Monday, April 28, 2008


Professor Zero's post about an exasperating conversation and the comments on the post linked to an essay by Rebecca Solnit, "Men Who Explain Things." In it, as an aside to a larger point, Solnit tells of a man who was so eager to pontificate about her book on Eadward Muybridge, River of Shadows, that he didn't register that she had written it.
Men explain things to me, and to other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I mean. It's the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men's unsupported overconfidence.

I've had this happen to me; haven't we all? It happened today, in fact, when I wrote a message to someone who not only missed the point by a country mile but, after assuring me that he took my concerns very seriously, used the occasion to boast about his experiences and lecture me about the Great Importance of his Field. What else can you do, but say, with the cutting irony of a Miss Manners, "Thank you for setting me straight"?

I have to say, however, that the particular combination of stupidity and arrogance that drives some individuals to patronize others under the guise of instruction isn't exclusively a guy thing. Although I have been instructed in this way by some males, including a male relative who said he would send me his first-year paper on author X (a person I've written about) so I could "learn from it," such a drive to instruct is an equal-opportunity curse.

  • Librarians have explained to me that the Dewey Decimal system was "really quite different" from the Library of Congress system and that typing a search term in the keyword box at the library site could yield some results.

  • A preschool teacher suggested parenting tips for my toddler as her own child sat in the next room, sucking her thumb . . . at the age of 6. In fact, various parents used to raise their voices above their own children who were screaming like banshees and trying to hit each other with cardboard bricks to suggest parenting tips for me to try out.

    So it's not just stupid and arrogant men who explain things. Stupid and arrogant women explain things, too. You can argue with them, but they won't get it. Your best defense is to get away from them. In the meantime, practice this response:

    "Thank you for setting me straight."

    [Edited to add: Unlike the Mr. Arrogance who lectured Solnit, I've read her book, and it is very good.]

    Anonymous said...

    Men, of course, keep saying I explain too many obvious things or raise issues which should not be raised.

    I just came from such a meeting.

    Faculty out of field: If this good candidate comes, will he be satisfied enough to stay?

    Z: It depends in part on what kind of job he really wants. Are we sure he has enough information on actual conditions here, good and bad, to make a decision he won't regret too soon?

    Faculty: He asked all the questions he should have asked. He knows enough. But will he stay?

    Z: Well, there are a lot of easy, no-cost things we can do to make him happy. His predecessor left because the secretary kept scheduling him for modern seminars when he was a medievalist. He had to prepare these courses in lieu of doing research. We could stop doing things like that to people and faculty turnover would decrease, while student satisfaction increased.

    Faculty: We can't do that - we must train him to obey. And you, Z, should stop telling us what to do; you also need to learn to obey.

    Z [aside]: All right. I guess I'll go get some crawfish and a bottle of beer.

    undine said...

    Crawfish and beer is an excellent response, Cero. It sounds as though "will he stay?" was a rhetorical question, and giving a sensible answer, as you did, didn't even make a dent.

    dance said...

    I also read and enjoyed that article--but I have to admit, I am also a person who has been known to explain things that I don't myself understand. And I'm female.

    undine said...

    Dance--yes, but I bet you're not patronizing about it. That's the difference.