When Talking About an Inclusive Environment, We Have to Discuss ‘Splaining

Though most people see Spring as a stepping stone we must cross over to get to Summer, it’s a great time for growth and change, both personally and professionally. This Spring, there’s a lot of change happening — vaccines are steadily rolling out, and the hope of returning to “normalcy” is within reach. As some of us start to head back into our offices, I’m hopeful about those lingering promises to “do better” that many of us made this past year. It’s also my hope that these promises are fulfilled, and it’s up to us to hold our companies accountable so that these important topics of inclusion and diversity in the workplace span further than just during a movement or national month. 

But, change can sometimes feel like a double-edged sword — bringing a lot of discomfort to those who are learning (or unlearning). Often, the coping mechanism for dealing with discomfort is putting ourselves at the center instead of actively listening. Still, too often, people don’t realize when it’s not their turn to speak. While we might think that open conversation makes for an inclusive environment, it’s not always needed from everyone. 

When we don’t feel like we have adequate knowledge about a topic, our discomfort can overpower us. As humans, we don’t enjoy discomfort, and our bodies will try anything to get out of it. Instead of sitting with discomfort, we tend to center ourselves in the conversation, as we know our experiences better than anyone else’s. This, however, can come in the form of interrupting, assuming, and belittling others. I’m talking about ‘splaining — a huge barrier to creating inclusive workplaces.  

Mansplaining, Whitesplaining, Parentsplaining… There’s a Lot of ‘Splaining Going On.

First, what do I mean by ‘splaining? By now, we’re all familiar with the term mansplaining — in 2018, mansplaining became so widely referenced that it was added to Merriam-Webster as “what occurs when a man talks condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he’s talking to does.”  This isn’t limited to just men, though. ‘Splaining is essentially when condescending explanations are targeted at someone who is talking, regardless of age, race, gender, societal class, etc., and it’s a huge barrier that often prevents inclusive environments. It makes people feel undervalued, reinforces stereotypes, and can even stifle career projection. This Forbes article does a great job of explaining these three impacts. 

We Don’t Always Have Some ‘Splaining to Do 

People experience ‘splaining on a frequent occurrence, but it seldom gets discussed. I’m sure we can all think of an example of ‘splaining — from parents lecturing expecting parents to managers talking down to their colleagues.  One of the most recent high-profile examples involves (ex?) bachelor host Chris Harrison. In an interview with Rachel Lindsay, the franchise’s first Black Bachelorette, Harrison found himself in hot water for not only mansplaining but also whitesplaining when he defended Bachelor cast member Rachael Kirkconnell’s racist actions. Harrison chose not only to ignore Lindsay’s relevant thoughts on the matter, which were based on her first-hand lived experiences, but attempted to dismiss her perspective and instead suggested grace should be given to all. 

When instances like the Harrison interview are brought to the public, people are often divided, some understanding all too well how it feels to be ‘splained. And then there are those who bring up an opposing view — should we just be silent? In reality, being against ‘splaining doesn’t equate to being pro-censorship. Nothing disqualifies you from sharing opinions and disagreements or from sharing different viewpoints — in fact, this is key to having an inclusive environment. The issue arises, though, when your opinion invalidates someone else’s lived experience or expertise in trying to prove your point. Instead of engaging in a conversation, ‘splainers merely try to get their point across, assuming their point is the only valid opinion. 

Am I ‘splaining?  

When it happens, we’re glad it wasn’t us, but anyone can find themselves there if they don’t engage in conversations mindfully. Before reacting or responding to a comment someone makes, think: 

Was this asked for? 

Is this the right time and place? 

Is there implicit bias at work? 

Is what I’m about to say making unfair assumptions about this person? 

Do I have experience? 

Assumptions on people’s knowledge based on their sex, race, and class are often the root of ‘splaining. Mansplaining, for instance, plays into the implicit bias of men being seen as more authoritative, louder, and the “person in charge.” 

The devil doesn’t always need an advocate, meaning you don’t always need to offer the opposing opinion just for the sake of it. Explaining things to knowledgeable people not only wastes time but, no matter the intent, implies that you know more than that person and it’s your job to educate them. 

Remember, if you haven’t lived through the experience being described, or you’ve extensively studied it to truly understand how a person who experienced it may feel, you may have drawn entirely different conclusions from the same experience, but that experience is solely theirs, and you cannot tell someone their experience is invalid. 

So, What Can We Do? 

We all are born with biases, and we’re all human, so nobody can ever be perfect. But while you might not be aware of your assumptions, it doesn’t make it right, and it’s not an excuse to continue. The hardest thing about something unconscious as ‘splaining is just that — it happens when we don’t even realize it. 

One way to become more aware of it is by practicing active listening — listening that does not center on you and simply acknowledges what that person was saying. If you find yourself ‘splaining, acknowledge it, apologize, and do better. 

Remember the “I” in D&I

Too often, there will be a lot of work made towards diversifying the workplace but no effort to address inclusion. 

Microaggressions, making assumptions, and ‘splaining and the silence that usually follows is a surefire way to make someone feel unincluded. Make it a point to encourage calling these things out if you see others engaging in it, specifically if you have the same background as the person. This can also go for gendered assumptions as well. Instead of assuming gender identities, take a non-gendered approach. 

Ultimately, if you get called out, it’s okay to be embarrassed. It’s natural to get defensive, but by living with that discomfort, we’ll be able to apologize, allow ourselves to be humbled, and then learn from it, so it doesn’t happen again.