How to handle a mansplainer (and other tricks of the customer service trade)


How many times do you have to hear that patronizing, “well, actually…” from a male customer before it’s time to stand up for yourself? The term “mansplaining” has become pervasive in current culture and is a great word for a patriarchal phenomenon that women in the workplace navigate everyday.

If you don’t know what it is, ”mansplaining” was initially popularized by the author Rebecca Solnit in her book Men Explain Things To Me. Solnit, says that the title (and the terminology) is inspired by an instance when a male colleague tried to explain her own book to her.  That sums up the phenomenon pretty well.

Mansplaining is typified by a man using a condescending voice to explain something that you clearly already understand (or would never want to know). The more insidious version involves trying to explain a woman’s own feelings or perspective from the male point of view. This is particularly heinous when it undermines the idea of gender inequality. Often these interactions are subtle digs on a woman’s self-confidence, or prop up a male need to dominate a conversation or situation.

So how does one tackle this issue when faced with it?

Being aggressive is not generally the right move, as it reinforces stereotypes of “pushy” women, but being a doormat and just accepting it is not the right thing either. So what do you do? Here are some strategies to help you make your point when dealing with a mansplaining customer while also creating the understanding that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated.

Remember to speak from the “I” perspective.

One thing that creates a poor argument against mansplainers is to speak of yourself as a group. If you try to speak for all women (for example) it will add fuel to the mansplaining fire. By retaining individual insight into an argument it grounds your statements in immediate and personal reality.

Flip the script

The mansplainer loves to use (generally fabricated) statistics or inference to make a point. Ask plainly for a reference for the statistics that he uses. If possible, provide your own statistics that are iron clad.

Ask follow up questions

While you can’t stand there all day, the typical mansplainer only has one long-winded explanation of something. Likely his point falls apart under scrutiny. He wasn’t expecting to be challenged at all, so inquire with questions like: “Interesting, tell me more about why do you feel that way?” or “When was the first time you first discovered this?”  While you run the risk of additional mansplations, you also will likely catch him off his guard.

This is particularly effective when a mansplainer is going on about something that is clearly your area of expertise. Shooting back with specific and informed questions is the best way to deflate the mansplainer in your midst.

Clearly and calmly remind him that you are in control of yourself.

Another form of mansplaining is an entreating or coercion. This manifests in the unceasing disbelief of a man that you hold a certain opinion. Usually the badgering is about something small, like a food or TV show.

I.e.  “I can’t believe you don’t like olives – Give them another try and you’ll like it. You probably have never had a good one. Here eat this. Eat it.” etc.

Again, while on the level of this example the banter seems vaguely innocuous, a male tendency toward coercion (rather than understanding conversation) is at the the root of many negative patriarchal realities. Not to be hyperbolic, but the concept that men need to talk women into having the same opinion as them is the same behavior that leads to sexually coercive behavior.

When encountering this, it is important to clearly and consciously remind them that you are allowed your own opinion and that they do not have the permission to take up your time. Specifically you can make clear that persuading you of something is not their place or their job. It is not necessary to be rude, but it is important to be firm on this.

Other difficult hurdles at work

Mansplaining is not the only patriarchal concept to traverse at work. More terminology to define what women face in the workplace is being created on a daily basis.

For example, Hepeating defines the situation when you put forward a great idea that no one listens to, only to have essentially the same idea put forth by a male counterpart to thunderous applause. Unfortunately, I do not have much advice regarding this, but heavy eyerolls with female colleagues sometimes help. And submitting ideas in writing next time might have an improved effect.

Applying these concepts to your other work life

Dealing with ugly or offensive behavior is something that can transform a good day into a rough one. If you deal with customers or the dreaded “general public” on a regular basis, no number of positive experience will overcome the one time you face someone truly rude or antagonistic.

However, there are strategies to dealing with even the most cantankerous customers and even to getting them to learn a bit from their mistakes. Here are some basic tenets to working with poorly behaved customers.

  • Be calm: Getting agitated will always only escalate the situation and call forth vitriol from a customer with bad habits.
  • Listen more and talk less: Most customers, whether their concerns are erroneous or legitimate, just want to be heard. Let them have their piece and they will likely feel better.
  • Always talk on the phone or in person: Emails can be misconstrued as intent in text is difficult to assess. Also it is much easier to threaten or be rude in a digital context when not facing a fellow human being (check the comment section of most articles to see what I mean).
  • Be professional and upbeat: If the situation calls for an apology, give one. Try not to explain away any issues with excuses, but take the blame and say you are sorry.

With these tools in hand, along with what you can learn below about some of the most undesirable types of customers, you will be set to face another work day fending off mansplainers, bro-propriaters, manterrupters, and all manner of bad actors.

About Meredith Wood

Meredith Wood is Editor-in-Chief at Fundera. Specializing in financial advice for small business owners, Meredith is a current and past contributor to Yahoo!, Amex OPEN Forum, Fox Business, SCORE, AllBusiness and more.

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