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Monday, March 25, 2013

Mansplainers LLC

It was Sunday morning and I was performing that universally-endured household ritual of purging the fridge before stocking up on whatever science experiment fodder is passing for food these days.

"You don't want this?"

"No, it's dead," I said, glancing over to see that Joe was holding up a bottle of  Bloody Mary mix I'd just put into the the thanks-for-coming pile, along with a shriveled lump of ginger that had escaped notice for so long that it felt like the hollow corpse of some mummified sea creature. I tossed it, along with a chunk of galvanized cheese and half a cucumber that didn't make it.


"It's expired," I added, unnecessarily in my opinion, given that the inside of the Bloody Mary bottle neck was crusted with a fairly unappetizing brownish, pulpy muck. My man, the love of my life, has never to my knowledge consumed a single Bloody Mary, but at that moment he was very much advocating for this old bottle that, if memory serves, was bought way back in December for our New Year's Eve party.

"Are you sure?" he asked a second time.

"Joe, it's expired. Could you please not keep asking me if I'm sure? You always do that. Don't you think I can tell if the expiration date is in the past or the future?"

Argument ensued. Details unimportant. I apologized later because the fight wasn't even ours. It belonged to me and my coworkers, me and my bosses, me and the electrician, me and the building manager, me and the Peapod guy. The truth is that my anger has been growing lately over constantly being questioned, second-guessed and talked-over by men, personally, professionally and politically. In Joe's defense, he is not an habitual mansplainer, he was only the bringer of the proverbial last straw for this week. In that moment, I'd had it with having to reiterate, prove and defend my simplest actions because of men hard-wired to assume that women don't know what they're talking about.

The term "mansplaining" is a fairly new addition to the modern cultural lexicon, but even if they haven't yet seen any of the numerous articles, all women instantly understand the term the first time they hear it. We live it every day. The expression was coined after a 2008 article by writer Rebecca Stolnit in which she describes an encounter with a party host who, once he learned of her interest in the subject matter, doggedly insisted on educating her about a certain book she must read. It required several tries before "Mr. Very Important" would finally be made to understand that this extremely vital book he was attempting to tell her about was her book.
Being told that, categorically, he knows what he's talking about and she doesn't, however minor a part of any given conversation, perpetuates the ugliness of this world. Several years ago, I objected to the behavior of a couple of men, only to be told on both occasions that the incidents hadn't happened at all as I said they had, that I was subjective, delusional, overwrought, dishonest -- in a nutshell, female.
 -  Rebecca Stolnit, "Men Who Explain Things," Los Angeles Times, April 2008
Talk about "however a minor part of any given conversation." There's Joe with the stupid expired drink mix. There's the Peapod guy, who, I kid you not, just put me through this conversation yesterday morning.
"We have a grocery delivery scheduled for you this morning, ma'am. Did you move?"

"No."

"No?!"

"No, we did not move. We're still at *****."

"But it says here you moved."

"I don't know what you're reading, but we have been at this address nearly three years."

"...ooookay..."
It's important to note that his voice changed on "okay." Where before he'd been persistent, confident in his facts. At the end he exhaled the "okay" in an unmistakable "if you say so, lady" sigh weighted with weary acceptance of the hassle he's resigned to endure once he receives the inevitable call from his driver saying he is at the wrong house. Because when presented with two possibilities, this guy dismissed the one where there's an error in the notes on a customer account, opting instead to immediately embrace what, in his mind, must surely be what's going on: this lady doesn't know where she lives.

My Peapod example echoes an old anecdote that's been knocking around the web awhile. The story goes that a delivery driver called for directions because he couldn't find the house. The lady of the house was used to this, as she and her husband lived where unfortunate placement of a one-way street meant that she's had to give the tricky directions hundreds of times over the years. The driver, however, kept cutting her off with retorts like, "That doesn't make any sense. That's a one way street. Can I talk to your husband?" Calmly, as we women have learned is the best way to handle these kinds of men, she repeated the directions again, and then said "Do you understand? Or do I need to speak with your wife?"

What's worse? Being "mansplained at" by someone in the service industry (all hail, the customer is always right, unless you're female), or getting some variation of it on a daily basis from a colleague, one at your same pay grade level, only with less seniority by five years? Because I've got one of those. And each and every single time this guy lends voice or action to his opinion of my inability to perform the most mundane aspects of my job, I have to think about how to handle it. I have told him that he need not worry about this, about that, reassuring him that I have control of the situation. I have been as clear as I know how to be. I have even emailed him Rebecca Solnit's article.

Is it a game, or is this for real? Every time this guy barrels through, shouldering me aside to take the ball, I have to stand there and decide whether I grit my teeth and keep the peace, or whether I confront him again and request that he get un-involved in my part of the details. I'm the expert. I've been doing logistics for 20 years. I'm the operations person, I helped set up everything in this company since it was a 2-person operation in 2004. The problem becomes this, quite simply: it's a hard job, long hours and a dozen fires to put out. But not only do I have my job to do, on top of the workload I bear the extra mental stress of having to work out how to handle all this interrupting, questioning and doubting. I have to be the one organizing my thoughts enough to shut him up in such a way that he doesn't have another "mantrum" like the one he had last time.

I hereby define the word "mantrum" as the tantrum thrown by a "mansplainer" brought about by any woman exhibiting that she knows what she's talking about.

This happened about a year ago. I was at my desk in the middle of creating a group email. So the guy came in for something, and when he saw that I had the group email program open on my screen, he said, "I'll show you how to make a group email." I said thanks, but I know how to do it. In fact, I do it all the time. (Unsaid: In fact, I've been doing it for years before you even came to work here.)

He insisted, "No! You have to do this certain thing, I'll show you!" Once again, I said thanks but I already know how to create a group email. He flipped out. Red-faced with exasperation, he threw up his hands and said, "FINE! If you don't want help, FINE," and then he stamped out of my office and off down the hall.

What just happened? Friends, this is a whole level-up in the game of mansplaining. It's of some comfort that I happen to share my office with a colleague-- male -- who is also a friend I recruited to work here and NOT a mansplainer. The stunned expression on his face demonstrated that I'm not nuts. It's real. That red-faced huffer-and-puffer who just stalked out is a champion Mansplainer.
Men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don't.
-  Rebecca Stolnit, "Men Who Explain Things," Los Angeles Times, April 2008
Several years ago there was a building manager who gave me a "mansplanation" so incomprehensible that I still give pause to wondering if there is any way I could possibly have misunderstood him.

One  Monday my boss told me he'd come in to work on Saturday, and found our suite door ajar. He asked if I could try to find out what happened. I called Bill, the building manager, to ask if I could get a look at the security tapes and told him the reason why. Bill informed me that what I was saying made no sense -- that our door couldn't have been open on Saturday morning, because he was there on Saturday afternoon, and he saw our door closed. Well...yes, my boss would have closed and locked the door by then...um...?

"Bill," I said, "Andy didn't...leave it open when he left..."  Bill's response was, "Dear, I told you, I was personally there and the door was closed." Then he told me I could view the security tapes, but only if one of his guys was sitting with me, and they're really busy with real work.

This mansplaining phenomenon is not a new one, but the Rebecca Stolnit article did spark a renewed dialogue among women online, triggering a renewed social media sharing of our common experience handling the special kind of presumptuous self-importance that only mansplainers seem to summon when informing women what they need, what they want, and telling them how they feel about themselves and about the world.

In the myopic Republican war on women this insanity extends to astonishing comments about rape and reproductive rights, and even extends to the GOP insistence that there is no "war on women" at all. So ingrained is this point of view that there remains a significant portion of the American population that refuses to accept the idea that we willfully perpetuate a rape culture, even as situations such as the Steubenville case exhibit the fallout of just such a culture. There is no rape culture? Get on our side of the fence and say that.

It's 2013, but women still have a problem being heard. Even more insulting than that, we're constantly challenged to provide hard evidence that there's an actual sexism problem. Provide evidence?

Even as male politicians spend an inordinate amount of time and resources attempting to regulate our vaginas? They're obsessed with vaginas. They're constantly pounding gavels and pulpits and bibles over vaginas, and attempting to unravel two hundred years of progress under the laughable guise of "family values."

Even as these same vagina-obsessed lawmakers constantly pigeonhole us as sluts, troublemakers and lesbians just for asking for a seat at the table?

Even as the subsequent narrative about the Steubenville rapists coming from the media and the community maintained that these guys deserve leniency instead of punishment since they were unaware they were doing anything wrong?

How much more evidence do you need?
Having public standing as a writer of history has helped me stand my ground, but few women get that boost, and billions of women are out there on this 6-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever. This goes way beyond Men Explaining Things, but it's part of the same archipelago of arrogance.
-  Rebecca Stolnit, "Men Who Explain Things," Los Angeles Times, April 2008
Mansplaining is the stuff of arrogance at best, oppression at worst, whether it be in a political, professional or personal setting.  At its most trivial, it comes down to one thing: respect. In talking about day-to-day life in America, we're not even including Steubenville and the next-level violence perpetrated upon women. On a day-to-day level, we're just talking about any conversation in which the woman has to deal with men interrupting, ignoring, dismissing.

Of course, there are millions of honorable, respectful and professional men out there. But some of you need to take a closer look, because you may not even realize what you're doing. If you think of yourself as a man who respects  women, yet your reflexive first reaction is to doubt her, then you just might be a mansplainer. You're also the worst kind, because you don't know you have a problem, therefore you're my problem.

The guy at work, he's one of those. He thinks he respects women. But he is unable to hear my voice, both figuratively and literally. He has one of those very loud speaking voices. You can hear every one of his phone conversations all over the office. My voice is soft, I don't tend to raise it. Whenever I begin to speak and he interrupts me, if I keep right on speaking (the professional woman's defense that means "I'm talking now") he just increases his volume. It's gotten to the point where it's easier just to let him talk, wait for an opening and try again.

It's too bad, because although this bullying aspect of his personality is offensive, he also has many qualities that I actually do rely on. I'd have a hard time getting certain projects done without his contribution, and I frequently do need his expertise, advice or input. At those times, I seek it out. The difference between us is that once I get his input, I accept the information he provided, confident that he knows what he's talking about.

Maybe one day he'll grant me that same respect. But, to paraphrase Ms. Stolnit, I won't hold my breath.