When we are learning something from someone, we assume a specific posture in a master-disciple or teacher-student dynamic. This is a form of role-playing because in many cases, this posture is a pretense. The explainer may not actually be superior. If we want to learn something well, we need to act with some degree of deference to the explainer. Without this deference, every time we disagree with something, we would voice our opinions and the interaction would become a debate. A proper debate requires a different dynamic and posture. We cannot effectively learn if we adopt a debating posture towards our teachers.
Even in a school classroom, teachers are not always superior to students. On certain subject matters, some students may, in fact, know better than the teacher. For instance, this happens to me when the teachers begin talking about Japan. Some of them would nervously glance at me as if to check with me the veracity of what they are saying. But I wouldn’t bother objecting or interrupting since I’m playing the role of student (unless, of course, they are making utterly false statements).
In a classroom environment, this master-disciple relationship is understood by everyone as a precondition for signing up, which is why nobody would accuse any male teachers of “mansplaining.” As students, we agree to assume the inferior or subordinate position. But outside of such institutional structures, we have to intuitively and fluidly adopt different postures as the context continually shifts. Even during one conversation with the same person, we might shift back and forth between being a teacher and a student. For instance, we might say, “Interesting. Tell me more about that” and shift to the student posture.
But often these shifts do not happen fluidly and are met with resistance. The listener may not agree to assuming a student posture. There could be many different reasons for this, one of which is that the listener feels he knows just as well as, if not better than, the speaker. In a sense, he is trying to say, “Hold on a second. You can’t act like my teacher because I know just as well as you on this topic.” There is nothing inherently wrong with this resistance. If we feel we know just as well as the speaker, switching to a debating mode may indeed be more enjoyable for both parties. In general, we can intuitively sense if the speaker intends to be an explainer or a debater.
To be sure, this type of friction happens a lot between a man and a woman, but it also happens a lot between two men. It is unavoidable because we cannot always know what the other person knows. But between two men, posturing can shift more fluidly, and therefore less noticeable, because we tend to be blunter (less emotionally sensitive) with one another and because there are no cultural stereotypes to overcome. However, if there is a significant age difference between the two men, we would see more friction when the younger man tries to explain something to the older man. This is similar to the resistance women would face when trying to explain something to men. In Japan, a younger man is expected to always assume a student position regardless of the subject matter. I find this problematic because it inhibits learning.
In my view, if we value learning, it is silly to resist assuming a student posture. Even if we know better than the speaker, there is nothing to lose by hearing what he has to say. We may still learn something. The worst that could happen is that he will tell us what we already know.
At the same time, it is also silly to avoid the teacher/explainer posture out of the fear of offending the other person. If the other person knows better, he should let you know. It makes no sense for him to listen to you against his wish and then complain about it later behind your back.
Assuming the explainer posture is always riskier than assuming the student posture. As an explainer, you have to get up on stage and open yourself to criticism. You might be ridiculed, shamed, ignored, or rejected. The most common risk is the risk of being wrong and embarrassing yourself. Students don’t need to take such risks. From this point of view, the power dynamic between the explainer and the student is even. The fact that women can easily ridicule and dismiss men for “mansplaining” is a good illustration of this power dynamic.
A similar dynamic also exists for dating. In the West, men are expected to approach women first. This gives women the power to judge men without exposing themselves to the risk of rejection. When I ask American women why they do not make the first move, the common response I receive is that men don’t like to be approached by women because it emasculates them. The assumption here is that there is something biological that prevents the role reversal. The Japanese dating culture disproves this. In Japan, it is common for women to make the first move. (See this and this.) Some Japanese women living in the US find it frustrating that they cannot make the first move here. (It is ironic that Japanese women are often characterized in the US as being passive and submissive.) I would argue that most American women are using this as an excuse to avoid being vulnerable. Naturally, if they start making the first moves, they will be rejected frequently, but that is exactly what happens to men. Rejections are no proof that men don’t like to be approached. In fact, women don’t like to be approached by most men either.
If you don’t like exposing yourself to judgment, you don’t have to, but if so, you have no right to accuse people of inappropriately explaining something to you. At least they took the risk. Whenever someone is offended, we automatically assume that the fault lies with the offender, but perhaps the problem lies with the petty ego of the offended.
Many teachers say teaching is the best way to learn. This is partly why men like explaining. In New York City, we commonly see young boys continually perfecting their skateboarding skills despite the fact that they often hurt themselves. Explaining is no different. When we explain something in front of others, we risk making a fool out of ourselves, and we often do. But we don’t stop because we want to perfect our explaining skills.
I understand the frustration of women trying to explain something to men because some men would indeed resist it for sexist reasons, and I believe this is a real problem we should fight against. Some Americans resist my explaining of American culture just because I wasn’t born here. This too is a form of prejudice. I understand these frustrations associated with being the explainers. But, as listeners, there is no valid basis for complaining about someone explaining something to us. If we happen to know better, or if we would rather debate (not be a student), we should just tell him so. Our inability to tell him what we are feeling is just as annoying as his inability to read our mind. Explaining should be encouraged, not condemned by using terms like “mansplaining.”
After sharing this article on Facebook, I received many interesting comments. Here are additional thoughts I developed through the exchange.
Women commonly complain that their boyfriends or husbands do not know how to listen nonjudgmentally (like psychotherapists) when they are feeling depressed. The stereotype is that men try to solve it as a problem in a practical way, and to do so, they need to be able to explain why she is feeling depressed.
So, we could say that the stereotypical opposite of “mansplaining” is women’s tendency to seek a therapist-patient dynamic. Now, men could also complain that women should not turn their men into therapists. The reason why most women don’t complain about this when they talk to each other is that most women welcome that type of conversation. So, they can fluidly shift between being a patient and being a therapist with each other. Men shift fluidly between being a teacher and being a student. Men generally don’t mind, or even appreciate, explanations.
But when we cross genders, we are more likely to face friction, because we assume that our norms are universal. That’s why the word “mansplaining” caught on, even though many feminists oppose it (because it promotes gender stereotypes).
Many men have an aversion to being in a therapist-patient relationship. According to this study, “28% of men admitted that they had not sought medical help, compared with 19% of women.” On the other hand, I believe many women have an aversion to explanations, whether they are the one explaining or being explained. It’s in line with the holistic nature of femininity. Women shun simplistic ways of looking at the world, and logical explanations feel somewhat invasive to them. From this perspective, we could say that men have an aversion to ambivalence; multiple things being right at the same time, and having no simple answers.
Neither is superior to the other. So, instead of fighting against explainers, we should set our petty egos aside and be comfortable with being a student. Embrace explanations, not reject or denounce them. And, at the same time, we should embrace ambivalence when we are called on to just listen and provide emotional support and when we are seeking emotional support. Many problems in life have no simple answers. Being reductive is counter-productive.
My position is that, instead of complaining about the standards of the other gender, we should embrace both. Men should become comfortable with shifting into a therapist-patient dynamic, and women should become comfortable with shifting into a teacher-student dynamic.
The problem arises when people cannot fluidly shift between these positions. For instance, I know some people who always have to be the performer on stage; they always turn everyone into their audience. That is fine as long as their friends are OK with always only being an audience, but that’s not a healthy relationship. To be socially and emotionally intelligent, we need to be able to shift our postures fluidly and appropriately.
More on why men like explaining:
Men like to feel we are in control of our own environments. To achieve this, we need to know why and how things work around us. This is partly why men tend not to seek help until we are desperate. Even when we are lost, we would keep driving around for hours before asking anyone for directions.
The difference between explanations and directions is that the latter does not put us in control. Knowing how things work allows us to apply the knowledge to many other future situations. A direction, on the other hand, is only good for that particular instance.
Explanations empower men because they allow us to understand better how and why things work, which leads to having better control of our own situations. And, since teaching is the best way to learn, we also love explaining things to others. Most men appreciate unsolicited explanations. It’s only a problem when we cross genders.
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