Recently I had to go shopping for some new boots. Hiking boots, to be exact. Now, I wasn’t looking for boots in order to go on some big trek, or, indeed, even to be hiking. I was looking for good hiking boots that I could wear on a regular (almost daily) basis, in order to try to support the possible healing of an injury in my foot. After trying numerous other solutions, and practically exhausting our options, my doctor came up with this idea: If we really stabilize the foot and ankle and give it the space and support to rest, even when in use, it might begin to heal on its own. This is perfectly aligned with what I believe: Space and time create possibility for healing.
So, one afternoon I found myself in the outdoors store, feeling somewhat out of my depth, looking for a new pair of hiking boots that would meet this need. Luckily, the footwear sales associate was a young woman who was pretty knowledgeable about their selection of footwear, which was vast. I say luckily, because what I learned during my 2 hours of experimenting with different boots was that she was the only associate who listened to me and tried to meet my needs. Everyone else wanted to simply fix it.
When I arrived in the shoe section, she was helping a male customer, who upon listening to my conversation with her decided that for the next 30 minutes, he should chime in and tell me ALL the things I should be doing for my foot, as he has had a similar (but not the same), problem for nearly 15 years. I listened, patiently, and repeatedly explained to him that I had, in fact, already tried most of what he was suggesting, without success. He didn’t believe me – because he didn’t hear me. As I continued to try on boots with my sales associate, he continued to offer unsolicited advice based on his experience, without ever actually listening to mine.
If it had stopped there, I probably wouldn’t be writing this post. But it didn’t.
Over the course of the next 90 minutes (and at least 25 pairs of hiking boots!), about 5 other sales associates all decided to come and “help,” without actually helping. Here’s why: not one of them listened. They were all experts in knowing footwear, but they weren’t experts in knowing my foot. Currently, where my foot is concerned, I’m an outlier. I don’t even fall on the spectrum of normal, and so I need to search for solutions that match my needs, not solutions that match a statistic of information.
For some reason, Zoe, the sales associate who helped me throughout, seemed to understand this, and the only reason she did was because she listened.
Toward the end of my shopping experience, after 2 hours and narrowing it down to two pairs, I felt relieved and simultaneously frustrated. I looked at Zoe in appreciation and said, “Thank you.” She replied simply, “You’re welcome.” And I took a deep breath, but then I paused. What was I thanking her for? Obviously, I was thanking her for her help, but it was more than that. I felt grateful to her for listening, for trouble-shooting with me, and for massaging a solution. So, I told her that. And without ceremony, she turned to me and said, “Well, I’m glad. Because that was a lot of mansplaining going on.”
I admit to being shocked and surprised at her response. But as soon as she said it, I agreed. I realized that each additional sales associate (all of them male) as well as the original customer who thought himself helpful had all tried to fix my problem, but none had actually listened to it. Instead, they took the approach that they probably knew better, and offered their solutions, ideas, and unsolicited advice without once asking me a question. I’m not saying their intentions were wrong. I actually think they were trying to be helpful, even though they were anything but. It wasn’t until Zoe confidently and casually named it (she wasn’t being derogatory in her words) that I realized what had truly happened. There was a clear gender divide in the approach to the problem and the solution. There was even a female customer who had been looking for boots at the same time as I was, and upon reflection I can say that her words and actions reinforced my statement about this divide.
Personally, I have never used the phrase “mansplaining,” though I can certainly look back at my life and find ample examples of it. Zoe’s introduction of the word so effortlessly in conversation shows me just how much things are shifting. How much the old paradigms are falling away (often while putting up a fight). And I’m glad. I’m glad for many reasons, but in this instance, I’m glad for one:
If we are to come together more as a society, we need to communicate better.
The first step to communicating is listening. We can’t fix a problem if we haven’t actually listened to what’s wrong. Only then can we tease out the best and most appropriate solution, often through a period of trial and error. Trust me, I didn’t want to try on 25+ pairs of hiking boots (my poor fingers were rubbed raw from the lacing), but I did because I needed to find the best solution available to me. And the only way to do that was to listen. I needed Zoe to listen to me, and then I needed to listen to my body – my feet – as I zeroed in on what felt best.
So, while I wish it weren’t true (I’m ever the optimist), I accept that I was mansplained during my hiking boots excursion. What this means for me is that I will double-down on my listening, in the hopes that I can share, embody, and teach a different way. Or at the very least, I can offer a respite from a society focused on “fixing” as Zoe did for me.