Unpopular Opinion: The Truth About Mansplaining Is...It's Not the Actual Problem

Unpopular Opinion: The Truth About Mansplaining Is...It's Not the Actual Problem
by Kit Warchol
April 29, 2016
To my ex-boyfriend: sorry in advance—I'm about to talk so much trash. 
To be fair, I’m partially to blame for the professional and social mess I found myself in one notorious morning when I wound up crying in a bathroom stall. The events leading up to that moment stemmed (in part) from my own bad behavior. I'd broken one of the most standard workplace rules: I was, at that very moment, romantically involved with my coworker. And in retrospect? There’s a reason they are "the rules."

We'll call him Sam. Sam was leaving for grad school in three weeks and—unbeknownst to our colleagues—we were spending every minute we could together before then. I'd wake up at his place where he'd make awful coffee before we'd take separate cars to the office. Our relationship was on a deadline, and it was...exhilarating. I was already deeply in love and ignoring all signs of an emotionally fraught end point. So that's where we were the day I realized I was having my first experience being 'mansplained'—and it was coming straight from my secret boyfriend's mouth. 
When you explain over anyone who sees things differently, you're ruining any chance for real change. Think of it like when someone puts too much ice in the spiked punch—you're diluting the stuff that lets people get weird. 

THE WHO, WHAT, WHERE, HOW

Sam had asked me to try my hand at responding to a distressed client email (“You’ll be the person they write to starting next week anyway”) and so I’d written a response, carefully and politically. This was not my first job, and it certainly wasn’t my first frustrated client. The email was solid.

I stopped by Sam's office to show him my draft just as another coworker joined us for our next meeting. At first, everything seemed fine—he skimmed the opener over my shoulder and suggested a couple tweaks to the language. But then something caught his eye, and the process rapidly unraveled. Before I knew what was happening, he’d taken the laptop from my hands and begun rewriting the entire email. 

Perplexed and shocked, I glanced over at my colleague, only to wish I hadn't. The look of confusion on her face made my cheeks burn. When he finally handed me the email back, every semblance of my voice and tone had been wiped out—and a moment later, as I started to argue, he wiped out any chance of a discussion as well: “Trust me, that’ll go over so much better now.” Ghostwriting, a man's way.

Sam turned his attention to our colleague, and I beelined for the bathroom. It was there that I burst into tears of embarrassment but also wrath. Facing my own image in the mirror, I was forced to ask whether I was taking it too personally because of our relationship, then to wonder whether I was more inept or inexperienced than I believed. But in the end, I knew I wasn’t. And that fact made it all so much worse. 
We've fought back. We've kicked ass. We've stamped out countless M-word issues in every industry and board room. But while we’ve successfully put an end to most instances, the latent forms seem to linger.

REAL TALK: MANSPLAINING ACTUALLY ISN'T THE ISSUE

"Mansplaining.” Countless magazines and websites have called for an end to the term. And it is an obnoxious buzzword, overwrought and overused. But it exists for a reason. Over the past few years, we've exposed it. We've fought back. We've kicked ass. We've stamped out countless M-word issues in every industry and every board room. But while we’ve successfully put an end to the behavior most places, it still happens. The latent forms, like male colleagues revising our emails, seem to linger longest. But now I'm going to say something that might be shocking: that isn't really the point. 

LET'S TALK ABOUT OUR FEAR OF DISSONANCE 

The sinister thing about mansplaining is that it’s difficult to distinguish from plain old bad professional behavior. Each of us has a set process for how we solve problems, run teams, or answer client emails—and we tend to want people to handle every work situation just like us. 

Most of us know better. We work hard to include the voices of teammates in our meetings and project plans. We solicit feedback. But no one's perfect, and we're all guilty of wanting to align others' voices and ideas with our own, especially when we're passionate or excited. It's those moments, when we joke we're “poor delegators” or “micromanagers,” that we're skating dangerously close to a very big problem.

These are the facts: I know that Sam would not have taken the laptop out of my colleague’s hands (a point that he admitted during our fight after work) and this, in part, had to do with our less than formal relationship. I also know that his particularity about client emails was less a gender issue than it was a symptom of his perfectionist tendencies. So why do I still call it mansplaining? 

Because women's voices are already struggling enough to be heard in work environments. And the second that you erase a woman’s voice from her emails or a meeting, you compromise the diversity of your team.

Mansplaining. Real problem. But it's one part of a much bigger issue that we often fail to consider: when you explain over anyone who sees things differently than you do, you're ignoring any and all differences and ruining any chance for real change. Think of it like when someone puts too much ice in the spiked punch—you're diluting the stuff that lets people get weird. 
As long as we avoid stamping out anyone's voice, no one ends up crying in a crappy public office bathroom, Ally McBeal style.
So down with mansplaining, but down also with age-splaining ("Here's why teenagers are so obsessed with Beyoncé's Lemonade"), race-splaining, trans-gender-splaining, whatever splaining. Hell, don't even try to explain to someone why your dog behaves the way she does. Because at the end of the day, you shouldn't speak for anyone but yourself. It's a simple lesson our parents taught us young, and yet every day, it seems like we forget it.  

OK, BUT HOW WILL WE GET THINGS DONE?

Listen, I'm sure there are some of you that are rolling your eyes. Yes, there are holes in my argument. After all, we elect politicians to speak for us. We want our bosses to go to bat for us in meetings with their bosses. And then there are the editors of the world who spend their days tweaking and revising the written words of other people (ahem).

So isn't that problematic in this context?

Yes. And no. But yes. But also no.

Look, the major difference (that I can see) is these sorts of relationships are, at their core, collaborative, meaning the words of one person don't get erased in favor of another's. Instead, the two voices meld together, drafts get edited, votes unify into a single voice. What you wind up with is a product that embodies multiple perspectives.

Sometimes, even in these situations, we misstep. We take an edit too far. A politician goes rogue. But as long as we foster open communication, we avoid stamping out anyone's voice, and no one ends up crying in a crappy public office bathroom, Ally McBeal style.

The truth about mansplaining? We should be less worried about how it reveals outdated and sexist gender roles. We know that part. What we don't focus on nearly enough is how it's a symptom of a bigger crisis: our inane fear of hearing from someone else that we might be wrong. So down with 'splaining, period. It squashes individuality, and with it, experimentation and innovation.

How do you feel about mansplaining? Did we nail it, or are we dead wrong?