What Is ‘splainin’? And Why Should I Care?

‘splainin'[1. See also: ‘splaining, ‘splain, ‘splainer, etc.], a contraction of “explaining,” is a term which has been popping up a lot in the social justice sphere lately, including on this very website, and I think it’s worth exploring a bit. In the first place, not everyone might be clear on what is meant when people refer to ‘splainin’, and in the second, there’s a phenomenon around it which is critically important.

In a nutshell, ‘splainin’ is an “explanation” which is put forward in the most patronizing way possible. The ‘splainer feels passionately that ou opinion and beliefs outweigh actual lived experience and wishes to inform everyone of this fact. ‘splainers are unfortunately especially common in safe spaces in which the voices of people living in marginalized bodies are centered, because such spaces are threatening to people who find our voices contrary to their worldviews.

‘splainers feel the need to put their oar in on conversations where they may not specifically be welcome or even wanted, often with an air of entitlement. They approach the conversation from the position that people must be ignorant if they think/experience differently than the ‘splainer does, and that a few rounds in comments will sort them out and bring them over to the side of right. One of the many reasons that this can be harmful is that often people are just starting to come to the place where they feel comfortable asserting their lived experience, because they’ve been taken in by arguments like those presented by the ‘splainer for their whole lives, and seeing those arguments again can set off a spiral of self doubt, confusion, and self loathing.

Writing at Shapely Prose about mansplainers, fillyjonk said:

Here’s a thing about mansplaining and why I care a lot about it: it is annoying, and frustrating, and insulting, and deeply rooted in institutionalized sexism, and often profoundly harmful to women. We talk about all of that. What we don’t always talk about is how easily it shades into gaslighting: your reality is false, my reality is true.The biggest mansplainer I’ve known made me doubt my sanity for years; I am still recovering. This isn’t just a supremely sexist and problematic internet habit. It can be a psychologically violent act.

There are a few key components of ‘splainin’. The first is that the ‘splainer usually does not share the experience of the person being ‘splained to, or is in a place of denial about shared experience. For example, a white person informing a person of colour that ou doesn’t understand ou own lived experience (melaninsplainin’), an able person telling a person with disabilities to “lighten up, it’s just humour” (ablesplainin’), and a man informing a woman that her concerns about reproductive rights are baseless (mansplainin‘). Occasionally, professional credentials may be dragged out. “I’m a police officer, and no police officer would ever harass someone for being while Black!” “I’m a doctor, and there’s no way that kind of behaviour is acceptable, you must be leaving something out of the story!” “I work for a women’s rights publication, so I am very well informed about women’s rights issues!”

The second is the fact that the ‘splainer not only passionately believes that someone’s lived experiences are wrong, but that they need to be corrected, that there are right and wrong answers when it comes to someone’s life. This often involves an active erasure and denial: “I’m being discriminated against.” “No you’re not!”

Another troubling component of ‘splainin’ is that it’s viewed as acceptable to override expressed wishes of people involved in the conversation “just to make this one point.” Since the people in the conversation are very accustomed to dynamics in which they are told that their voices do not matter and should be silenced, and they may view the space they are in as one of the few places where they are not being oppressed, this attitude can generate a great deal of hostility. This is compounded when the ‘splainer becomes defensive after encountering pushback, and it feeds a very vicious cycle.

There’s an “outsider knows best” aspect to ‘splainin’ which is extremely troubling, especially when it is used in social justice communities to attempt to shut down voices. When people go to an effort to center voices which are often silenced, to empower people to speak up about their lived experience, to create insider conversations about their own communities, and outsiders come in to ‘splain, it can be very damaging. ‘splainers are often very upset by the suggestion that some conversations are not about them, and that some conversations need to occur from a place of shared experience, and, while open to members of the public who wish to view, are not open to everyone who wishes to speak. This upset can sometimes manifest in very ugly ways.

“My belief,” the ‘splainer says, “outweighs your experience. What I think matters more than the information you are presenting me with about what is actually lived.”

As for why you should care about ‘splainin’, well, I hope it’s evident after reading this. (And I want to note that this post is not a commentary on anything going on here, it’s just a definition and exploration of a term we use a lot so that everyone can be on the same page. Nor is it a gibe aimed at particular people or sites; it’s really just a discussion of a general issue.)

31 thoughts on “What Is ‘splainin’? And Why Should I Care?

  1. I hate being ‘splained. It happens waaaaay too much, usually by people who think they are trying to help. Which makes it harder to stand up for myself.

    I do have a question though.

    ““My belief,” the ’splainer says, “outweighs your experience. What I think matters more than the information you are presenting me with about what is actually lived.””

    Where is the line between philosophical discussion and ‘splainin? For example, I am intrigued by conversations seeking to define or identify ableism. I don’t want to tell someone that they haven’t been discriminated against, and I don’t want someone to tell me that my experiences are invalid, but I also feel that we should be careful about how and where we use the term. The solution, to me, seems to be not to engage someone who is upset and in pain in a conversation about the right label for their experience. But is it ‘splainin to still have those conversations in a more neutral context?

  2. Thank you for the definition. I really needed that because I was wondering if it was some kind of slur. I am only familiar with the term splainning from Desi Aranaz saying that on the I Love Lucy Show and so I thought perhaps there was a bit of anti-Latino sentiment being expressed there.

  3. Thanks for this definition. My experiences at a Catholic school have included a lot of ‘splainin’, particularly in religion class. For some reason, my teacher and the textbook feel that it’s necessary to ‘splain that homosexuality isn’t wrong, but it’s certainly wrong to express that homosexuality by, you know, having actual gay relationships. And that being gay is the exact same thing as being transgendered. I mean… WTF?!

    That and our religion textbook’s advice to touch blind people whenever you come across them in order to “establish contact…”

    Yeah, there’s a lot of ‘splainin’ that needs to be explained there…

  4. I’m really glad this subject has been coming up in the blogosphere lately, because it helps me give language to a phenomenon I’m already so familiar with.

    I’m wondering, though, if ‘splaning is considered only about the topics of oppression or if it counts when someone who has privilege over another person is just patronizingly explanatory about anything. I mean, one of the most annoying things to me about most of the men I’ve met in my life, for example, is that they feel the need to explain things to me all the time. Whether I’ve already shown that I understand what they are explaining or not – and often most frustrating when I’ve expressed the desire NOT to understand whatever it is they are attempting to explain to me:
    Man: “blahblahblah about X technological thing in a manner showing I ought to be interested in it”
    Me: “I don’t really know much or care much about X technological thing”
    Man: “well, you see, it was first invented in 1806 by ….” and three hours later while I’m animatedly yawning and trying to walk out the door, they are still droning on about it…

    Like, I’m *supposed* to care about some thing because They do, and They know better than I do about what I’m supposed to care about and understand.

    And on a much lighter note, I’d like to coin the term (if someone else hasn’t already that is) OlderSiblingSplaining. Because *groan*.

  5. Thanks for this – this is now going to be my go-to post when I get ‘splained and can’t be arsed to explain to the ‘splainer why what they’re doing is so irritating!

  6. Thanks for this, I thought I sort of got what this ‘splaining thing was all about but really wasn’t very confident of that. Turns out I know quite a few people who do this thing! To think all this time I just called them arrogant pricks. 😛

  7. Rosemary, I’m pretty sure that’s mansplaining, too. Just like it’s mansplaining when a man feels it necessary and desirable to correct and/or explain (often incorrectly) to a woman about something which is not in his field of expertise, but on which she actually is an expert. But he knows more about it than she does, naturally, because he’s a man.

  8. Thanks for this meloukhia, it has cleared things up for me and is an excellent post to direct others to. I have bookmarked on my computer and in my mind 🙂

  9. Can I add momsplaining? I get ablesplained and momsplained to at the same time: “I know you just told me that her stuttering isn’t related to stress, but I really think you ought to stop stressing her out. It would cure everything.” My kid, our experience, no, you don’t get to tell me how to be her mom!

  10. Can I add sizesplainin’ to the list? I can’t begin to count the number of thin people who aren’t medical professionals (teachers, random people, etc.) who see fit to ‘splain to me why I am a Bad Person because I am fat and then ‘splain some more about how I can “fix” that if only I had a modicum of willpower/self-control which leaves me wanting to scream “IF I HAVE NO WILLPOWER OR SELF-CONTROL, THEN WHY AM I NOT [redacted per comments policy] IN *RIGHT NOW*?!” (But I don’t scream this because I HAVE WILLPOWER AND SELF-CONTROL. *bows*)
    I also get ablesplained all the time with things like, “Just tough it out.” (SORRY, I AM TOO BUSY TOUGHING OUT THE URGE TO *[redacted per comments policy]* RIGHT NOW.)
    I’m a pacifist. Really I am.
    @Rosemary: Given your criteria, can I then add Buffysplainin’ to the list? ‘Cause talk about a yawnfest! *ducks and runs*

  11. Thank you so much for a wonderful piece.
    I’m also grateful for the quote from fillyjonk saying that this can be a “psychologically violent act.” It makes it clearer and clearer for me that it is no coincidence that the two greatest perpetrators of mansplaining I have known have also been the two most emotionally abusive people I’ve ever known.

  12. I have a college who is the worst ‘splainer. Often it’s about completely inane things too! She once tried to ‘splain to me that my dislike of most mince was “psychological”. Um… huh?

    Thanks for this post. Probably one of the easiest to understand (for me) pieces on ‘splainin’. I’ll link it to anyone who needs a nudge in the right direction.

    FTR, to anyone here, if I ever start to ‘splain, you have my full permission to rebuke me in the strongest terms you can think of.

  13. Thank you very much for this timely article. I had used the term on my About page on my new blog, but I desperately wanted a good in-depth definition to refer to — and a few days later you gave me one!

  14. Thanks for giving a good definition of splainin. I keep hearing it and some other particular words (I have been picking up on patterns of word usage by people in various situations since before I understood what words were for, and still fall back on that a lot) among a particular set of blogs, but I always feel inferior about not knowing words everyone is using so I often fail to ask and just hope I will run into a definition if googling doesn’t help.

  15. Let me ‘splain somethin’ here: this whole conversation is just about how you whiners can’t deal with the truth. You just gotta listen carefully and then you’ll understand.

    Note – although I think this should be obvious, I’m just going to clarify that the above portion of this comment is, in fact, a sarcastic joke.

    But in all seriousness, I encounter ‘splainin all the time, but I never considered the psychological/emotional aspect of it, which this post does a good job of describing. Another problem with some forms of ‘splainin is that they can shift nuanced, specific conversations over to a simplistic, general topic which many of the parties to the conversation (the non-‘splainers) have already thought about.

  16. I absolutely hate when this happens, and I think it is ‘splainin’ that has made me live with such self-doubt for most of my life – continually being told that you’re not seeing things right, you’re just faking your illness/total lack of energy, all that stuff will really wear down on a person after awhile!

    At the same time, I wonder how this works in situations where people come from multiple or different marginalised groups. I’ve never really seen a distinction between philosophies/ideas and lived experiences – my philosophies arise out of my lived experiences, and my philosophies directly inform how I perceive and understand my experiences. So if one person’s philosophies, formed out of their lived experiences as a person in a marginalised group, clash directly with another person’s philosophies formed out of their different experiences as a person in a marginalised group, what is one to do (without devolving into some hierarchy of oppression)? I don’t really know where I’m going with this, it just made me wonder about some difficult situations that might arise.

  17. icybear: I would argue that it is possible – and necessary – to separate the philosophy from the experience. Sure, we all settle on philosophies at least in part because of our lived experiences, but when the philosophies become overgeneralized and start to erase others’ experiences, it is time to change the philosophies.

    A historical illustration – not because these issues don’t exist today, but because sometimes it’s productive to think about a more distant example:
    Leading Western feminist discourses in the late 19th and early 20th century tended to be very blatantly racist. They also emerged from a set of experiences of oppression and marginalization. Those experiences that the white feminist leaders had were legitimate – and even some of the philosophies which emerged from them were legitimate – but the racist philosophies can (and could) be separated and rejected without silencing the experiences themselves.

  18. It’s not only blog commenters who do that, social justice bloggers do that themselves when they’re confronted with criticism, and that’s despite that they know what ‘splaining is.
    Apparently it is so that neurotypical people decide what should offend me as an autistic person, and every time -no matter where- I leave a critical comment I get treated with condescension, yes even on this blog. (Although here it’s not as bad as elsewhere)
    .-= Kowalski´s last blog ..Disability & Sex Blog Carnival: You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory =-.

  19. icybear: you said “So if one person’s philosophies, formed out of their lived experiences as a person in a marginalised group, clash directly with another person’s philosophies formed out of their different experiences as a person in a marginalised group, what is one to do (without devolving into some hierarchy of oppression)?”

    I think this might (??) be confusing ‘splaining, at least how I see it. I mean, people with different life experiences can share their experiences with one another and discuss how they are different and the reasons why they might be different and have a really good equal discussion about it – whether one or both of them are in a marginalized group or not.

    The splaining, as I understand it, comes in when person A starts to assume that their life experience is the Only Right One and tries to convince/explain to person B that Their experiences cannot possibly be accurate because they don’t align with person A’s. And in that case, if person A and person B are from different marginalized groups, then I would be tempted to call “‘splaining” on person A for devaluing person B’s experiences.

    I think. Anyone wanna help me with this one?

    Kowalski: I think, sadly, that most of us are probably guilty of ‘splaining some of the time. I’m sure I’ve done it. I like this and other similar spaces where it’s okay to call one another on things and where most of us are trying to learn to be better about it all. But yea, it still happens.

  20. *nodnod* at Kowalski. I find we’re all still bumping against each other here and still trying to find a way to talk about problems and different things without falling into the ‘splaining thing. It makes me sad and frustrated that, even with the best of intentions, we’re still *hurting* each other. 🙁

    I’m sorry it’s happening. I’m not sure, yet, how to make it stop. 🙁

  21. @Anna,
    I think a lot of that may be down to how autistics communicate, when we don’t communicate in expected ways people get irritated, and feel attacked by the bluntness which is often mistaken for rudeness.
    Some of it may be down to the US centrism Chally wrote about, and by extension the English speaking world centrism, people on the internet forget that not all of us speak English as a first language.
    Combine the two and you get a case of having your competence underestimated on a regular basis.
    .-= Kowalski´s last blog ..In which I introduce a new word and defend Kevin Rudd, the man who eated his earwax =-.

  22. I’m afraid I am guilty of this in some instances. I have also been on the receiving end of ‘splainin’ and understand how infuriating it can be. Reading this has inspired me to pay attention to times when I may be ‘splainin’ to try and curb the rude behavior.

  23. And to think that it all started with Ricky Ricardo and Lucille Ball: “Hey, Lucy! Joo got some ‘splainin to do!”

  24. The word itself, though, does seem to have some anti-latino sentiment to it. There’s the Ricky Ricardo reference, which itself is a jokey reference to overcorrecting a Spanish accent. Because the Spanish word will generally start with an “e” when the English equivalent has an “s” and a consonant, Spanish speakers trying to lose their accent will over-apply that rule, removing even a necessary “e”. The humor of that bit rested in mocking his accent, and his attempt to assimilate by trying to correct it wrongly–look how silly he sounds as he tries to assert authority here. Which is just what we’re trying to do to the condescending explainers–but why do it using a joke that started with mocking someone’s speech?

  25. Robyn/Michelle: I think that’s a bit of a folk etymology. The word itself in this context is a backformation from “mansplain”, “whitesplain”, and “ablesplain”, with “mansplain” being the original. The “ex” is removed in “mansplain” for metre, not in faux-imitation of a Latin@ accent. “Manexplain” doesn’t exactly work, humour-wise; there needs to be a syllabic substitution, not addition.

    The semantics of the ‘explaining’ is also quite different from the Lucy case (from the reading I’ve done – that particular quote is not one I’m familiar with, and I don’t know how familiar any non-USAns will be with it), making that derivation even more questionable.

    Lastly, there’s geography. I poked back through my records: I first read about “mansplaining” in the blog of a New Zealander, then in several Australian blogs, before it hit the USAn big Feminist blogs.

    Maybe some people are linking the two now, but I don’t believe that the Lucy quote is the genuine etymology of this particular word family.


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