The Humanist Dilemma: Is My Coworker a “Mansplainer” or Just a Plain Old Know-It-All?

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Please Explain: I’m having a problem with a work colleague (I’ll call him Mr. X) who likes to correct me in one-on-one discussions and also in group meetings. He has a habit of lecturing me in a way that suggests he thinks I’m pretty clueless, even though I’ve been at the organization almost as long as he has, and I have proven myself very capable.

I was complaining about this treatment to someone else on staff and used the term “mansplaining.” This person agreed that Mr. X talks down to me but pointed out that he does this with men too. Maybe I’m taking it too personally, but it feels like Mr. X does it more frequently and obnoxiously to me. How can you tell a “mansplainer” from a “know-it-all,” and is one worse than the other? Is there a good way to address his behavior? I feel like he has some explaining to do and not the kind he usually offers.

—Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It


Dear Whatever,

I just recently learned what mansplaining is: when someone (usually a man) explains something to someone else (usually a woman) who is in fact more of an authority on the topic than the mansplainer, and so his actions come across as condescending and patronizing. So although it could conceivably involve a man or woman doing the explaining as well as receiving the explanation, the emphasis is on the particular way some men tend to explain things to women—as if women are automatically of inferior intelligence.

How can you tell if it’s mansplaining rather than just general condescension? Certainly, if there are any terms involved like “Dear” or “Sweetheart” or “Honey,” it’s pretty likely that the big man is dumbing down for the little woman. If you observe Mr. X treating other females the same way, but treating males at comparable pay grades with respect, he’s probably mansplaining to you. And even if Mr. X gives some males similar treatment, the term could still fit.

Your colleague believes Mr. X treats men pretty much the same way, which suggests that he’s not mansplaining to you but just has an off-putting manner with men as well. Or that he mansplains regardless of the gender of the recipient, meaning that he uses a particular alpha-male tone that perhaps would be better called something else, such as “bossplaining” (I just made that one up) if it’s from higher rank to lower, or “seniorsplaining” (me again) if it’s from older to younger. It’s also possible that you might be particularly sensitive to the way he expresses himself. Some people (Mr. X) are a bit clumsy in the way they communicate, and some (you?) may be highly sensitive to slights and stings that just roll off of others. I once worked with a woman who lost it when a man used the term “perky,” insisting it referred to young women’s breasts, but no one else took it that way.

Whether yours is a case of mansplaining or a more generic egotism accompanying an explanation, they’re both demeaning and dysfunctional. It may be valuable to tease out and document to what extent Mr. X does this only to you, to other women but not men, or to men as well as women. Keep a diary of each instance he does it to you and others, male or female, including the circumstances and as much verbatim as you can jot down (and definitely hang on to any examples he puts in writing). Maybe you can enlist a couple of trusted colleagues to track interactions that don’t involve you as witness or target.

Then you have a few options. First would be to speak with Mr. X privately about whether he has any problems with your performance or abilities. This is the one to use if you conclude that his behavior is primarily specific to or most pronounced with you. If, however, you find this to be a pattern with other females, you may want to get another woman or two to join you in the meeting. If it also involves men, perhaps you plus a man could meet with Mr. X and ask how you can “earn more respectful treatment.”

Pursue this not as an attack on Mr. X, but rather with an open mind to the idea that he may not mean to be doing this. It’s possible he really doesn’t recognize how he comes off and how it makes you feel, and he may sincerely want to modify his behavior once he becomes aware of its effect. In particular, if Mr. X is an older fellow, this may be how he’s always done things—since when it was standard operating procedure—and it may be a challenge for him to modify his manner (and perhaps his attitude toward female/younger/less experienced colleagues). People guilty of this sort of behavior may be clueless; insecure about their own talents; threatened by those on their way up the career ladder; or all of the above. They might even be worthy of your sympathy, if they haven’t snuffed out your capacity for it.

Humor might be another tactic. I once had a fresh-out-of-college subordinate, ten years my junior, to whom I would tick off everything from intricate strategy to “wear comfortable shoes and a jacket, we’ll be walking a lot and the room will be chilly.” To which she’d grin and say, “Yes, Mom.” I quickly recognized she didn’t need the coaching and stopped doing it. Maybe there’s a good-natured way to defuse your situation with Mr. X, without taking offense or being offensive.

If approaching Mr. X doesn’t seem to have any positive impact—or if it has a negative one—take the information you have compiled, along with a colleague or two if appropriate, and present your case to human resources or Mr. X’s boss.

Do we have any HR experts who can chime in with their recommendations?