The first time I got trapped on a date with a mansplainer, I did not handle it well.
The guy seemed intriguing online. He had a sense of humor. When he messaged me, he used actual sentences. (Swoon.)
So we meet up for dinner, and I mention I’ve just come from teaching a Shakespeare workshop — and that’s when the tidal wave hits.
There I sit, annoyed and self-doubting, while an ill-informed CPA explains the Shakespeare canon to me. I try a few times to speak up, to let him know that I’m a graduate of a competitive drama school and I’ve been performing and teaching the plays for years. But he talks right over me.
After that, I’m embarrassed to say, I slide right into the traditional female role: listening politely, nodding, working hard to look suitably attentive and impressed.
The memory of it still makes me squirm.
The word “mansplaining” may be new, but the problem itself is timeless.
We all know what it’s like to be lectured by a guy who thinks his grasp of the topic (whatever it may be) is superior to yours just because he’s male. In her classic 2008 essay, “Men Explain Things To Me,” Rebecca Solnits points out how mansplaining “… crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation….”
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about what to do when a date starts mansplaining.
First, it’s useful to clarify your personal goal in the situation. Do you want to help your companion understand the issue? Do you want to make sure he hears how you’re feeling? Or do you just want out of the conversation? How important is it to you to maintain a cordial relationship with this person?
Then comes deciding how to act. Consider whether you have anything to lose. As always, your top priority is your own safety. If you choose to confront your date, will that put you in any kind of danger? Is he in a position to make your life difficult in any way? (Hopefully you’re not dating a guy who has power over you, like a boss or a professor, but it does happen.)
Once you’ve figured out your goal and how you want to react, it’s time to tackle the hard part: deciding what to do.
I have some suggestions. Here are six conversational moves to choose from.
“I know all about that subject, thanks.” Speak up as early in the conversation as possible. Use a calm, friendly voice. See how he responds. Does he hear what you’re saying? Does he change his tone? If so, you may have helped your companion “wake up” from an old habit.
Lots of boys get taught to lecture and compete in conversation, simply as part of growing up in our culture. They don’t get much choice about it. Your date may actually be grateful for your help finding a new perspective.
2. Ask tons of questions.
- “How do you know all this?”
- “What are your qualifications in this field?”
- “Do you know that I’m an expert in this area?”
- “Would you like to hear my take on this subject?”
- “Did you hear what I just said?”
- “Are you aware that you sound like you’re lecturing?”
- “Do you know how condescending it sounds when you speak to me like this?”
If a gentle interruption doesn’t do the trick, you may need to up your game. The questions in this list are arranged roughly in order of assertiveness. You could start out by sounding relatively polite and interested (“How do you know all this?”), then get more confrontational if you need to. If he talks over your questions, just keep asking more.
Your aim here is to encourage him to interact with you instead of mansplaining. If he truly doesn’t understand the problem, you may help him see the light by refusing to respond the way he expects you to (that is, with silent admiration.) If he does understand and is deliberately being an asshole, questioning can be a great way to give him a hard time.
3. Ask him a polite question.
…and design it to reveal your own knowledge and his essential ignorance. (“That’s fascinating. So what’s the exact process when the Cas9 protein and the gRNA form the riboprotein complex?”) The goal here is to maneuver him into a position where he’s forced to give in and admit he doesn’t know the answer.
4. Keep asking for further explanation of the very, very obvious.
Pretend to be helplessly confused. (“Wow, this is fascinating information about childbirth. Can you help me understand where the baby actually comes out?”) See how long it takes him to figure out that you’re jerking his chain. Extra points to him if he gets it and laughs! That shows he has a sense of humor and enough humility to listen to you and be affected by what you say.
5. Interrupt him, explain briefly why you’re leaving, then go.
Calling mansplaining out is one of the most direct, powerful conversational moves you can make. A lot of us women feel like it’s too direct, too confrontational, maybe even too scary. If that’s you, I encourage you to reconsider. Remember, a call-out isn’t about yelling or trying to hurt anyone. It’s just you standing your ground and speaking your truth in a steady voice. (You can even write yourself a script and practice at home with your cat before you meet your next hardcore mansplainer.)
6. Just get up and leave.
If you’re ready to grab your coat and bolt after the first fifteen minutes, you have a perfect right to do that. No explanations needed.
Mansplaining can seem so eye-rollingly absurd, we may sometimes be tempted to laugh it off. But it has deeper implications.
As Rebecca Solnit wrote: “Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being.”
That’s a struggle we all need to take seriously.