Along with various inalienable rights and governing principles, the tendency for men to talk over women has now been officially recognised by the US supreme court. Newly introduced rules to the structure of oral arguments are in place to address the issue of male justices and attorneys (extremely regularly) interrupting their female colleagues.
Far from being a mere everyday annoyance, “mansplaining” (or the ideologically adjacent “manterrupting”) can interfere with democracy. You can literally be a supreme court justice and still get shouted down like someone’s little sister.
For women, having your side side of a conversation being limited to short bursts of “But … ”, “Yes, and … ”, “Can I just … ” – is all too familiar. A 2014 study at George Washington University even found that, when speaking to women, men interrupt 33% more often than when speaking to men.
But what does this constant interrupting look like outside of the rarefied confines of the judicial branch of US government? Here’s a mundane example. I’m out for lunch with my partner, and we stop at a food truck, overpriced “street food” that you have to hurriedly eat standing up, outside. My partner, who has coeliac disease, asks if a particular item on the menu is gluten-free. The bearded food truck guy says that, no, as it contains mustard, it also contains gluten. All mustard – according to him – is thickened with wheat flour. My partner, who has been checking ingredient lists meticulously for coming on two decades, knows this not to be true. Tentatively (she’s the non-confrontational sort), she corrects him. But no, the seller disagrees. Suddenly this guy has a PhD in glutenology from the University of Mustard.
As Dr Food Truck rants about his credentials and expertise, my partner’s expression falls. Ordering food is often an ordeal for her, as people have either never heard of coeliac disease, or mistakenly think they know everything about it. What’s more, this guy is telling her that if she’s had mustard before, she’s “probably fine”. She – who was late diagnosed and spent her entire childhood in severe intestinal pain – tries to get a word in edgeways, but is steamrollered by someone clearly used to talking at women, uninterrupted. So I (the semi-confrontational sort) chime in. Not raising my voice, and keeping my tone as neutral as possible, I tell him that maybe, as an actual, certified coeliac, my partner knows what she’s talking about. Dr Food Truck tells me to “calm down”.
Women reading this will probably recognise it as a classic example of mansplaining. This, of course, is a term that has been in popular use (particularly online) since around 2009, and was named one of the New York Times’ words of the year in 2010. And it’s something women are on the receiving end of every time they’re interrupted and talked over by men who – on the basis of being men – believe they know better. And there’s little more simultaneously satisfying and galling than when some guy tries to get into it with a woman talking about – say – a movie, and she turns out to be one of the film’s directors.
Similarly, there have been several occasions on which men have tried to explain my own articles to me. In fact, if a man doesn’t see this, and then tries to mansplain mansplaining to me, I’ll be genuinely surprised. Or there was the time a male GP told me the pain I was in was “probably psychosomatic”, and then – unprompted – explained what he meant by “psychosomatic”. Usually I’m prepared to let medical professionals (male or otherwise) explain whatever they like to me. But being hit with “your symptoms are fake, and I’m going to convey this to you as if you were a child” is, in my humble womanly opinion, beyond the pale. What do you even say in such an instance? Still beats me. What I’ve learned as a woman is that if someone isn’t interested in your point of view, the dialogue is doomed from the get-go. We’re too often better off screaming into the void rather than trying to engage.
What’s really at stake when it comes to interrupting in order to mansplain is the respect (or lack thereof) for people’s lived experiences. There are many variations. I’ve seen “whitesplaining” for white people who try to explain racism to Black people. Or “ablesplaining” for able bodied people who think – for whatever reason – they know more about being disabled than actual disabled people. Having a subject you know all too well explained back to you by someone misinformed (often someone with an agenda) is always going to suck. But hey, there’s plenty of void left to scream into, though you might get interrupted in the process. (Eleanor Margolis, The Guardian 19 Oct 2021. Eleanor Margolis is a columnist for the i newspaper and the Guardian. (Edited for length)
My comment: Epicurus is reputed to have treated all those who visited him with deep respect, listening attentively to their points of view. For him gender equality was real. For me, too, it is real, especially since I have a spouse who is very smart, well-informed and with an impressive memory. Respect is part and parcel of love, but I am careful to conduct an actual conversation, regardless of gender.