Congratulations on the impulse to read about mansplaining and what it means for you. That’s a big first step–which you would likely avoid if you were a hopeless mansplainer. To communicate more effectively and stop getting labeled, check out the information below, including: the definition of mansplaining, examples, and 3 concrete ways to stop.
What is mansplaining?
If you’ve been told you were a mansplainer, you probably want to know what that technically means. Mansplaining is when you explain something to someone who has more lived experience with the topic than you do.
For instance, imagine a man starts explaining how an oil change works, after reading a demo online. But he’s talking to a female friend who has been an auto mechanic for the last 25 years. She clearly has firsthand experience with oil changes. That would feel irritating to the woman, right? She wonders…
- Why is he explaining to her what she definitely already knows?
- Why doesn’t he realize his information is limited compared to hers?
- Why he doesn’t care to hear her perspective, if he is in fact so interested in this topic?
That’s why she calls him a mansplainer.
Mansplaining gets such a bad rap because it often describes conversations in which someone from a group with more “power” thinks they know better about the experience of a marginalized group. Think of men describing the experiences of women, doctors describing disabled people, or white people describing the experiences of Black people.
In these contexts, mansplaining is truly harmful, as it can perpetuate marginalization. However, anyone can be a mansplainer (not just men), and it often happens in much more innocuous circumstances.
You are not automatically a bad person for mansplaining. You just have an opportunity to communicate more effectively and rewardingly–for both you and the people around you.
When is it not mansplaining?
As a general rule of thumb, it’s usually not mansplaining if…
- You did not know that the other person knew about this subject, or
- You are speaking about a subject with which you have lived experience.
Let’s say you excitedly start a conversation about frogs, while talking to a coworker at your accounting firm. Your coworker feels annoyed because you did not mention their undergraduate studies in frog biology. However, you never learned that they studied frogs in school. And, in this conversation, you asked for the coworker’s thoughts about your frog facts.
In this case, as long as you allowed a dialogue between you and the coworker, you aren’t a mansplainer. You didn’t have reason to believe that they were an expert on this topic. If they didn’t share their knowledge in conversation, that’s on them.
Another example: you are a trans male, and you talk about the experience of menstruation with a female friend. She says you’re mansplaining, because you are no longer a woman so shouldn’t talk about these things.
However, you are not mansplaining. You have had a period before, and you are simply speaking from your own experience. Sharing your experience should not invalidate hers, because both are equally valid.
How do I make sure I’m not mansplaining?
There are only three basic steps to avoid mansplaining. You don’t have to feel anxious every time you have a conversation!
1. Ask the other person about their familiarity with a topic–before explaining it.
An explanation turns into a mansplanation when it feels “preachy.” That happens when there is an assumption that the topic is new to the other person.
If you want to talk about something that interests you, it’s only fair to first ascertain how interesting it is to the other person. In the process of figuring that out, you may find that they already understand this topic. In that case, you will naturally avoid rehashing the basics to someone who’s already aware–and thus avoid mansplaining.
2. Acknowledge the other person’s (potential) lived experience with the topic, even if you can speak about it with authority.
What personal connection does this person have to the topic? How might their identity give them a different perspective on the subject than you might have? Lived experience and academic knowledge are both valuable–so reflect that in how you communicate.
Turn to phrases such as:
- “I don’t need to explain to you that…”
- “You probably already know, but I was surprised to hear…”
- “I’m curious what your experience looked like, but in school I learned…”
- “I wonder if it’s been different for you, but from my perspective…”
It’s good to acknowledge the experience the other person may have with this subject. It’s even better, however, if you directly ask them about their knowledge or experience. If you’re having a conversation, they may not feel comfortable sharing their own expertise; especially if you seem so excited to teach them. So make sure that they know you value their input, and that you see this as a conversation rather than a monologue.
3. Don’t let conversations become explanations.
You can’t be a mansplainer if you’re having a dialogue rather than explaining in the first place. Allow the other person to participate in the conversation, regardless of their experience level.
Even if you have more lived experience and knowledge of a topic, that doesn’t mean you should take up the entire conversation. Otherwise, you may not be a mansplainer, but you’re likely a lecturer.
This is a basic tenet of communication, but it’s perhaps the most important. Even a friendly explanation can be seen as a mansplanation, if it’s delivered without input from the other side.
It hurts to be labeled a mansplainer, but you can redeem yourself
When others call you a mansplainer, it hurts deeply. However, it’s less about permanently labeling you, and more about naming the feeling of being overlooked and undervalued in conversation. The other person isn’t saying they don’t like you. Instead, they’re saying they don’t like how you made them feel by ignoring what they had to contribute.
That’s good news, because it means you can change your behavior and improve the quality of your connection. By owning your past pattern and sharing how you plan to change, you can make an effective apology to those you’ve made uncomfortable.
So whether you’ve heard it once or are a chronic mansplainer, give yourself a break for past mistakes. Put your energy into changing your future.