virality and dichotomy

On virality and dichotomy: mansplaining and more

Mansplain |manˈspleɪn|

verb [with object] informal
(of a man) explain (something) to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing.

Sarcasm is one of the ways of coping with difficulties. Men’s often condescending way of conversation “towards” women has been constantly ridiculed with the use of the word mansplaining which now has an entry in my Oxford English Dictionary. On the web, I see loads of memes and anecdotes making fun about mansplaining. Truthfully, some degree of truth spiced up with mockery and visual illustration can never be boring. Hurtful for some, perhaps. The greatest thing about online virality is how effectively it can deliver messages to anonymous individuals who are present online. Information circulates rapidly and turns instantaneously. The instantaneousness and the temporariness, in turn, compromises critical observations and judgments based on originality. Enchanting stories beautifully laid out with a certain level of facts captivate audiences who are ready to be friendly. Provocative stories targeting people whose minds are searching for a place to blame also captivate audiences in the same sense. So the stories often lose its depth and perspective in virality. Without perspectives, generalising and dividing sides becomes easy, thus creating dichotomy.

One day, I was reading a buzzfeed article labeled “LOL” about women’s experience regarding mansplaining and texted my friend afterwards saying “I just realised my coworker is a mansplainer. He ACTUALLY starts many of his sentences with “Mmm…actually,” in Korean version. LOL.” My friend humourlessly responded that he hates the word as it’s often used for feminist to argue their point with. The reason “mmm…actually” can be the mansplainer starter is simply because the words intend to interject and correct. Since it’s context-sensitive, it’s not always mansplaining if men starts their sentence with those words. As my friend said people, especially women does use the word for proving their point, yet it’s still context-sensitive. Even though I never associated the word with feminism ideas — rather associate with being douche is what I said, — I can’t agree more with the fact that these catch words are easily exposed to epidemic usage without its original meaning attached, likely because the web only delivers the catchy sides not the complicated sides. To talk about the original usage, the word mansplaining was first used in the article written by Rebecca Solnit in 2008, describing her experience at a dinner party.

He kept us waiting while the other guests drifted out into the summer night, and then sat us down at his grainy wood table and said to me, “So? I hear you’ve written a couple of books.”
I replied, “Several, actually.”
He said, in the way you encourage your friend’s 7-year-old to describe flute practice, “And what are they about?”
They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, my book on Eadweard Muybridge, the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.

He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?”
So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingenue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book — with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.
Here, let me just say that my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, including a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me; with my infinitely generous younger brother; with splendid male friends. Still, there are these other men too.
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 19th century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn’t read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless — for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing.

It’s an awful experience, when encountered, that makes me question myself somehow what part of my attitude let others push me down to their subordinate. Plus the fact that I have to question myself? Regardless how condescending his attitude in the article was, I would not conclude that he nor other men has in their nature the habit of patronising women whenever they try to explain things. Not every time at least. I do sometimes experience it from men. In this case though, I’m more inclined to think that there are some dumb individuals who think their shallow knowledge would nutrify others’ innocent brain, my lady-like ingenue brain. That might be true, but there are other views that explain why men do it to women, and to men as well. The article describes Deborah Tannen’s recount on her experience at dinner with a fellow scholar and her colleague.

But another (complementary) explanation is at hand. “Mansplaining”, before it was so named, was identified by Deborah Tannen in her 1990 book “You Just Don’t Understand”. Ms Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University, described a dinner at which the female scholar to her left shared her research agenda, and the two happily discussed their work and their overlap. But when Ms Tannen turned to a male colleague and briefly mentioned her research he, not a linguist, began going on and on about his own work that touched on neurolinguistics. Leaving the conversation she realised that she had just played the embarrassing subordinate role in the scenarios where she was the expert.

But Ms Tannen says “the reason is not—as it seems to many women—that men are bums who seek to deny women authority.” Instead, she says, “the inequality of the treatment results not simply from the men’s behavior alone but from the differences in men’s and women’s styles.” (In everything that follows, “men do X” and “women do Y” should be read as /react-text on average, men tend somewhat more towards X and women towards Y, with great variation within both sexes. react-text: 410 ) In Ms Tannen’s schema, men talk to determine and achieve status. Women talk to determine and achieve connection. To use metaphors, for men life is a ladder and the better spots are up high. For women, life is a network, and the better spots have greater connections.

I still like the word mansplaining. But that shouldn’t mean the word should be used to deny men’s authority either. It must not be that simple.

The reason I started writing this is actually because of the article I stumbled upon about whitesplaining. It criticises about a food magazine featuring Vietnamese cuisine with a white chef who taught people how to eat the food. The magazine and the white chef got plenty of attacks and ridicules because of the fact that the hired chef wasn’t fit for Vietnamese food. What I observed on the online dispute, though, was that the chef was seemingly unfit simply because of his look or nationality even though his knowledge of the food was questionable. If it was about he having inadequate knowledge of the cuisine, people probably won’t care because it’s rather worthless to make an obvious point.

Some commented that he/she is Vietnamese and nobody he/she knows eats the way the chef does. Some criticised on the fact that the magazine hired a white guy for presenting Asian food despite the fact that there are plenty of good Vietnamese chefs out there. What, only Italians should present Italian food? It hardly sounds racist (or ethnicist, if there is?) but it actually is. Racism is not only about white people discriminating coloured people. It’s about people with any colour discriminating people with other colours solely based on the colour. We tend to be softer when it comes to the so-called socially weaker side getting treated unfairly compared to when the so-called socially majority side gets treated unfairly. We learn it from fairy tales. When wolf gets eaten by piglets, when witches burn to death, and when poor people steal money from the rich, we learn that it’s a good ending that makes everyone happy. Thus, to persuade or provoke people, it’s effective to attack white guy for doing non-white thing he “shouldn’t” do. Because we all know that racial issue is sensitive.

“But both Nguyen and Maningding agree that someone from another culture must approach cuisine with a certain level of respect,” the article quotes. I agree not the blind respect for some “unknown” culture. When I think about it, I imagine a conversation like this:

Foreigner: Hey Cho, I want to try authentic Korean Kimchi. You know how to make Kimchi, right?
Me: No I don’t.
Foreigner: But if you do, you will be better than anyone, right?
Me: I don’t know. I’m usually not good at cooking.
Foreigner: But you know what the real Kimchi should taste like, right?
Me: I don’t know. It all tastes different depending on the region or family tradition.
Foreigner: But you are Korean, right?
Me: My passport says so. But it doesn’t say I’m a natural professional Kimchi maker.

The respect and authenticity, I think is the concept of the quality not the statement. By quality I mean attitudes, knowledge, and experience rather than nationality or colour itself. Small eyes, big eyes, it doesn’t matter. Anyone who fits should be able to make that cuisine without making people — and ancestors — angry.

Speaking of respect, I often eat nsima — people usually eat it with fingers — with a spoon because it’s hot for my fingers. I don’t mean to offend other people but I can enjoy food more that way. And I’m sure showing how much I’m enjoying the food is more respect than showing how much I’m struggling to eat the food. If someone looks at me and says, “ugh that Asian girl, eating nsima with a spoon, no respect,” I personally wouldn’t care. It’s not like there’s one straight rule to follow to respect individuals, or an award of ‘who respects the non-Western culture the best’. I often eat Korean meal using my both hands, one for a spoon and other for chopsticks. It can offend some people, usually old people. My point is, it’s not usually interpreted as a challenge to old people. It’s just the wrong way. But it’s not me being agist. I’m saying online, let’s not take everything to race.

I remember one time in Korea, there was an angry dispute over the Korean traditional song Arirang used abroad for some silly trivial thing. Arirang is a song of sorrow and hardships related to Korea’s history. It can be sensitive song. But at the same time, it’s a good song. When song is good, people use it without making an effort to look for the meaning. Just like when Koreans use Mozart’s Fur Elise for garbage truck reverse alarm. But no one’s really furious about Mozart and garbage truck. We don’t have to make sensitive things more sensitive than it already is.

The fight between man and woman, between coloured and non-coloured, between aged and young, between one country and another. It’s highly flammable. When it happens, we immediately identify ourselves with something that we belong — it could be as big as gender and as small as family — and feel the need to defend our side and perhaps attack another. We always have something to identify ourselves with. It can be my colour, gender, hometown, music taste, anything. And the topics will be something sensitive and provoking, something that we feel the need to get involved and have a say. But we don’t have time to do a research or fact-check. That’s what we get with fast information, dichotomy. We divide.

Published by


An anthropology novice with passion for small things. A development worker in a world of imponderabilia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *