Mansplaining has become one of the defining phenomena of the 21st century, and its pedantic tentacles touch everything from the last US presidential campaign to online riffs about how women just can’t “get” Rick and Morty. While we’ve come a long way towards naming and shaming the mansplainers in our midst, on the flip side of that exchange, catching yourself in the act (and taking a step back) can be a challenge for anyone who’s spent their whole life assuming that they always have something interesting and useful to say, despite all evidence to the contrary.
As a rule, mansplaining rears its head with several obvious characteristics — when you cut off a woman mid-sentence; when you think it’s a good idea to tell her why she’s wrong when describing something in the field in which she obtained her PhD (examples of which abound on the mansplainer’s preferred platform, Twitter); or basically any sentence that starts with, “well, actually.”
‘The Intersection Between Overconfidence and Cluelessness’
The term “mansplaining” is often credited as being created by the writer Rebecca Solnit, who defines it as “the intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck”. More broadly, it’s used to describe when a speaker (usually male) offers an unsolicited opinion on something, often a topic the person he is speaking to is already familiar with.
But the problem with mansplaining is that, until very recently, it’s been a largely unlabelled and pernicious part of society. Meaning that unwitting-but-well-intentioned mansplainers might overlook obvious social cues about their own bad behaviour, in part because they have never been called out on it before.
In the interest of helping people who genuinely want to curb their own mansplaining (and of shifting the burden of recognition off their weary audiences), we talked to a few body language experts who shared tips on how to recognise when you’ve launched into mansplaining territory, even if no one is confronting you about it outright. And yes, I realise the very nature of this post can count as mansplaining, but then again, having a widely recognised definition of mansplaining has helped identify other related phenomena such as whitesplaining, gendersplaining or the occasional pantsplaining, so everyone can use a refresher on recognising when your pedantic comments are unwanted.
You’re Getting Too Big
Space is a dead giveaway when it comes to identifying mansplaining. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the mansplainer often surges into unoccupied space to make himself seem larger or to physically intimidate the mansplainee. Experts say that can involve actually moving into the physical space of someone they’re talking to — very literally getting in your face — but also more subtle moves to manspread into empty air: Folding arms, putting feet up on a desk or putting hands in a belt loop. (Think of it as the unfortunate machismo cousin of Power Posing.)
“When that happens, you tend to do these signals that show off more of what you think is your own manliness,” says Tonya Reiman, a body language expert and author of the book The Power of Body Language. Crossing arms is often considered a defensive move, but it can also be a mansplainer’s aggressive effort to make himself bigger, Reiman said.
“This is an unconscious movement people tend to make,” she said.
If you catch yourself taking up more space, or filling in empty space between you and the other person, check yourself and retreat before you become intimidating.
Your Voice Is Getting Fast and Furious
My favourite recent real-world example of how mansplainers use their voice as a conversational bludgeon happened in a bathroom line in Coney Island this June.
I was waiting in a very long line for the bathroom during the annual Mermaid Parade when a drunk bro felt the need to become the marshall of the line, striking up a conversation with everyone about the need to pee quickly and efficiently (which obviously everyone knew already, as waiting in line for a bar bathroom is one of New Yorkers’ most cherished pastimes). He spotted a young lady in what was clearly an angler fish costume, and began to explain how she, with a foil protrusion out of her head, looked just like an angler fish.
“You look exactly like this one kind of fish!” he said as she stood still with a bemused look on her face, letting him mermansplain himself into a toxic whirlpool. “Go home, go to Google and type in this fish called ‘anger fish’ and you’ll see just what I’m talking about!”
His voice became increasingly loud and fast, as she just smiled and nodded politely, clearly content to let the guy embarrass himself, until I finally leaned in said, “I’m pretty sure she knows what she’s dressed like.” He then called her mean for leading him on.
This is a typical mansplaining tactic, said Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma. Raising your voice and speeding up the conversation is a way of asserting dominance, a sort of verbal iteration of manspreading.
“Especially when we’re tense or anxious or wanting to sell an idea or look smart, we’ll go fast,” Wood said. “Fast paced means we’re likely to interrupt.”
Watch Out for Non-Verbal Sarcasm
That bro fishplaining to the the woman at the Mermaid Parade could have avoided embarrassment if he knew how to read her basic body sarcasm.
Wood said that while we usually think of “fight or flight” reactions, the actual limbic brain reactions starts with “freeze” before fight and flight.
“They’re surprised in that moment,” she said. “They may go back slightly, as if it was an attack.”
Facial reactions in the person you are speaking to are a huge sign: Reiman said to look for things such as a clenched jaw, shifting the jaw to the side, or flaring the nostrils, which can be a sign of holding in anger. She calls moves like this “non-verbal sarcasm” because they’re a way of letting your body say you’re listening while your brain is in disbelief at what is being said to you.
Non-verbal sarcasm in the listener can quickly shift to actual shame. If the person you’re talking to shifts their gaze downward or covers their neck with their hands, that’s a sign not only that you’re mansplaining, but that the person you’re talking to has also basically given up on the conversation.
“They feel shame,” Reiman said. “That person is either feeling something emotional or they’re feeling like they have just been hit.”
Have a Good Phone Connection and Other Tips
Mansplaining sneaks into a lot of conversations, and you might think any conversation that involves “explanation” can put you at risk of being labelled a mansplainer. And that’s OK! The power balance of society has been real screwed up for thousands of years — and we’re only in the first few decades of fixing it — so there’s going to be a lot of overcorrection for a minute. Here are a few quick tips to keep in mind so you can avoid falling into a mansplainy hole:
Have a good phone connection (or avoid talking on the phone altogether)
Being on a phone call with a crappy connection makes it harder to pick up on these non-verbal cues that indicate you’re mansplaining, Wood said.
“On a really good phone call you tend to hear the person’s breath, you hear their auditory responses, you hear their limbic responses,” she said. “You know if they’re with you or not, you know if they’re understanding or not.
A bad connection means you can miss those cues — things such as sharp intakes of breath that can indicate surprise or other emotions in the voice — and might start talking louder and longer to fill the gaps in the conversation.
Recognise that mansplaining is a ‘thing’
You’re not going to get called out on mansplaining each time you do it, but you have to go into every conversation aware that it exists and that you could be guilty of it. At the very least, you should try putting yourself in the shoes of the person you’re talking to, Reiman said.
“The best way for you to do that is to come off autopilot when you’re around the opposite sex,” she said.
Reverse the situation — would you feel condescended to if someone spoke to you the way you’re about to speak to another person? If so, that’s a pretty good indicator that it’s time to re-think your approach.
Basically stay off Twitter forever
Twitter is lousy with mansplainers because the structure of the site makes it easy to immediately disagree with someone without knowing anything about them. Maybe the woman you’re about to @ on climate change is actually a NASA scientist, maybe the woman you’re screaming at about respecting the flag is an Iraq war veteran. Maybe you, oh I don’t know, start critiquing a journalist on Twitter about a story they wrote without actually reading the goddamn piece first. The anonymity of Twitter makes it is so easy to argue with someone over a topic you have no life experience with whatsoever.
Twitter’s 140-character limit makes it is bad for most forms of conversations at this point, and it’s full of self-professed devil’s advocates who come at women with “well, actually” responses to just about anything they tweet.
The Simplest Way to Tell
Laura Dudley, the director of applied behaviour analysis programs at Northeastern University, points out to the one surefire way to know if you’re mansplaining at all:
“Perhaps most importantly: Was your explanation requested?” Dudley asked.
If the answer is no, guess what? You [Jeff Foxworthy voice] just might be a mansplainer.