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.
I realize that mansplaining is a partisan term that implies a particular bent in the binary gender wars. But terms like mansplaining, which gain widespread use across the entire culture, always have some kernel of truth in them. The problem is, terms like this often get used to browbeat people or shut down conversations. At which point terms like mansplaining create reactivity in all of us, me included.
So, yes, mansplaining is a harsh and unforgiving label for a particular mode of masculine communication in which men, in conversation with women, speak as if they are the acknowledged expert on a subject when they actually aren’t or at least aren’t the only one. There is a presumption of expertise. Especially is the subject is traditionally gendered; say, programming or engineering. Additionally, woman who may know more about said subject often can’t get a word in edgewise. This is a real thing. It happens.
I would hasten to add that when the mansplainer is not talking over 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.
But I will say this. Men are trained for decades to do just this. It’s literally the way we’re trained to engage in most of our primary relationships.
Mansplaining is rooted in how men are trained to form relationships. For generations, America’s culture of masculinity has taught boys and men to suppress their emotional expression, to project certainty and confidence above all else. 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.”
Instead of connecting in distinctive and 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.
Within these organized spaces, the process of teaching boys to hide their emotional expression goes on in very public ways. Boys form their friendships amidst a relentless barrage of microaggressions, 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.
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 can be called friendships of proximity. This creates a high degree of homogeneity in how men 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 more authentic emotional and relational expression in men, we instead connect via circles of competence. We approach each other not just in terms of common interests, but in terms of our competency in relation to those interests. Knowing how determines status in the pecking order men determine almost instantly whenever they come together.
The focus on demonstrating 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 the result of men believing we know everything, it’s our collective fear that we will fail to give that impression and be shamed or lose status. It comes from the transactional nature of male relationships. It’s LITERALLY why we don’t ask for directions. We’ve been shamed and conditioned into believing we must pretend we already know every damn thing.
Most of us were just little boys when we were blocked from developing more nuanced and authentic back and forth capacities for relating in the world. Many of us were never allowed the space to practice and grow our relational capacities. We were shamed and bullied when we tried.
So the next time we men feel the urge to prove we know more than the person standing next to us, pause for a moment and ask ourselves, “What is driving my urge to do this?” Every interaction we have is an opportunity to come out from behind the facade we all construct and connect in more authentic ways.
When we instead share our personal stories and listen to the personal stories of others, it invites more authentic forms of interpersonal connection. When we listen to others’ stories it grows our empathy.
Men can set aside the relentless impulse to prove our expertise and instead share what makes us individual humans. We can be ourselves.
We can even try saying, “I don’t know, tell me more about that.”
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Photo by Johnny Silvercloud