Joel is a journalist and researcher with a background in developmental and behavioral psychology, as well as cognitive development.
Communication areas of the brain
What is "Mansplaining"?
Much has been made in recent times of this phenomena called “Mansplaining” – a proposed term which seems to resonate with a large section of the female population whilst coming off as insulting to most men.
“Mansplaining” broadly refers to how men allegedly come off as generally demeaning when they talk to women. Specifically by over-explaining simple things as if the woman has no knowledge of them, (i.e. “See, sweetheart, cars run using engines, which use gasoline explosions to drive pistons turning the engine which makes the wheels move”), or by re-explaining something the woman has said back to her, as if she didn’t know what she was talking about, (i.e. “I hate when my period comes,” “Well, see, when your body needs to flush out your system after a reproductive cycle, it causes various physiological effects and hormonal releases that make you feel bad.”)
No one likes to be talked down to. But neither does anyone like to be accused of being intentionally patronizing when they didn’t mean to be.
Perhaps there are men who actually do think less of women as a sex such that they feel the need to speak down to them. But to assume that a vast swath of the population of men disregard women seems a bit far fetched.
What is most likely happening here is the result of two already-known aspects of human nature.
Men Feel a Need to Impress Women
The first underlying cause is that men have an inbuilt desire to impress women. Studies show that men engage in risk-taking behavior when a woman is present - and the more attractive the woman, the higher risks they take.
Much of a male’s identity is caught up in what others think of him. He wants respect from men and he wants women to admire him. For instance, a man is less likely to wear a seatbelt when in the car with a male passenger, and more likely to cross a busy street if females are observing.
This is not a result of a disregard for women. Quite the opposite. The man actually cares about the woman’s opinion of him.
Men play to their strengths when attempting to impress women. If the man has physical prowess, he will naturally tend towards exhibiting any sort of athletic feats in the presence of women. However, if the man considers himself intellectually gifted, he will look for opportunities to display his knowledge.
Nor is this attempt to show off smarts without real-world effect. While it is more complex to define what women find attractive in men than the reverse, studies confirm that intelligence can be a strong draw for woman. So under some circumstances, showing off knowledge can be successful.
So the “mansplaining” phenomena might, in fact, be the man attempting to show the woman that he is knowledgeable about things. Not because he doesn’t think the woman knows things, but rather because he wants the woman to see that he does know things.
In fact, the fact that in early development, most males have a strong female presence in academics - as women make up more of the primary and secondary school teacher pool - men will come to associate showing off knowledge with impressing females. Especially if they have done well in school and associate being knowledgeable with receiving attention and reward.
Essentially, he expects to get a gold star and a compliment each time he is able to successfully explain something well.
In this instance, it is really the woman who has the upper hand in the conversation. If she acts annoyed or unimpressed with his knowledge, the man may defer to a different tactic. Conversely, if she acts impressed at his knowledge, he may keep it up because it seems to be working. Moreover, if the man has successfully impressed women with his knowledge in the past, it might cause him to pursue this tactic in the future.
However, the best way to shape the man's behavior would be for the woman to offer him a reward which discourages talking up his knowledge. An example might be to tell the man that he’s a good listener.
By so doing, the man has received a cognitive reward not for his ability to talk, but his ability to listen. Having received the reward, he is likely to talk less and listen more in order to continue receiving that cognitive reward.
But there may be a much more fundamental issue underlying “Mansplaining.”
Thought Styles and how they Affect Communication
A person will tend to communicate in the same way that they think. Disorganized people aren’t particularly good at stringing thoughts together in conversation, obsessive people tend to cycle the conversation back around to their subject of interest, and a narcissist will direct the conversation toward themselves.
All thought styles fit broadly into one of two categories: slow thinking or fast thinking. To understand the difference, consider a typical cop show wherein one detective meticulously gathers the facts trying to hunt down the suspect. Meanwhile, the partner has an insight or “gut feeling” about another suspect.
In the show, it is typically the cop with the gut feeling who ends up being in the rights, despite the fact that she or he came to the conclusion without pouring over all of the facts of the matter.
A “slow thinker” tends to be methodical and analytical in their approach, reviewing what they know about any given subject in order to come to a conclusion. Whereas a “quick thinker” tends to be very intuitive, acting on instinct or insight to achieve results.
Both kinds of thinking have their merits and their disadvantages, and by large averages, men tend to lean toward slow thinking whereas women tend to lean in the direction of quick thinking.
In terms of conversation, quick thinking has the advantage. The quick thinker is better at reading and empathizing with the other person. The slow thinker tends to be so involved with their side of the conversation, they aren’t as attuned to the other people participating in the conversation.
More to the point, however, the slow thinker talks in the same way they think: by reviewing the specifics of each point, accessing their background knowledge on the point, and building to their conclusion on a foundation of all the knowledge they have.
This process of thinking out loud may result in the exact kinds of behavior one associates with mansplaining. When a slow thinker hears something they have to consider, they will tend to re-explain it to themselves in detail so as to tease out the pertinent data. Do this out loud and it can sound demeaning. When a slow thinker needs to build to a larger point, they have to be thorough in examining all of the sub-points. This could result in over-explaining little points that don’t really need an explanation.
Not all men are slow thinkers, and not all women are quick thinkers. But the large majority of each sex tend toward one or the other, so it becomes easy to associate this out-loud analysis with men, given overall trends.
Men tend to be more goal-oriented. So combine this single-minded drive, the need to impress women and the effects of slow-thinking, and you have the perfect brew to create a "mansplaining" situation - one which is not actually intended to talk down to the woman.
Knowing what drives the behavior doesn’t necessarily make it less annoying to any given individual, but it is worth understanding that the man does not, in all probability, think less of the woman when he is over-explaining things to her.