Manxiety needs fempathy: in defence of mansplaining | Victoria Coren Mitchell

Actually, chaps, we women do know stuff, yet if explaining things keeps you happy, do carry on

It made me feel sentimental to see “mansplaining” in the news again. Did you read the story? Actually, there have been two: the first was that Unionen, Sweden’s largest trade union, has launched a mansplaining hotline for women to phone if they’ve been a victim of male condescension.

Oh, with what shivers of nostalgia this took me back. Back, back, back to the salad days of, ooh, 2013 it must have been, when I first heard the term.

It was pretty obvious what it meant, though somebody (probably a man) told me anyway: mansplaining is when a male explains something to a female in unnecessary detail, often a female who understands it better than he does. I was familiar with the phenomenon, of course. Every woman has had simple things explained to her at interminable length by a man. That’s just basic social interaction.

Of course it’s annoying; nobody likes to be treated like a fool. Of course it’s boring; nobody likes to be lectured. But still, how wistfully I remember the luxury of being troubled by that sort of thing, in the long-lost idyll of 2013.

Do you remember what troubled you back then? On the world stage, I mean. You may have struggled – may still struggle – with all sorts of private worries: a medical trauma, a row at work, a harrowing debt. The way your wife runs out of the room giggling when her phone bleeps late at night. That weird recurrent dream you have about a marrow festival.

But the things we worried about generally, in 2013… my word, I spent serious time worrying about whether the 500-year-old remains of Richard III should be buried in York or Leicester! Those were the bloody days.

Have we really got time and space, now, to kvetch about whether men talk to women in a patronising way? With all the other wars that threaten to wage?

The truth is, I don’t think mansplaining is even sexist. I don’t think men reserve a patronising tone for women alone. It’s just how they talk.

In the original essay Men Explain Things To Me (which, although not actually coining the zeitgeisty word, is credited with being the core identifier of the tendency), author Rebecca Solnit writes about a man who lectured her on the subject of one of her own published books.

Because he employed the sort of painstaking, long-winded detail that Solnit herself would only use if giving instructions to an idiot, she assumed the man thought she was an idiot. But the point that I think has been missed by Solnit – and by all the women who have written and talked about mansplaining ever since – is: men also talk this way to each other. It’s not that they don’t defer to women. It’s that they don’t defer to anyone.

Men simply love explaining things. That is what men want to do in conversation: make jokes and explain things. Your average man would be happy to tell Gareth Southgate how to manage the England football team, or the head of MI6 how to deal with Isis, or Stephen Hawking what he reckons about black holes.

It isn’t about the person they’re talking to – it’s about themselves. If anything, the inclination could be seen as a compliment. They offer their nuggets of wisdom as gifts, like a cat offers a half-eaten bird.

That doesn’t mean there is no danger in the mansplaining tendency. Many of the world’s problems can probably be traced to the way men take this approach into government, filling the atmosphere with a load of hot, unschooled certainty. I suspect we’d be better off if we all reached consensus by respecting others’ opinions and experience.

But socially no harm is meant by it. Men would be terribly sad if they were told they must never explain anything again. They get so much pleasure from being expansive, from chewing over their thoughts, sharing a bit of half-remembered fact or quote, airing a little aperçu that occurred to them when driving along the M6. And sometimes it is properly informative or enjoyable.

That is Christmas, for most men: sipping a tasty drink, reaching for the nutcrackers and settling in for a good long disquisition on why it rains or what’s wrong with modern television or whither North Korea.

And, if you ask me, the biggest problem facing our western world at the moment is the decline of kindness. As huge differences of opinion batter against each other, we forget to be gentle and careful with each other’s dreams, respectful of each other’s self-worth.

It means a lot to your poor old dad, uncle, colleague, husband or friend to offer his advice and insights. Sitting there, mug or glass clutched eagerly in hand, looking forward to holding forth… how much do you really want to see him quiet and disappointed, confronting his own limitations? How much do you want to shout: “Nobody gives a shit, Granddad! You pompous old bore! Let’s talk about me!”? How much are you actually reduced if you let him feel listened to?

At the start of this column, I said there had been two recent stories about mansplaining. The first was that the 600,000-strong Unionen has launched a mansplaining hotline.

And the second, which followed soon after, is that the majority of calls to the hotline have been from men: anxious, self-doubting men, asking exactly what mansplaining is and how to avoid doing it.

Beware of throwing your ire at the wrong target. It’s so easy to get angry about things. Too easy. We get distracted from what’s actually important, dissipating our energy with the wrong fights.

Women don’t want to be silenced by men. But I don’t think the answer is for us to silence them in return.

Contributor

Victoria Coren Mitchell

The GuardianTramp

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