UNPOPULAR OPINION: Can We Please Retire The Word "Mansplain"?

Lack of ability to explain effectively isn’t a gendered problem.
Clover Neiberg
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Lack of ability to explain effectively isn’t a gendered problem.

I must open with a guilty confession: sometimes I mansplain to my cat, Mitzvah.

“Mitzy,” I intone somberly, dishing up a quarter cup of kibble, “I know you sincerely believe you’re capable of controlling your own cat food intake and that you think I should fill your bowl all the way to the top. But that’s not going to happen. You, like many other cats, have very poor self-regulation when it comes to food. If I gave you unlimited cat food, the health consequences for you and the economic consequences for me could be dire. Sorry, Mitz, but one scoop is all you’re getting. You’re going to have to trust the human on this point.”

I subject her to similar soliloquies about the importance of regular brushing, the historic role of the feline as mouse-chaser, and the definition of “indoor cat.”

I also sometimes mansplain at my job, where I am a subject matter expert on wearable technology and write the consumer-facing FAQs for our company website. If you swing by my desk and ask me the difference between uploading and downloading data, I hope you bring your coffee, because the answer is likely to be long and soporific. It’s in my nature to offer up long, thorough explanations, and it’s taken me years to learn to detect boredom and disengagement on my audience’s part. Even with conscious effort, I still sometimes get carried away and forget to be considerate of the listener’s interest level and attention span.

I am not a man, but boy can I mansplain.

How do I know that I mansplain? People tell me. Unlike most would-be explainers, I get feedback from my audience. Every FAQ on my company’s website has a “rate this FAQ” option, and consumers who provide a star rating are invited to type in a few words of anonymous feedback, too. I read all of this feedback; it tells me whether or not I’ve done a good job of explaining how our products work, how to troubleshoot common issues, how to get help, and other need-to-know information consumers might seek on our site.

“This is the most condescending drivel I’ve ever read,” one person will comment. “I know how to operate a computer! Don’t treat me like an idiot.”

“Stop assuming everyone is familiar with these processes!” another person will complain about the same answer. “You need to break it down for those who are less tech-savvy.”

Others are terser and less constructive. “Didn’t help.” “Doesn’t answer my question.” “What a pile of crap.” “You suck.” “Hire a real writer.”

Explaining is hard, y’all.

Many of us do it poorly, and most of us do not have the benefit of anonymous feedback telling us we’re doing it poorly. So we keep on doing it poorly, subjecting one captive audience after another to diatribes about our pet subjects: the history of the hashtag, the superiority of organic produce, the life cycle of the cecropia moth, the minutiae of marathon training.

We need to break this cycle. Those of us who explain need to explain effectively, concisely, and in a way that’s considerate of our audiences. And the explained-to need to be assertive enough to nip unwanted explanations in the bud and offer constructive feedback where it’s needed.

And while we’re at it? Let’s get rid of the word “mansplaining.” Please. Because lack of ability to explain effectively isn’t a gendered problem. Poor explainers exist across all genders, and it’s a real problem. Mocking it with a cutesy attempt at a portmanteau word diminishes its importance and puts a judgmental, dismissive gloss on something we should all be working to address constructively.

(Also, “mansplaining” just doesn’t work as a portmanteau word. An effective portmanteau word is clever and delightful, prompting anyone hearing it for the first time to think, “That’s brilliant! Those two words fit together as if they belong together. I must find a way to work this word into my next conversation.” To achieve this effect, the portmanteau word should preserve the sound and rhythm of all the component words. Its meaning should be immediately obvious based on those component words, and it should have a punniness to it. Some portmanteau words that hit the sweet spot for me are guesstimate, netiquette, gaydar, and brogrammer.)

So, how do people of all genders become better explainers? Here are a few approaches that have helped me:

1. Know your audience. Before launching into a monologue about the difference between uploading and downloading, ask some questions to get a sense of your listener’s familiarity with technology. Then, if an explanation is still needed, adapt your vocabulary, pace, and level of technical complexity to the listener’s intelligence and experience.

2. Ask for permission before you start explaining. “I can tell you about the amazing new method of making iced coffee I’ve learned, if you’re interested. Or I can skip the explanation and just pour you a cup. Either way is fine.” Pay attention to both the verbal and nonverbal response you get, and proceed accordingly.

3. Give your listener an explicit escape route. Start your explanation with a phrase like this: “Please let me know if I’m giving you too much or not enough detail about string theory. Some people grasp it intuitively and some people need it broken down a bit more. I want to make sure I’m not boring you. Please stop me if I am! I sometimes get carried away when I talk about this stuff.”

4. Don’t assume your listener has the same explanation needs that you do. You know when I tend to overexplain? When I’m explaining something that took a long time for me to grasp.

If you ask me about imaginary numbers (and I hope you won’t!), you’re going to get a recitation of the desperate, dumbed-down explanation my poor high school algebra teacher finally provided when all of his other explanation attempts had failed. I found the idea of the square root of negative one absolutely mind-bending, and it took a lengthy explanation composed of very simple words and a metaphor or two to help me come close to understanding it.

But I have a learning disability and a strong affinity for all things non-numbers-related. Not everyone brings these qualities to a conversation about imaginary numbers, and not everyone needs the kind of explanation I needed. If I really needed to explain imaginary numbers to someone else, I’d have to set aside my own biases and think more in terms of the average person’s intelligence and less in terms of my own.

5. Don’t recycle the same schtick when you explain something again and again. As a runner, I’m frequently asked about my marathon training approach, and I used to have a pretty well-practiced response. But then I realized some people were asking just to be polite, some people were asking because they were considering running marathons, and some people had themselves run more marathons than I could even imagine running.

While my go-to response was funny and well-honed, it was still a canned response. And an actual two-way conversation is always better than a canned response.

The tips above are for explainers. I’d like to close with a final note to the audience, the listener, the explained-to.

If you’re getting a condescending, unhelpful explanation from people of any gender and you’d like to actually fix the problem, you need to say something.

It can be clumsy to deliver a message like “Actually, I have a PhD in that subject” or “Can we jump ahead to the expert level, because I’m already familiar with the basics?” But if your tone is kind and constructive, a little honesty can transform a boring lecture into an enjoyable conversation.

And it beats the heck out of enduring the boring lecture in silence and then taking to the Internet to complain about it in hopes that the lecturer will see your complaint and recognize himself. That approach is just a different kind of failure to communicate.

Promo image credit: Flickr / Creative Commons