The Inverse of Mansplaining

When I’m with almost anyone except my husband or my mom, I talk less than the other person. The less I know the person, or larger the group, the less I talk. It takes an effort for me to open up. Sometimes others have to ask multiple questions to draw me out of my shell. At the school where I teach, some staff members gave each teacher a certificate with a nickname, and mine was “The Quiet One.” This habit has become increasingly pronounced as I get older, and I’ve become increasingly self-conscious about it, which of course just makes it worse. There are several reasons for it, some good and some bad.

Listening to others is good. Asking questions and being curious is good. Being open to learning about another person is good. Getting outside my own head and focusing attention on others is good. These advantages of my habit certainly motivate me to keep my mouth shut during conversations. And like I said, it’s sometimes been a very good thing for me.

But shyness is bad. Inhibition is bad. Reticence for its own sake is bad. Fear of judgment is bad. Fear of the intimacy that accompanies candid disclosure is bad. If I stay quiet because I’m convinced that nothing I might say could possibly be worth wasting the other person’s time with, that’s not just bad, it’s poisonous.

I’ve been thinking about this habit of mine for a few months now. I first began to put it in a larger context after reading an excerpt from The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose (which has joined my ever-growing list of books to read). The excerpt includes a smart update of Virginia Woolf’s idea about Shakespeare’s sister, which Rose calls “Prospero’s Daughter.” Rose recaps Woolf’s essay, discussing how women of a hundred years ago could easily see

“what relative value their society put on their minds and the minds of their brothers. This, in turn, would affect their self-confidence, and more than anything else except talent, self-confidence is what an artist requires, a belief that what you have to say, or the vision of the world that you feel it in yourself to convey, is important.”

And that idea is what made me see myself in the essay, and made me see internalized sexism in my worst habit. My diffidence is the inverse of mansplaining: self-repression rather than interruption or verbal dismissal. I don’t just keep quiet because others are busy talking, although that happens. I keep quiet because I don’t have the confidence to speak.

What I’ve experienced is something others have described and documented at length. This article on apology culture does a great job summarizing social expectations for women’s speech:

‘the talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women.’ The expectation, then, is that women are (or should be) silent and when they are not, they are taught to apologise.’

Lena Dunham connects these gendered expectations regarding speech to the concepts of oversharing and ‘TMI’:

The term “oversharing” is so complicated because I do think that it’s really gendered. I think when men share their experiences, it’s bravery and when women share their experiences, it’s some sort of — people are like, “TMI.” Too much information has always been my least favorite phrase because what exactly constitutes too much information? It seems like it has a lot to do with who is giving you the information, and I feel as though there’s some sense that society trivializes female experiences. And so when you share them, they aren’t considered as vital as their male counterparts’ [experiences] and that’s something that I’ve always roundly rejected.

Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle, “an autobiographical novel” that goes into minute detail about its male author’s family life, Katie Roiphe (who isn’t always as astute as she is here) questions whether the novel would have been as well-received if it were written by a woman instead. She concludes that it’s old news when women write domestic stories, but the same work feels fresh and new coming from a man, simply because at this point in history, relatively few men have made the home the focus of their life’s work and written about it. The annual VIDA count is another demonstration of how women don’t get the attention they deserve.

See, it’s not just my perception: people just aren’t as interested in what women have to say. At some level I’ve noticed that and internalized it. Staying quiet is a logical reaction to constantly being told that you’re boring. If I’m afraid that expressing an opinion will make me seem presumptuous or arrogant, that’s because I’ve been taught to feel that way by a culture that doesn’t value women’s opinions. It’s because you can’t be feminine and ladylike while also being brash and bold, and given the choice between the two, I picked the one that would cause fewer conflicts and make me more friends.

And the worst thing to me is that it’s not just about conversations and spoken words. To be completely honest with myself, I have to admit that THIS, not time, is the single biggest factor that keeps me from writing. When I manage to write anyway, my lack of confidence directs my pen away from the things that matter most and the things that scare me the most, away from original writing and toward critiques of others, or toward my journal, a private outlet that no one will ever see. It’s because at some level, I’m sure that no one cares to hear what I’ve got to say. And if I keep telling myself that message, eventually I’ll keep myself from ever having anything to say.

My reading of The Confidence Code: The Art and Science of Self-Assurance–What Women Should Know really helped me to put these ideas together and gave me the courage to write about them and make this writing public. In this awesome book, Kay and Shipman define confidence as the quality that turns thoughts into action. Clearly, that’s what I’m lacking in the writing department. The authors discuss both the causes of women’s lower levels of confidence, and what to do about it. There are many causes, from the biological to the social, and many suggested remedies, from the simple and concrete to the challenging and life-altering. I learned that I’m probably prone to low confidence because of my genes and the role of neurotransmitters in confidence, including dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. It stands to reason that anyone who’s ever been prescribed an SSRI is likely to have lower-than-average serotonin, and thus lower-than-average confidence.

In going on about how no one cares about women’s voices and stories, I’m not trying to make myself a victim. I’m just being reflective, looking at myself, noticing something I don’t like, and wondering why I do that dumb thing. I can’t change a bad habit without understanding how I fell into it. Answering that question involves recognizing false beliefs I hold, and tracing the origin of those false beliefs leads me to look outside myself at the world around me. I’m not absolving myself of responsibility. This is an explanation, not an excuse, and one that is meant to fuel greater efforts to overcome this bad habit. I hope to motivate myself to do the hard work necessary to build my confidence by reminding myself that in doing so, I’m proving how valuable women’s voices and stories are. To succeed, I’m going to need self-compassion, an important practice for overcoming the perfectionism that creates many women’s confidence deficits. For me, self-compassion means forgiving myself for letting myself down, and in order to do that, I needed to understand my lack of confidence in a larger context. I guess this is just me doing cognitive behavioral therapy on myself.

So now that I’ve recognized and understood and owned my problem, I have to either do something about it or let it beat me. I guess this is my public commitment to work on speaking up more often, to write more and take more chances with the things I write about. But it’s hard. No one should have to be a culture warrior 24/7. It shouldn’t be required for someone to go to heroic lengths to get to where someone else started out. They say that as women get older they get more confident. I’m 30 now, so I’m due for a bit of that confidence any day now. I hope I can channel that self-assurance into speaking and writing and making my voice heard.

Maybe reading can help me. I especially like the conclusion of the excerpt from Phyllis Rose’s book:

Reading is almost always subversive. From the time you read the next night’s fairy tale under the covers by flashlight when you have already had your bedtime story from Daddy and are supposed to be asleep to the time you are an adult reading junk, hoping no one catches you at it, reading is private; that’s the most seductive thing about it. It’s you and the book. Women’s reading will respond to women’s needs. Men’s will respond to men’s. And if men never begin to read fiction by women, well, as my mother always said to comfort me when I didn’t get something I wanted (and it never failed to work), “It’s their loss.” We’re all better off for enmeshing ourselves with what we are not, and that may best be done in love, but fiction works, too.

So, as I always have, I can use reading to empower and educate myself. However, I’ve never found “It’s their loss” to be quite as comforting as Rose does. In this case, men’s refusal to listen to women’s stories represents a loss to men, first and foremost. Their worlds stay that much smaller, that much more homogenous. But it also means that nothing changes: the system that devalues women’s voices is perpetuated, and women continue to be silenced.

I guess it’s a chicken-or-egg question: does change come first from inside or outside? The answer, of course, is both, but I only have control over one of those. So I need to just summon the courage to keep talking and keep writing, regardless of whether anyone cares what I have to say, because then at least I’m not selling myself short. That way I won’t have the regrets that would come with giving up. Then, when people are ready to pay attention, I’ll be ready too.


8 thoughts on “The Inverse of Mansplaining

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  3. “But shyness is bad. Inhibition is bad. Reticence for its own sake is bad. Fear of judgment is bad. Fear of the intimacy that accompanies candid disclosure is bad. If I stay quiet because I’m convinced that nothing I might say could possibly be worth wasting the other person’s time with, that’s not just bad, it’s poisonous.”
    “To succeed, I’m going to need self-compassion, an important practice for overcoming the perfectionism that creates many women’s confidence deficits”
    -All of this is true, but are you sure this is because you’re a woman, or is it because it’s the way you are or were raised excluding any gender issues? I know plenty of men that have this problem, and at least a few women that don’t. And while I can easily accept that shyness is a trait society disproportionately instills in women, why do you think that this has hampered your ability to write as opposed to making it an outlet for your repressed thoughts? I too, find myself frustrated by people that talk without thinking, or bully their way through conversations, and take time away from the more slow and thoughtful. I usually respond by writing out some sort of letter or essay just to get my ideas and arguments sorted and on paper. Its incredibly therapeutic and sometimes I find out I didn’t have as much to say on a topic as I thought I did. I guess writing creatively might require more self-confidence than writing argumentatively, I just don’t see why.

    “I guess it’s a chicken-or-egg question: does change come first from inside or outside? The answer, of course, is both, but I only have control over one of those.”
    I’d like to comment here on two counts. First, I don’t think that more female literature will promote much more acceptance of female voices. This is because the people that are the problem aren’t listening to female voices. Those of us trying to understand our ingrained sexist views have no problem seeking out female viewpoints. People that haven’t realized their bias yet, by definition, are not going to be seeking out female lit (and those that don’t have one don’t need it for the instructional purpose). The important exception is in books read by young adults. Anne McCaffrey was one of my favorites growing up . And while I read those books predominately for the sweet dragons on every cover, I credit her much more believable male-female interactions with the reason I wince my way through so many of today’s fantasy novels’ attempts at the same. But she didn’t have to overtly crusade for feminism or female voices, she just wrote cool stories and for me, her style became part of the norm, bringing me a step closer to recognizing women as real people (full disclosure: probably not all the way there yet).
    Which is the second point. You do have some control, you just need to exert it on the people that haven’t hardened their biases and entrenched their ways of thinking. Of course, this will require coming out of the shell somewhat, so the chicken still wins. Or is it the egg? “Coming out the shell” works better if its the chicken, so I’ll go with that.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response! I expected some pushback along the same lines you give me here, but I expected it to come in a much less respectful and self-aware way, so I really appreciate that.

      It’s impossible to say whether my shyness comes from being a woman, the way I was raised, my inborn personality, or any complication of the way those elements interacted as I grew up. Of course some men are shy and some women are not. My point is mostly just the fact you accept, “that shyness is a trait society disproportionately instills in women,” so it seems likely that at least some of my reluctance to speak is gender-based.

      I agree, writing is easier for shy people than speaking, in some ways the perfect outlet. I do the same thing you do when stressed with a conflict: write out my thoughts just to purge myself of them, then bury them in my journal or email draft folder. I think sharing writing is the hard part, the part that requires confidence. And motivating yourself to write something that will never be shared is hard. As long as the stakes are low, I’m ok. But low stakes mean low rewards. Maybe I’m more like an athlete who practices alone constantly, but is afraid to enter a competition with real live opponents. I have the confidence to practice, but not to perform. (To me, creative writing or storytelling has a performative aspect; the writer is actor, dancer, choreographer, musician, director, lighting designer, all at once.)

      Yes, for me personally, writing creatively is scarier than writing my opinions or even writing about my life. Part of it is just that I have more practice with nonfiction/arguments and personal/memoir-style writing (tons of school papers and 17ish years of journaling). Part of it is that I value it so highly and continue to see myself as unworthy of it. Others with equally low confidence might see it the opposite way: creative writing allows them to mask or escape their true selves. This genre preference might be an individual thing with me, and not related to the gender issue.

      You’re right that there’s the “preaching to the choir problem” when it comes to acceptance of female voices. I guess we kind of have to wait for the really biased readers and publishers to just die out or retire, since they’re never going to change their minds or even recognize that there is a problem. That’s why concentrating on young readers is a smart strategy, I agree. Anne McCaffrey is a great example. You’re right that this ‘gender education’ doesn’t have to be overt at all. It’s just a matter of introducing little boys to interesting, well-rounded female characters. That sets the stage for them to develop into thoughtful readers like you. I appreciate your taking the time to comment.

  4. Some recent articles that support the points I’ve made here:

    On the movie Wild, and the fact that it didn’t get a Best Picture Oscar nomination, probably because Oscar voters don’t value women’s stories as highly as men’s stories:

    Sheryl Sandberg in the NYT on the resistance women encounter when they do speak up in business contexts:

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