any other level.”

Because of our culture’s prohibitions against male emotional authenticity, American men are reduced to connecting via circles of competence. This competency component is central to how men are ranked in the institutions we rely on for social connection; in sports, at work and in every garage and backyard BBQ in the country. We approach each other not just in terms of common interests, but in terms of our competency in those areas. Knowing how determines status in the larger pecking order of traditional manhood.

The focus on proving our competence, the transactional coin for tracking and assigning status between men, becomes something entirely different when employed with women.

Why is mansplaining so widespread? Where does it originate? It comes from right here. It’s not simply men thinking we know everything, its men’s collective fear that we will fail to give that impression and be shamed for it. It comes from the transactional nature of male relationships.

Whether we adopt this kind of alpha position with women, or with other men, mansplaining is an isolating and unproductive style of communication. It is a dysfunctional by-product of the larger male culture of policing and pecking orders by which men are constantly expected to prove their manhood.

The sad part of the story is that most of us were just little boys when we were blocked from developing more nuanced and authentic ways to connect in the world. Regardless, those of us who dominate conversations and talk over women’s voices should know we are showing ourselves to be relationally tone deaf and socially inept.

So the next time you feel the urge to prove you know more than the person standing next to you, pause for a moment and ask yourself, “What am I creating here?”

As for how anyone can live a richer, more connected, more empowered life?

Just listen more.

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Photo by Johnny Silvercloud

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