ESRC Virtual Festival – The social power of language: mansplaining…

The neologism “mansplaining” generally describes a sexist behaviour whereby a man explains something to a woman in a patronising way, something which she already knows. The term was coined over a decade ago and since then it has sparked numerous debates about what is and what isn’t mansplaining.

Some forms of sexist behaviour are relatively clear to spot and call out, like gendered adverts featuring women using cleaning products or cooking for their families, or institutionalised forms of sexism whereby a highly qualified woman is passed over for a managerial position, or this very recent example where the Finnish prime minister is condemned for wearing a blazer for a photoshoot. Others, like mansplaining, are fairly controversial because there isn’t a consensus on what mansplaining actually looks like.

This is where our research comes in – we collected real-life instances where the word “mansplaining” gets used to accuse a man of doing something wrong, and using a form of communication analysis called Conversation Analysis, we studied what lead to the word being used, and once it is used, how the man responds.

Using the method of Conversation Analysis we can study the very tiny details of language use, from micro-second pauses, and breathing to social actions, like offering someone a biscuit or inviting them to a socially distanced gathering. These small details, though seemingly inconsequential, give us the full picture of how people actually, in their real-life conversations, use language. Applying this to the word “mansplaining” therefore means we can view, in very great detail, precisely what gets a woman to accuse a man of mansplaining, and how a man responds to that accusation.

From our observations of real-life uses, we found that women use mansplaining in three ways: to expose a man’s patronising conduct; to claim authority over gendered knowledge; and to silence a man and undermine the credibility of his assertions.

The first way, where it exposes a man’s patronising conduct, resonates with the mainstream definition of mansplaining – here the accusation of mansplaining gets leveraged against a man who has treated a woman as knowing less, despite the woman having equal or greater knowledge.

The second use of mansplaining regards gendered knowledge, for example, knowledge about reproductive healthcare or women’s bodies. In our data we see these accusations being produced when men claim to have more or better knowledge of these issues than their women interlocutors.

Thirdly, we found instances where a woman has more access to some knowledge, but a man disputes this. Ultimately, the accusation is used to silence him and insinuate that what he has said is not credible.

So what does this mean? Altogether, the study demystifies how the term is actually used, and it expands our current understanding of mansplaining by identifying two new meanings that are grounded in individuals’ practical use of the term. More importantly, the study illuminates how mansplaining enables women to speak out and push back against invisible sexist behaviour.

Dr Jack B. Joyce
Postdoctoral Research Associate
School of Communication and Media

Talking matters: the social power of language takes place on Tue, November 10, 2020 6:00 PM – 7:30 PM. Register for free here…

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2017_02_080004 – Mansplaining” by Gwydion M. Williams is licensed under CC BY