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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?"



( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 31st, 2009 12:45 am (UTC)
This was very interesting! Thank you.
May. 31st, 2009 03:03 am (UTC)
I wonder if there's any correlation between working in tech support or customer service and MAS.

(And no, MAS isn't necessarily gendered ;)
May. 31st, 2009 03:17 am (UTC)
In my anecdotal experience there is at least a small positive correlation, yes :)
May. 31st, 2009 04:45 am (UTC)
I'm pretty sure I have more of a case of MAS than my husband does. I particularly have trouble remembering that if someone complains or describes a problem, they may want emotional support/comfort rather than advice, because for myself, I seldom want emotional support and almost never want comfort. If I complain or describe a problem, either I am just letting off steam, and maybe trying to clarify it a bit to myself, or I want useful advice. Or I may be issuing a warning that I'm in a bad mood.
May. 31st, 2009 09:31 am (UTC)
Thank you for posting this!
May. 31st, 2009 01:21 pm (UTC)
I'm both male- and female-acculturated in this area, and I do think that, although FSS is a joke, female acculturation is definitely an issue here also. In my case, I guess it's FQS--putting things as questions instead of statements. When I'm fairly but not totally certain, I'll often phrase the statement as a query: "Isn't [or even "is"} that the actress from that movie?" This is a very hard habit for me to break! And I do it much more with Womzilla, whose speech is more purely male-acculturated, than with Supergee.

I think I'm worse about pontificating than I was, say, 20 years ago, in part because more of my social intercourse with friends is online, but also largely because I have specialized and gone deeper in specific areas that friends ask me about & I am happy to go on about. It's mutual, because I am very interested in hearing about areas others have specialized in--I soak it up like a dry sponge--but fewer conversations on nonpersonal topics are as mutual as they were.
May. 31st, 2009 06:29 pm (UTC)
This is a very hard habit for me to break!

Why do you want to break it?

I don't think it counts as pontificating if someone wants to learn about the topic. I think it only counts if you're going on about something that the other person is more of an expert in than you are, as in the example I quoted, or if you nonconsensually take up all the conversational space.
Jun. 1st, 2009 02:24 am (UTC)
Nice to know I may not be as pontifical as I think. People do ask & seem interested.

I think FQS ends up sounding like an underestimation of my own knowledge & if I think something is so it makes more sense to just say it than to ask it as a question. Just as MAS can make one sound like a too-certain blowhard, I think of my FQS as making me sound like a too-uncertain wimp. Not that there's anything wrong in being uncertain--it is, truly, the root of much wisdom--but rather in being unwilling, in that small way, to seem as certain as I feel I am.
Jun. 1st, 2009 03:23 am (UTC)
FWIW, I don't think that stating one's knowledge in a relevant context, with respect to others in the conversation, makes one sound like a too-certain blowhard. What makes one sound like a too-certain blowhard is pretending to know things one doesn't, or not respecting the knowledge of one's conversation partners, or hogging the conversation space.

Likewise, I don't think that expressing one's knowledge with a question makes one sound like a too-uncertain wimp.

Both styles are cultural and gendered, and how one comes across depends on whom one is speaking to.

I personally think that saying "Isn't that...?" in some contexts invites participation rather than expressing wimpiness. In other contexts it feels manipulative, because it seems like the speaker is expecting me to agree. I guess it feels invitational when discussing facts and manipulative when discussing opinions.
May. 31st, 2009 02:19 pm (UTC)
Ooh, loved that link to the Solnit article. Thanks!
Jun. 2nd, 2009 02:38 am (UTC)
You know, I think I usually (but not always) want both sympathy and useful practical advice.

Example: when I tell people I got laid off from my job, it's nice if they say something sympathetic "I'm sorry that happened" or "gee, the economy is terrible, isn't it." And if they also want to talk about practical job-hunting tips, that's great, too.

I think the problem for me is when people are unsympathetic, and that is less likely to be the case with job loss than with stuff like "waaa, the kids at school are mean to me". In that case, I'd get neither sympathy "they're only mean to you because you let them" nor practical advice. (Come to think of it, I can't recall any advice at all on that problem!)

Sometimes I'll be moody and "yeah, but" the other guy's practical advice, and I have to watch that.
Jun. 2nd, 2009 02:44 am (UTC)
When I react to advice by being moody and 'yabbut,' that's a sign I don't really want advice...
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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