Credit: Everett

It all begins innocuously enough. Malini* was at a party when an older family friend learnt that she was in graduate school studying poetry, and was interested in writing about the postcolonial experience and immigration. Says the writer and editor: “He started to lecture me about postcolonial poetry, even though I was well-versed in the topic. I entertained it patiently, but sort of started second guessing what I knew.

“Nice guy, well-intentioned, but like most men, so sure of their expertise in everything.”

Sabrina*, a bird-watching enthusiast in her early 30s, would empathise. She was on one of her solo birding trips at the Singapore Botanic Gardens when she was accosted by an “uncle” in his fifties, who decided she needed some unsolicited advice.

“Here I am, waiting for a particular species of parrot to show up, and this person completely invades my space by standing incredibly close to me. He goes on to ask me about the camera I’m using and tells me what settings I should be shooting with.

“He then whips out his phone and starts showing me his shots, before proceeding to tell me what I should do with the photos I take, and how to edit them using Lightroom. I kept trying to ignore him, but it didn’t work. Eventually, I got really annoyed and left to find another spot,” says the social media strategist.

Sabrina muses that these encounters often occur when she is engaging in what is considered a “male dominated” activity, such as photography.

“This usually happens when I’m literally doing nothing but holding a camera. It’s this assumption that women don’t know or understand technical stuff like photography that drives me totally nuts,” she adds.

Why do men feel compelled to mansplain?

The act of mansplaining isn’t a new phenomenon – many women have been fielding unwanted counsel from men for generations – but the term is fairly recent. An essay by American author Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me: Facts Didn’t Get in Their Way, in which she writes about being talked at in a condescending manner by men, was first published online in 2008. It sparked a discussion among female bloggers, leading to the first documented use of the term that same year.

“Mansplaining describes how one talks to another in a condescending manner, assuming that the second person has less expertise or knowledge than they actually have,” says assistant professor Jean Liu, a social sciences expert at Yale-NUS College.

She elaborates that the dynamics of these conversations are often influenced by social structures and unspoken social etiquette, like the need to take turns in a conversation.

“In the case of gender, social scientists have analysed conversations and found that men tend to ‘hog’ by interrupting conversations and speaking for longer durations. This pattern is seen even in young preschoolers.

“Mansplaining is often an extension of this dynamic, and women are also more likely to perceive it as ‘mansplaining’ if they think a speaker has been acting condescending on account of their gender.”

Dr Annabelle Chow, a clinical psychologist and founder of Annabelle Psychology, observes that patriarchy is often at play. Age-old customs, where authority and power are passed down through sons, reinforce the perception that a man’s position is at the helm.

“In certain societies, mansplaining can also be a result of generational modelling and learning, which is a form of social learning where we learn actions performed by others as a result of observing behaviours. This is particularly impactful during childhood where we tend to model someone of authority.

“A young boy may observe the way his own father interacts with his mother, and subsequently act in a similar way with his wife. A young girl might be exposed to patriarchal behaviours and consequently become conditioned to expect and accept such behaviour from other males,” she says.

The importance of being heard

Unfortunately, mansplaining is all too easy to perpetuate in most workplaces, where hierarchical structures are firmly established. Many women would find it challenging to address the issue, especially when a job or promotion is at stake.

Indeed, Yale-NUS’ Prof Liu highlights that workplace surveys estimate that one in two women do nothing when they are mansplained at or interrupted, particularly if gender dynamics are paired with power.

It’s a scenario that Jane* is familiar with. The former civil servant used to specialise in diplomacy and policy-making, an area that she describes as an “old boys’ club” – where she is often at the receiving end of mansplaining by men in senior positions.

“When you are a new and young employee, you want to learn, be humble, and show your best attitude. So I accepted condescension under the false belief that I deserved to be spoken to in that way. You also want to be taken seriously for what you’re worth, and not be viewed through a gender lens. I didn’t attribute my experiences to mansplaining then.

“Now that I’m older and more confident, I recognise the tone. Often, it starts with interrupting a speaker. Some start sentences with a ‘no’, even if they’re just repeating what you said. But more interesting is how power is displayed in our social context by playing a ‘benevolent ruler’. I’ve seen well-thought-out arguments made by women dismissed with a casual laugh, without strong justification, as if this were kindness,” she shares.

Jane admits that dealing with mansplainers in hierarchical situations is still a work in progress for her. With her peers and immediate supervisors, however, she has learnt to use humour to deflect mansplaining, or to call them out but “in a funny way”. She says it seems to encourage men to think twice about what they say, with self-awareness being a good start to better conversation.

“It has also been a personality that I’ve taken on at the workplace because you don’t want to burn any bridges there. But at the same time, you just want to poke fun and let them know that what they are doing is passe.”

Humour can be a handy tool for circumventing an unpleasant interaction. But on the flip side, the mansplainer may still be unaware that he is, well, mansplaining. How else can women prevent themselves from being sucked into another vortex? It may not be easy, but Annabelle Psychology’s Dr Chow advises speaking up with tact and self-assuredness.

“The first step is to remain calm. Inform him that you appreciate his sharing, but you did not seek an explanation on this matter. If it was something that you wanted information about but did not appreciate his tone or approach, pause him. Describe how his language and tone are making you feel. Then share your thoughts about the situation.

“Express an appreciation that he is sharing useful information with you, and work on mutually establishing knowledge and competency levels before resuming the conversation. If a mansplainer continues with his behaviour, do not be afraid to take a time out or to physically disengage from the conversation.”

Prof Liu points out that bystanders can also play an important role by bringing the conversation back to the woman. “A third party who witnesses the mansplaining can ask the silenced individual what she thinks, regaining her turn for her,” she adds.

For Jane, the mother of two young children has tapped on her experiences with mansplainers to encourage her son and daughter to articulate and express how they feel.

“I don’t think a lot of men necessarily [mansplain] with bad intentions. It’s the patterns of communication that they learn from young. As a parent, I’m making it a point to not treat my son or daughter differently; they both deserve a lot of nurturing care. I try to think that any misbehaviour from them comes from a place of insecurity and fear, and that all behaviours are a form of communication.

“My 18-month-old boy does pause and listen when I help him identify the emotions he is experiencing. I’m hoping this helps him express his needs and thoughts more effectively as he grows, so he doesn’t feel like he needs to muscle against another person in order to be heard,” she says.

*Pseudonyms were used in this story.

Mansplainers in your life: Who and how to handle them

The Boss

“Ask to speak to your boss in private. Except under extraordinary circumstances, becoming defensive in front of your co-workers might be construed as insubordination. Let him know privately that you appreciate his advice, but you have concerns about the tone and how it was delivered. Share how it made you feel, and propose alternative ways of managing future situations. If it persists, speak with your HR team.”

The Husband/Partner

“If you are not ready to receive feedback, tell your spouse or partner directly, and inform him that you will approach him when ready. Emphasise what you need at that moment, such as connection and comfort. Let him know how you feel when he speaks to you in that tone, and plan together on how to approach such situations in the future.”

The Older Relative

“Manage your expectations and be aware of what you can and cannot control. Older men might come from a different set of societal norms and expectations shaped by circumstances that might no longer exist. Acknowledge that you may not be able to change him or the way he responds to you. If the person is not a close family member, it may be valuable to let this one go as it might not be a battle worth fighting.”

Pro Tip: In all cases, don’t rush to conclude that a given situation is a result of mansplaining. Listen with an open mind, and attempt to understand the value of the explanation first, as well as the motivation behind it.