Stef (firecat) wrote,

Wiscon panel notes: Male Answer Syndrome

Track(s): Power, Privilege, and Oppression (Feminism and Other Social Change Movements)
Description: Although it's not absolute, there's a strong tendency among masculine people to always want to have the definitive answer for everything, even if they don't necessarily know. In panels and elsewhere in life, it can be hard for men to admit they don't know things. Why is this? How can men deal with the pressure (either internal or external) to always have the right answer? How do women and other non–masculine folks deal with Male Answer Syndrome? If you think the answers to all these questions are obvious, then you need to come to this panel!
Panelists: Suzanne Allés Blom, Moondancer Drake, John Helfers, Stef Maruch
Moderator: John H. Kim

In my pre-panel post, I said: "I wanted to be on this panel because it's All Answer Syndrome All The Time at my house...and the XY person in the relationship is not the only person participating. So I have experience from multiple sides. I also have funny stories and techniques that you'll want to know about!"

The moderator started out the panel with a live example of MAS. (He had mentioned in email discussions beforehand that he would do this, but we hadn't really come up with a whole role-playing strategy.) He rambled on about being offended at the notion of MAS and then promulgated a theory that the real problem isn't MAS but Female Silent Syndrome. He managed to go on for about three minutes before the audience started muttering. Then someone said "Did you do that on purpose?" and he said yes.

In my introductory statement I said that MAS is not limited to men. In my family of origin my mother was the one who did MAS and my father didn't. In my primary relationship, both my male partner and I do MAS. I also do MAS to my girlfriends. One of my sweeties has learned to say "rhetorical!" when she asks a rhetorical question because otherwise I will answer it, even though I know it's rhetorical. Sometimes if she complains about something to me, she has to remind me that she doesn't want advice. Sometimes I remember to ask if she wants advice.

I think there are several different kinds of behavior that could be described as "Male Answer Syndrome":

1. The urge to respond to a complaint or a request for sympathy by offering advice, rather than emotional comfort.

2. Feeling compelled to answer a question, even if it's rhetorical or joking. (For example, once I was at a con and jokingly asked "What's a pun?" Four people gave me the definition of pun. These were people who knew my command of English vocabulary pretty well.)

3. Pontificating. This is well described in the following article: "Men Explain Things to Me" by Rebecca Solnit
He...said to me, "So? I hear you've written a couple of books."

I replied, "Several, actually."

He said, in the way you encourage your friend's seven-year-old to describe flute practice, "And what are they about?"

...I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, my book on the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.

He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. "And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?"

So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingnue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I'd somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book -- with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.

...Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, "That's her book." Or tried to interrupt him anyway.

But he just continued on his way. She had to say, "That's her book" three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a nineteenth-century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn't read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless -- for a moment, before he began holding forth again.
Out of those three things, I feel compelled to give advice and answer questions, but I don't think I pontificate (others might think differently).

Some topics discussed on this panel:

Why the behavior can be problematic.

--Moondancer said she was raised to be self-sufficient and so when she doesn't know how to do something and her baby-daddy does, she wants him to teach her, not do it himself, but he will tend to try to do it himself.

--The pontificating kind of MAS is also problematic because it perpetuates the existing societal tendency for men to have more conversational space in the public sphere than women do.

--In some cases MAS is problematic because the answer offered is vague and/or it shuts down continued conversation.

Whether the behavior is in fact gendered.

--A woman whose partner was a transman said that when he was going to a support group he was recommended to read a book that encouraged him to take on mentoring/care-providing roles (as a way of becoming/seeming/expressing more masculinity?)

--The same behavior is sometimes differently coming from a man vs. coming from a woman. A woman in the audience said that she often gives answers at work, but she's perceived as being motherly and nurturing when she does that, rather than know-it-all or pontificating.

Are there cultural differences in how people offer MAS and respond to MAS?

--"Geek culture" is sometimes described as one in which being corrected is seen as a positive social interaction, whereas in some other cultures it's seen as a power play.

--MAS was unique to "our" culture (but I don't remember what was meant by "our" -- US? Western?)

Is MAS conscious or unconscious?

--In some cases it feels like there is something compulsory or automatic about it.

--At one point a woman in the audience pointed out that John Helfers had practiced MAS on one of the female panelists (I'm sorry I don't remember which one) [info] - personalmoondancerdrake--she had said she was intimidated by people with higher education, and he began offering advice about that once it was his turn to speak. He seemed unaware that he had done it. His wife was in the audience and she said that it wasn't really MAS because he had done it out of a nurturing urge, a discomfort with someone else's discomfort. {I still think it is MAS. I think the advice-giving form of MAS is one of the ways that people express nurturing.}

How to solve the problem of MAS?

--If it's the problem of giving advice instead of emotional support, one way is to learn to ask "Do you want comfort or suggestions right now?"
Tags: wiscon
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