Question and Manswer

An Op-Ed Originally Published in the Yale Daily News on January 31, 2017:


A T.A. (male) gave a guest lecture to my formal logic class. At one point, my professor (female) raised her hand to ask the T.A. a question. It was clear she was trying to take the conversation to the next conceptual level. The T.A. earnestly responded with some canned explanation of a fundamental aspect of logic that she had in fact taught us the first week of class. In other words, he answered a question she did not ask. He presumed, whether consciously or not, that she must be asking about something he had already said, that she needed clarification, that she was asking for something that he could provide, that there was no world in which she could be going beyond what he had covered or — god forbid — beyond his realm of knowledge.

There is a power dynamic inherent to asking a question: The questioner places the respondent in a position of authority — but only if the latter is able to answer. In turn, the respondent can either assume a higher status, a status equal to the questioner — by conceding that he (it’s often he) doesn’t know — or (impossible but juicy) assume a lower status.

Let’s take a moment to think of what this final option might look like. “That’s a good question.” Or a “Huh — I’ve never thought of that before.” Or even a “You know what? I was going to b.s. an answer to maintain an illusion of omniscience, but I’ve decided to be honest and admit I don’t know.” Yum.

Here is that distilled in logical paraphrase:

P= Woman asks man a question

A= Man answers with (a), where in (a) he assumes a higher status

B= Man answers with (b), where in (b) he assumes an equal status

C= Man answers with (c), where in (c) he assumes a lower status

Now here is the story of my life: P =⊃A^infinity.

Feminist essayist Rebecca Solnit, the oft-cited inventress of the concept of “mansplaining”, states that the phenomenon results from “overconfidence and cluelessness”. Manswering is a specific manifestation of mansplaining. It happens when a man (consciously or not) automatically assumes a position of higher status when answering a question, in order to protect his ego or maintain at least an illusion of authority. In turn, a woman is automatically demoted to a lower status: “Ha! Silly girl! What a sweet innocent vessel beginning for me to fill it with my fat knowledge.” Alternatively: “I’m a busy, busy man, but I guess I can spare you a few seconds of my precious time to b.s. like you’ve never seen before.”

These are conversational political pivots, just that they aren’t political — simply patronizing. Too often, I have asked a man a question, only to have him indulge in verbal masturbation. By the time he finishes, I invariably end up throwing out my question entirely.

Don’t dismiss me as just another woman nagging out of her furious vulva. Listen: I love males. My dad is a male. I have a brother who is a male. The males, I love them. I am merely suggesting a way to optimize human interaction. At this point, you may not be convinced. The preservation of women’s sense of personhood may not motivate you to address manswering. I get it: pathos is for pussies, and ethos is useless because I have a pussy. So even though I am just a woman, I figured I would try my hand at logos: Imagine how much more efficient conversations would be if women (read: people) didn’t have to ask every question twice!

To the manswerers of the world: I hereby relieve you of the heavy burden of patronizing and pathologizing women. I free you to live among females who actually actively listen and who can become just as interested in an abstract topic as you are. You may find yourself saying “I don’t know” or “good question” more often and speaking less, but that’s okay. We will know you’re listening.


Emma Speer