Not Quite Mansplaining

There are a couple of possible places to start this, but I think we’ll start it here.

Last week was my first encounter with the term “mansplaining”. It was on Twitter (probably), and was a negative comment about Alain de Boton (possibly), although there have been a few criticisms of that particular popular philosopher recently, so I’m not sure who said it or what they said.

When you come across a word you don’t know, you look it up, and the Urban Dictionary seemed a better source of information than the Oxford Dictionary, and they had a few definitions there. It seemed, from the limited reading available at this necessarily narrowly focussed website, that this term means when a man explains something, to a woman, with the assumption that he must know more and she less because of their respective genders, and the insinuation is that it is an arrogant, sexist thing, which you will know when you see and hear it, and the explanation given could easily be incorrect anyway.

Well, we have all seen this sort of thing. It can be accidental, as when a person with some interest in the subject begins telling another person about cantilevers and doesn’t realise that the person they are talking to is a professor of engineering. It doesn’t have to be a man-woman thing, and it can be accidental, but it is a good reminder, when you see and hear it, that you just might not be the smartest person in the room. (Apparently some women throw the term mansplaining around when they are having an argument and wish to label a man as a misogynist. Or that’s what some contributors to the Urban Dictionary would have us believe. I won’t be taking sides in a debate over a term I just fell over a few days ago.)

It made me think, this discussion of the way we communicate with each other, and examine what I do and how respectful I am. And it made me think about the World Cup, currently entertaining us on our TVs, and one of the first matches I was able to watch a couple of weekends ago. It was England-Italy. Laetitia walked into the room and asked which team was which. My reaction was to say something like, “Just have another look, carefully, and see if you can guess”. The technique of allowing a person to teach themselves something is one I have long favoured. At the same time you are reinforcing the learner’s ability to think for themselves and work it out, and demonstrating for them that it really isn’t too hard for them – it’s not some sort of secret, complex knowledge, but available to everybody. That sort of thing.

It backfired though. My approach was entirely wrong. England wear a white jersey and Italy a blue jersey. There is no way to tell which team is which from those colours, as both appear on the Union Jack and only white appears on the Italian flag. Of course there are other ways to find a clue in trying to solve a puzzle like this: England’s jersey has three lions on a shield, which is a heraldic symbol of England, seen on the Queen’s coat of arms; and Italy’s jersey has a shield with red, white and green stipes, from their flag. So it’s not impossible to work it out, but the question, when you’ve asked for an answer to something you don’t know, and when the question has been answered in this way, can quickly become a question you are no longer interested in.

And how different, really, is someone telling you you can work it out (read: be as smart as me, or nearly as smart as me) fairly easily, and even do it yourself (with a rhetorical pat on the head) – is this very different from explaining in a way that suggests you couldn’t possibly know about this because you are a woman? I don’t think so. The key difference is intention. Sincerely wanting knowledge to be shared and new information understood, sincerely wanting a person to not feel overwhelmed and excluded from some endeavour they feel overwhelmed by and excluded from.

But it doesn’t come across like that. It is received as smart arsery. Or it can be. And that’s not good.

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Published in: on July 1, 2014 at 7:41 pm  Leave a Comment  
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