On Mushrooms and Mansplaining
How to handle ego in its many (sometimes potentially deadly) forms
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Welcome to Tough Love. Every other week, we’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My friend has gotten interested in foraging for mushrooms. She is an avid cook and hosts regular dinner parties, and lately she has started incorporating wild mushrooms into her meals. For instance, at her last dinner she served tempeh stroganoff with wild mushrooms. I asked her how she knew that the mushrooms were safe, and she said in a snarky way, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to poison you.” It is not that I don’t trust her, but she is new to this, and I always learned to be cautious with wild mushrooms if someone is not an expert. She saw me hesitating before I ate and was annoyed at me for the rest of the evening. She has been posting more mushroom pictures on Instagram and is hosting another dinner soon, so I think she will probably serve them. I am still not sure I am comfortable eating them, so I’m not sure what to do.
No. Stop. Do not eat another bite of her food, and do not put yourself in a situation where you will feel pressured to eat her food. Your health—your life!—is not something you risk for someone else’s ego. The fact that she was defensive about your question is a major red flag, because a truly confident, educated mycologist would be happy to explain how they know that the food they forage is safe to eat. In fact, this is such a red flag that I would suggest discreetly telling other people who go to her dinners about your concerns. Your host may be butthurt, but at least y’all will be alive. And if you want to make a peace offering, you can all pitch in for a mushrooming class or send her links to a local mycology club, where she’ll spend time with people who really know what they’re doing, and hopefully they can set an example. Because the more expertise people have, the more seriously they take safety—not the other way around.
I’m a 19-year-old guy who’s good friends with a lot of girls. I’ve noticed a pattern where, when I try to describe something, a new friend in our group, who I’ll call Julia, says I’m mansplaining. I do not want to be patronizing or disrespectful, but it’s often things I know a lot about. For instance, I make kombucha in my apartment, and the other day my friend asked a question about kombucha, and I answered. Julia said, “Thanks for the mansplaining” and rolled her eyes. We were in a group of three, and Julia doesn’t know much about kombucha (she admitted this herself), so it made sense for me to answer. Another time I mentioned that I’d seen a weather report that it was going to rain—and she said the same thing. How do I know when I can say anything? It makes me anxious to say anything at all.
Mansplaining isn’t when a man explains something. It’s when a man explains something to a woman who knows more about the subject than he does. (See: Rebecca Solnit’s iconic essay “Men Explain Things to Me.”) For instance, I had a conversation with a somewhat drunk man who spelled out to me, at length, that sled dogs can travel over frozen rivers. “I know,” I said. “I’m a musher. I travel on rivers all winter.” “What rivers?” he said. “A lot of rivers,” I said, because, frankly, I’ve mushed on so many rivers that listing them would be obnoxious. Plus it didn’t matter what I said, because it was like he didn’t hear me. His friend went on a dogsled tour, he said, and on that tour, his friend went over rivers personally. He was on the verge of calling his friend to explain this to me directly when I made an excuse to go to the bathroom and left. That was mansplaining.
Sometimes my friend Craig, an outdoorsman who grew up in the North Woods, gives me advice on how to tell trees apart. That’s not mansplaining, because he knows more about it than I do.
My point is: the core of mansplaining has very little to do with explanations per se and a lot to do with the assumption, by some men, that women know less than them. If you approach the women in your life with respect, admire their expertise, learn from their knowledge and perspectives, and value them as equal and interesting human beings—not as people who are blessed by the chance to be educated by you—you probably don’t have to worry much that your explanations are mansplanations.
That said, sometimes we don’t realize what we’re doing, so it’s worth asking one of your woman friends. Say, “Hey, I notice that Julia accuses me of mansplaining a lot. Do I do that?” And then sit and listen to the answer. If you are being unintentionally patronizing, then that’s good information, because you can work on changing your behavior. And if you’re not, then your friend might be willing to speak up to Julia and try to break the pattern.
Maybe Julia gets a laugh when she accuses you of mansplaining, but any joke that makes a friend feel self-conscious and shamed isn’t a funny one. Maybe she doesn’t really know what mansplaining is. But whatever you do, don’t explain it to her. Even if you’re right, there’s no way that’s gonna end well.