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  • Molly Henry

A surprising part of the experience of being mansplained to

Up until maybe this year, I don’t think I’ve ever been “mansplained” to (is that the right way to phrase that?). Maybe in a pub if someone asked what I did, or fairly often at the US/Canada border when I had to explain my field to the border officer (did you know we only use 10% of our brains? And btw it was equally often going both directions). But not by fellow scientists, at least as far as I can remember. I suspect this is partially because, as a trainee, I was raised in the most supportive environments by the most supportive supervisors, so I think to some extent I was shielded from this behavior. But this year, I started my own lab, and for some reason I feel much more exposed at conferences and meetings. Maybe it’s just more personal because the research program I’m explaining is mine, or maybe it’s just by chance. In any case, I’ve taken an absolute beating this year, and I’ve been very surprised by how I’ve reacted, emotionally and psychologically. What I’m reacting to is something that I haven’t heard anyone else describe, so I felt motivated to try to explain. Probably largely for my own benefit, but maybe others can identify.


In the last half year I’ve learned that I don’t know shit about statistics (from a rando at a conference), I don’t know shit about neuroscience or auditory perception (from a fellow Max Planck Group Leader who absolutely ruined dinner), the entire basis of my ERC grant is false (from someone who I should have apparently consulted before writing an entire ERC grant), and that I could learn “a thing or two” about cognitive psychology (from someone who I guess didn’t realize that my PhD training was in cognitive psychology), among other things. Sometimes these conversations take place electronically where it’s somehow easier to deal, I guess since the interaction is extended in time and altogether less personal. But when this happens in person, it’s for some reason always a very intense interaction (I’m guessing only from my side), and I feel bad about it for DAYS afterwards.


The reason is not because I’m mad about not being respected or something (I am), or having self-doubt triggered (that happens too), but rather that I spend almost the entire conversation censoring myself. In real time, I’m thinking about being polite and civil and not say anything offensive or make the mansplainer feel bad about any part of the interaction. I’m crazily worried about making someone else feel negativity. So I take shit, sometimes just for a minute but other times for an entire evening. And I make sure never to say anything rude, which leads to not saying much because it's really hard to think of nonrude things to say. The whole time being myself treated with little or no respect. Then, when the situation has passed, I go full self-evaluation mode. Why didn’t I stand up for myself? Why didn’t I simply tell the mansplainer to shut the fuck up? Most importantly, what’s the reason that I’m so worried about not being a dick to another human being, and the person on the other end of the interaction obviously doesn’t care. This is the thing that bothers me the most, and that I obsess over for days after it happens. This is why I feel full of adrenaline and close to tears after being yelled at about all my many deficiencies. Not because I’m being yelled at about sucking, but because it’s totally unfair that while being yelled at I’m doing everything I can not to offend the person doing the yelling. What the fuck? It's this mismatch that get me. It’s not fucking fair, and it’s totally damaging.


I don’t know what the solution is. (Actually, I do. Everyone should just treat everyone else with a bit of kindness and respect, and we shouldn’t enter into interactions assuming we are the smartest, most well informed contributor to every conversation and everyone else is stupid. But that’s not a problem I can solve.) Simply not taking things so hard doesn’t seem to be easily implementable, and anyway it’s fucked up that I just have to desensitize. I’ve had a few advocates in these situations who join me in eye rolling or in some cases actually play defense, but it’s also fucked up to need another dude to be present so that the mansplainer might actually listen. (Dudes: do this anyway if you happen to be in this situation!) I hope that by realizing what exactly it is that drives me so crazy during and after (especially after) a good mansplaining, I’ll be more able to analyze it in a healthy way or simply excuse myself from the situation before it reaches critical mass (when possible), without turning my filter off (won’t be cute when it happens). And I hope that by explaining this to myself and others, I might have hit on a damaging feature of the mansplaining experience that you haven’t thought of (I certainly hadn’t) and so can mentally prepare or better understand your own experiences.


(Image is "The Irritating Gentleman" ("Der lästige Kavalier") by Berthold Woltz, obtained from Wikimedia Commons: https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q26905911)

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