I’m a woman on the internet, so men explain things to me. They’re usually well-meaning. They want to help me out with an issue they have spotted, or give me the lowdown on something they think I should know. However, they also often assume a certain lack of knowledge on my part, around topics that I know already.
At the start of 2016, I started collecting examples. Here are a select few of my favourites.
Men explain things to me
The word ‘mansplaining’ moved into common parlance in 2016, and if you want to find out a bit more about it read Rebecca Solnit’s essay Men Explain Things To Me. The point – and I think it’s a valid one – is that many men explain things to women without first asking themselves whether the woman they’re explaining the thing to might, in fact, have more knowledge of that particular issue.
Before you – a man – hammer angrily on the keyboard, please read through some of the examples in this blog post, as well as the conclusion at the end. And consider: do you do this? If you do, I’m not telling you that you are an evil, appalling human being. Just that you, like many other men (NOT ALL MEN), might have a tendency to do something as a result of the way our society treats male versus female expertise.
You’re not a bad person, but you might be doing a bad thing. Let’s check out some examples.
Things men have explained to me
Because of what I said about good intentions, I’m not going to name anyone specifically – all the below are summaries of tweets/emails/conversations. You might be able to find some of them if you search really hard, but please don’t do that: I don’t want to embarrass any individual guy. Here are a few things men have explained to me…
That I – a professional writer – should carry a notebook
Me: God, I’m frustrated that my ideas always seem rubbish when I finally get to my laptop to write them.
Him: Carry a notebook.
Ah, gee, thanks. That would literally never have occurred to me.
That VPNs exist
Me: I don’t want people to be forced to use workarounds to access porn.
Him: There’s this thing called a VPN you can use – here’s how.
That you can use Who.is to see who owns a domain
Me: This shady company has paid for domain protection, so I’m struggling to find out where they’re actually based.
Him: Did you know you can use Who.is to find information about domains?
Not if they’ve paid for protection, you can’t. Besides – I am an anonymous sex blogger. If I did not know this, I would be a ‘sex blogger.’
That the iPlayer exists
Me: Damn, frustrated I didn’t get to livetweet tonight’s programme.
Him: There’s a site called iPlayer where you can catch up on it!
The i… what now? Nah, never heard of it.
The shortcut for a ‘#’ symbol on a mac
To be fair, I am ALWAYS whining about the fact that not all Macs come with a marked ‘#’ key. I think it’s silly, given how often the symbol is used these days.
But in complaining about how silly it is that they don’t have one, I invite a deluge of responses explaining the shortcut to me. Even if I have actually used the # symbol in the tweet they’re replying to.
That I am wearing the wrong bra size
Him: I used to work in a lingerie shop and I can tell by that picture that you’re wearing the wrong bra size.
It was a picture of my bra filled with sweets. I was not in the picture.
How to close a pop-up window on a website
Me: I hate popup newsletter subscription windows.
Him: You can just click on the cross to close them.
That a video I mentioned in an article exists
Me: Tweets blog post about working from home, in which I’ve embedded that famous Mitchell and Webb sketch.
Him: Ooh, have you seen that Mitchell and Webb sketch?
Me: Yes. It’s in the blog post.
Him: Oh, I see. Well I can’t read your blog at work.
See I get that you can’t read my blog at work – that’s cool, you don’t have to. And the dude who did this is lovely, so I don’t want to kick him or anything. But this happens a lot, and I am genuinely fascinated by what convinces someone they can improve/correct/make suggestions to an article they haven’t actually read. My imposter syndrome is such that I can barely offer advice on articles I have read.
What Search Engine Optimisation is
Me: Asks quite a complex, techy question about the impact of certain referring sites on Google rank.
Him: Did you know that if you get links from other sites it helps boost where you appear in Google search results?
Not to blow my own trumpet but I do run quite a successful blog, and this did not happen by accident.
What the Digital Economy Bill is
Me: Here is an article I’ve written about the Digital Economy Bill, and why it is bad even if you can circumvent it.
Him: You can circumvent it.
The Digital Economy Bill is actually a perfect storm for this kind of thing – it attracts techy guys who want to explain all the details of something to me, and who simultaneously assume that I cannot possibly know what I’m talking about. They’re right in some respects – I’m not a developer or web security expert. But unfortunately for them, this is an issue that deeply affects me and a number of people I work with, so I know far more about it than I would know about a similarly techy issue that isn’t in my wheelhouse, partly because I actively seek out advice from technical people whose opinions I respect while I’m researching and writing articles.
The reason this one in particular fucks me off is that usually I am mansplained the issues on the Digital Economy Bill in response to posts I write about the Digital Economy Bill, so often people are telling me what I have just written. Alternatively, they are disagreeing with my ethical points but pretending that the only reason we have a disagreement on the principle is because I am too silly to understand the facts.
These are just a few of many many examples. I have deliberately not included the ones where people reply to tweets to essentially explain my own jokes back to me, because I cannot possibly compete with some of the excellent entries over at @yesthatsthejoke. But that happens a lot too.
Men explain things? Or ‘people’ explain things?
This is where we get to the tricky bit. It is not always men who explain things to me. But it is mostly men. A general rule of thumb, when involved in a conversation, men are more likely to offer me unsolicited advice than women are – especially on things that can vaguely be considered ‘technical.’ Another general rule of thumb: I am more likely to notice/be annoyed by unsolicited advice from men, because it tends to happen more often. When you can name something, you notice it more frequently – thus ‘mansplaining’ will get me more annoyed than ‘womansplaining’, because I can identify it as something in particular, and it’s part of a larger trend. So there may well be examples of women explaining things to me that I have not included here, or that I didn’t spot, because I’m more attuned to guys doing it, as well as because guys tend to do it more often.
What’s more, the whole thing is exacerbated because often the issues I get mansplained to me are one which fall vaguely under the umbrella of ‘technical’ things. Using websites, SEO, and other stuff along those lines. They annoy me more because it is usually my job to know them. And mansplaining something like SEO or web will annoy me a hell of a lot more if it comes from a guy with a less popular blog/website – again this happens often.
At the bottom of this murky water is a horrible, aching fear that I don’t really know what I’m doing. Even on topics I’ve researched in depth and have lots of experience on, in which I am – cringe cringe cringe – genuinely knowledgeable, I live with the constant nagging voice of my impostor syndrome. I can barely bring myself to write the words down here, because just typing them sounds monumentally arrogant, but here goes: I’m quite good at this. I am. I had to go back and edit the comments above a lot, because each time I wrote something that implied I was good, I felt it looked arrogant. And yet here I am, with a pretty successful blog, doing things lots of other people would like to be able to do, so the time has come for me to say that maybe, yeah, I actually am a bit good at it. Still, helpful dudes are always waiting in the wings ready to tell me how to do it better, and 90% of the time they are telling me things I already know.
“I’m just trying to be helpful!”
I know. And that’s why this is a hard blog post to write. You’re just trying to be helpful, and you mean well. But you’re trying to be helpful within an environment where women are routinely offered this unsolicited advice. You’re sometimes trying to be helpful in a way that either assumes or – worse – ignores the evidence that I have actual expertise. The problem is not your offer of help, it’s your assumption that I desperately need it.
It has occasionally been helpful to have men explain things to me, but not in quite the way you might think. Rather than smacking my forehead and shouting ‘OH! This piece of information you have given me will now radically transform my life!’ in fact your unsolicited advice will sometimes boost my confidence in my own knowledge. When men explain things I already know, I realise I’m not actually doing too badly on the expertise front. When men explain things that directly contradict what I know to be the truth, again I grow in confidence a little, because I think ‘blimey, that guy has all the swagger of someone who might be right, yet still he is wrong. Just shows how confident I should be, as someone who has done this for years!’ But please don’t interpret this as an excuse to engage in mansplaining as a confidence-boosting exercise. While it sometimes boosts my confidence, often it wastes my time, as I question and double-guess things in the face of helpful guys who are convinced they know better. Besides, there are many people for whom this constant stream of unsolicited advice will be a serious hindrance. Faced with the certainty of a stranger who’s keen to correct them, many will just give up. And that’s how we end up in a society where women’s expertise is often treated as merely one factor to consider when making a decision, while men’s confident assertions (right or wrong) tend to carry more weight.
How to avoid mansplaining
So what should you do in the future when you’re feeling helpful? Well, boringly I think the answer is that you need to change your perspective a little. You might see me crossing a busy road, and rush forward unasked to lend me a hand. To you, you’re being chivalrous, courteous, and helpful. What you don’t realise is that I was fine crossing the road by myself, and now that you’re hanging off me it’s actually much harder to get to the other side. This is often the situation on Twitter, when I talk about some technical issue and am swamped by people linking me to very basic ‘how to do SEO’ articles, to which I feel it impolite not to reply. Consequence: I have less time to do the job I’m actually quite good at, because I’m busy thanking men who are getting in my way.
And in some cases the help you’re offering is entirely irrelevant to what I was trying to do: men offering technical solutions to a moral question, for instance. They rush forward to give me help crossing the road, failing to notice that I was only there to fix the broken traffic lights.
This is a long and ranty post, and there’ll be lots of people who see it and are hurt/offended, for which I’m really sorry. I imagine I’ll get a few emails or tweets off the back of this from guys who say ‘not me though, right? I was just trying to help!’ and then I’ll have to respond to those politely and say ‘oh no of course not you!’ and the cycle will continue. So rest assured, if you ask me directly if you’re one of these people, I will be unlikely to hurt your feelings and say ‘yes’, which I guess makes this whole post the blog equivalent of a ‘subtweet.’ But while I’m subtweeting, here’s a piece of unsolicited advice for you in future:
Before you offer help, consider: did the person you’re helping actually ask for it?