Dr. Liz Dubois’ stand-out example of mansplaining came during the birthing class she took to prepare for her son’s arrival. A group of soon-to-be mothers, many of whom were with their partners, were learning how to give birth. One of the dads-to-be, a lawyer, “co-opted an entire evening’s session to explain to the women what their legal rights were in the hospital,” she says.
While Dubois, an in-demand executive coach who helps everyone from start-up founders to public servants navigate interpersonal and gender issues, says that this future dad’s intentions were no doubt pure — she notes that he likely thought he was doing a service to empower these women — the insensitive nature of his input was hilarious. However important the information might have been, this class was not about him.
“This was an arena where women were clearly the experts and the focus, but he centered his expertise as the most important thing on the agenda,” says Dubois.
You’re likely familiar with mansplaining. But, as it helps to be certain, it can be defined as when a man explains something condescendingly, often to a woman audience. The topic is likely one that the audience is already familiar with but the speaker, purposely or not, assumes that she doesn’t know it as thoroughly as he does, the subtext being that she doesn’t grasp it because she is a woman. Or that he knows more than she does on the subject simply because he’s a man and she’s a woman.
Mansplaining is primarily about tone and assumption. Whether in person or online, in a work meeting or a dinner with friends, the speaker makes it clear that they believe their opinion on a topic is correct and because they are a man and deserve to be listened to.
While it’s easy to identify a mansplainer, it takes self-awareness to identify when you’re guilty of the behavior. This doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to offer an opinion or engage in a topic for fear of being labeled a mansplainer. Rather, it simply means that you should have an awareness of the situation you’re in and know when to offer your two cents and when to step back. It’s about taking a beat and asking yourself, Does this person want an explanation? Am I assuming this person doesn’t know what they’re talking about?
“Mansplaining can be differentiated from simply explaining-as-a-male by whether or not the explanation is perceived as patronizing or condescending, usually because the explainer is under the assumption that he has more knowledge about the topic,” says Silva Depanian, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “The explainer might mean well and be trying to impart their knowledge or expertise altruistically, but doing so when unnecessary can become problematic in both work and home relationships.”
So, how do you check to ensure you’re not guilty of mansplaining? Here are a few questions to ask yourself.
1. “Does this person want my opinion?”
A simple enough question that can be difficult to answer. But it’s important to not just assume that whatever wisdom you have to offer is so profound that it needs to be shared. The person you’re speaking to might not want or need your help or counsel and offering it might only turn them off. “Try asking them first, then give an answer,” suggests psychotherapist Dr. Lee Phillips. And if they don’t want or need your advice or explanation, simply move on from the conversation.
2. “Am I the person best qualified to speak to this right now?”
You’re likely an expert in certain areas but you aren’t an expert on every topic. And it certainly doesn’t mean you’re able to approach a given topic with the same insight and perspective as another person. “Check in with yourself about whether or not your experience and wisdom in this situation is more central to the topic being discussed than the people around you,” says DuBois.
3. “Am I telling someone else what their own lived experience is?”
This one is simple. If you haven’t experienced something directly, don’t talk about it like you have. You are absolutely entitled to an opinion about issues. “But that doesn’t mean you get to explain to other people what those experiences are like or what they should mean to someone,” says Dubois.
4. “What’s the benefit of feeling I need to be right?”
By making a point or explaining something that you feel another person should know, what are you hoping to get out of it? And will the benefits of proving your point outweigh the possible repercussions of mansplaining? Are you willing to risk a friendship or relationship just to feel intellectually superior? “Think about what you are gaining, and what is the risk of doing it?” says Phillips. “Is it worth the power struggle?”
5. “Do I really know more than this person, or is this an insecurity of mine?”
Why are you explaining whatever it is you’re explaining to this person? Is it because you actually have more information and are trying to help them or offer insight? Or is it simply because you want to make yourself feel like you’re smarter than they are? “We all have insecurities,” says Phillips, “and feeling like you must ‘one up’ the person will only cause more disconnect in the conversation or relationship.”
6. “Is the person I am talking to visibly checked out of the conversation now that I’ve been talking for a bit?”
Have you noticed that the room has gone a bit quiet while you’re talking? Does it seem like their eyes have glazed over and they’re simply nodding absently as you go on? This is definitely something to key into. After all, DuBois says, especially if it’s obvious your audience is trying not to rock the boat in the conversation, you’re “unlikely to have someone say ‘Hey, thanks for your thoughts. I actually want to kick in some ideas as well.’ If everyone else has shut up and you haven’t, you’re likely mansplaining.”