Helpful men and their good intentions
Since the very first edition of this newsletter, you have sent kind comments, stories, and compliments my way. I am so grateful, in particular, to everyone who has opened up their hearts and lives to me and shared their invaluable stories that help make each edition of this newsletter happen. You give me hope and inspire me to keep going.
Every once in a while, however, I get a piece of feedback that makes me wonder if I am doing any of this right at all.
One such email came to me shortly after Womaning began. A man I don’t know took it upon himself to write a 3000-word email to me, with his educational inputs and advice on how I should write this newsletter.
Here is a direct quote from this novella of an email:
*I am hoping that you would use aggressive judgment in … your work. I am not only hoping actually, I am presenting you this guidance…
Let that sink in. A man who has never written anything creative (unless you count that email), feels entitled to dispense unsolicited “guidance” to me on how I, a woman, should write my newsletter, which is about being a woman.
Mansplaining, as aptly defined in the GIF above, is a global pandemic – one that went undetected and unnamed until 2008, when Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay aptly titled “Men explain things to me”.
She began this essay with the story of a party she went to with a friend. A man at this party heard that she had recently written a book on a certain subject. He decided to corner her and patronizingly asked her if she had about “the very important book that came out this year” on the same subject. He went on and on explaining this book to her until her friend informed him he was talking about Solnit’s book.
“So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, “That’s her book.” Or tried to interrupt him anyway. But he just continued on his way. She had to say, “That’s her book” three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a nineteenth-century novel, he went ashen.”
This was the essay that sparked a million conversations because it described a situation women are all too familiar with.
Which brings us to the women of Womaning, and all our encounters with the deadly species that is Mansplainers.
The Driving Instructor
It was a dark and stormy night. Kavitha, who has been driving for over a decade, was dropping off some friends in her car.
“A male friend was sitting next to me in the front seat, and clearly had doubts about my driving skills based on zero-knowledge.”
He started off with, “Hey, maybe move the wiper to level 3, because it has started raining.”
Incidentally, Kavitha could see it was raining because she has eyes.
But she tried to keep her cool.
Her: “Yeah, it is already at level 3.”
Him: “What about fog lights? Do you know if you have any?”
Her: “Yeah, I know if I have any because I was the one who evaluated and bought the car.”
Him: “When it rains, it can get very slippery on the highway. So, you must keep control on the brake continuously.”
Her: “Okay, firstly, we are not on the highway. Secondly, if I control the brake continuously, we will be sitting ducks for the truck behind to smash into us.”
This went on for a while. The others in the car eventually asked him to kindly shut up and leave the driving to the driver.
But this was neither Kavitha’s first nor last brush with the special brand of mansplaining that gets activated when a man sees a woman behind the wheel.
“While I keep facing mansplaining everywhere – from work to childcare to even breastfeeding – nothing has been as pervasive and painful as men giving me ‘tips’ to drive my own car . I am actually an excellent driver. I can deal with Mehrauli-Gurgaon highway’s road rage and Old Delhi’s maze of back-alleys with equal panache. So, when men explain driving to me, I just want to keep one finger up continuously until they shut up.”
The Menopause Mansplainer
Shilpi is 49 years old. She separated from her husband a few years back and recently got back on the dating scene through the app Bumble.
“The number of men who have told me what I am looking for from a relationship in ‘this stage of life’ is amazing. Men I have met so far like nothing more than to educate me on what I should want and need and appreciate from a relationship. I keep trying to tell them what I want but they are just not interested in listening to my version of my own needs.”
Recently she met a 43-year-old man who also took it upon himself to educate her about her own body’s biology.
“He started giving me a lecture on menopause out of the blue. He said, ‘You know, you are going through menopause. Women’s sexual needs go down at menopause and then pick up again later.’ I tried to tell him that every woman experiences menopause differently, and not everyone is affected the same way. But he was adamant and insistent that his version of menopause was exactly what I would go through and wouldn’t have it any other way. It turned out, he had read one article about menopause on the internet and presumed that he now knew my reproductive system better than I did.”
“I unmatched him then and there.”
The Kitchen Critic
Leena is a homemaker and a mother of a 5-year-old. She says that her husband – who offers little actual help around the house – keeps trying to mansplain household management to her.
“For example, I am very particular about my son’s meal timings. I know he gets hungry every 3 hours. I track his meals diligently, calculating all his meals and snacks in the day basis the time he eats in the morning. Yet, my husband offers a critical note every time I slightly change our son’s lunch or snack timings.”
Her husband’s commentary on her management of the kitchen particularly gets to Leena.
“Every time he enters the kitchen, he tries to dig stuff out from the fridge. He points to any leftovers he can find and mansplains meal planning to me.”
“What he doesn’t realize is that I am extremely well planned. I have a written down menu with details of every meal that I prepare after taking stock of inventory so that food neither gets wasted, nor falls short. I live with my in-laws and plan meals keeping everyone’s preferences in mind and ensuring enough variation in taste and nutrition. I have a rolling list of nearly 100 dishes that I choose from.”
“Of course, he has no idea I do all this, and nor has he ever bothered to find out. So it is pretty annoying when he enters the kitchen once a week and automatically assumes he is the expert there.”
The Mental Health Expert
Swati once met a man who tried to explain her own PMS and to her.
“We were talking about mental health and I told him how I feel depressed in the days before my period. He told me ‘No PMS makes you feel annoyed, not depressed.’ I told him it can lead to different mood swings (or none) in different women. But he just refused to listen and kept telling me I did not understand my own PMS if I felt depressed instead of annoyed.”
Swati has bipolar disorder. She also writes and advocates extensively for mental health awareness.
“I have had men who know nothing about mental health explain bipolar disorder back to me. They say things like ‘What you are describing is not a symptom of bipolar’ or ‘You should just exercise more’ or ‘If you cheer up, it will get better!’ It takes a huge emotional toll to have to constantly justify your own lived experience to ignorant and patronizing men who think they know it all.”
The ‘Helpful’ Colleagues
Ritika is a software developer.
“In the tech industry, mansplaining is extremely common. I have been working as a developer for over 7 years, and know the technology inside out. And yet, most men just assume incompetence when they see a woman. I go to tech conferences for developers and I could be a speaker at the conference, but men will come over and ask me, ‘So what do you do? Are you in HR?’ It is an indirect way of saying ‘You are a woman so you cannot possibly have what it takes to be a developer.’ It is really insulting.”
Ritika recalls a junior at work who she once went up to when she had newly joined a project.
“I went to get a download of the project background from him. He sat me down and started explaining to me how HTTP works. I was so appalled that I had no idea how to react to this.”
Ritika says that women usually let such instances go, even when they are as brazen as a junior mansplaining basic coding to his senior.
“We feel diminished. We feel insulted. We feel undervalued. But we do not call it out to maintain peace and cordial relationships.
This does not mean that mansplaining does not affect us. It affects us and harms us in so many ways – psychologically, socially, professionally. It can seriously dent a woman’s self-esteem.”
And yet, women being undervalued and facing mansplaining is widely documented in the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) industries.
“If you are a man, your past good work follows you and people give you credit for it – as it should be, for everyone. But as a woman in STEM, you have to prove that you have the basic abilities to do your job on a daily basis. Your past achievements are like a slate wiped clean at the beginning of every day.”
Recently, Ritika was on a Zoom call where she got another reminder of the same.
“We were discussing progress on a project. In the middle of the meeting, a male colleague randomly said, ‘I can help Ritika after I am done with my work.’ I had never asked for his or anybody’s help. I am more than capable of doing my job and doing it well. Yet, he said this on a 300 people Zoom call. People listening likely walked away with the impression that I am incompetent. These small things add up over time. I have thought about quitting my job many times because of this.”
When I read, then rubbed my eyes, then re-read the email from my self-appointed Guidance Counselor, I knew that a worldly-wise and mature woman would not rise to this bait and walk away from it.
Unfortunately, I am not that woman.
I sent this short response in my reply:
“Thank you for the guidance. Do look up mansplaining as part of your extensive reading on this subject.”
I fully expected to receive a lecture or trolling or even abuse and threats back in response. And I suspected the whole thing would end with me having to block him.
To my pleasant surprise, he wrote back saying he reflected on what I had said and saw what he had done there. A few months later, when I set up my ‘Buy Me A Coffee’ page, he bought me some coffees to show his continued appreciation of my work.
The whole episode gave me hope.
Even mansplainers could be operating from good faith.
Ritika said something about good intentions in our conversation that I want to end this piece with:
“Many men feel attacked when the term ‘mansplaining’ is used by women. But this is not a men vs women issue. This is an intent vs impact issue. I genuinely believe that this does not come from man carrying a malicious intent. It comes from them carrying an unconscious bias that women are incompetent and need a man’s help and direction to get through life. Irrespective of what your intentions are, if you are a man who is operating on this assumption, you need to check yourself. Because the impact of your words is harming us, whether or not that was your intention.”
So, if you are a man who is a true ally, call it out next time you see mansplaining happen to a woman.
As for the rest of you lovely men, I look forward to receiving your emails and messages helpfully explaining to me how I got this all wrong.
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