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Rebecca Solnit
Tom Dispatch / Op-Ed
Published: Monday 20 August 2012
Here, let me just say that my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, with a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me, with my infinitely generous younger brother, with splendid friends of whom it could be said “gladly would he learn and gladly teach.”

Men Explain Things to Me

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I still don't know why Sallie and I bothered to go to that party in the forest slope above Aspen. The people were all older than us and dull in a distinguished way, old enough that we, at forty-ish, passed as the occasion's young ladies. The house was great -- if you like Ralph Lauren-style chalets -- a rugged luxury cabin at 9,000 feet complete with elk antlers, lots of kilims, and a wood-burning stove. We were preparing to leave, when our host said, "No, stay a little longer so I can talk to you." He was an imposing man who'd made a lot of money.

He kept us waiting while the other guests drifted out into the summer night, and then sat us down at his authentically grainy wood table and 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?"

They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but 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 ingénue 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.

Here, let me just say that my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, with a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me, with my infinitely generous younger brother, with splendid friends of whom it could be said -- like the Clerk in The Canterbury Tales I still remember from Mr. Pelen's class on Chaucer -- "gladly would he learn and gladly teach." Still, there are these other men, too. So, 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. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing, and we've never really stopped.

I like incidents of that sort, when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that's eaten a cow or an elephant turd on the carpet.

When River of Shadows came out, some pedant wrote a snarky letter to theNew York Times explaining that, though Muybridge had made improvements in camera technology, he had not made any breakthroughs in photographic chemistry. The guy had no idea what he was talking about. Both Philip Prodger, in his wonderful book on Muybridge, and I had actually researched the subject and made it clear that Muybridge had done something obscure but powerful to the wet-plate technology of the time to speed it up amazingly, but letters to the editor don't get fact-checked. And perhaps because the book was about the virile subjects of cinema and technology, the Men Who Knew came out of the woodwork.

A British academic wrote in to the London Review of Books with all kinds of nitpicking corrections and complaints, all of them from outer space. He carped, for example, that to aggrandize Muybridge's standing I left out technological predecessors like Henry R. Heyl. He'd apparently not read the book all the way to page 202 or checked the index, since Heyl was there (though his contribution was just not very significant). Surely one of these men has died of embarrassment, but not nearly publicly enough.

The Slippery Slope of Silencing

Yes, guys like this pick on other men's books too, and people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about. Some men.

Every woman knows what I'm talking about. It's the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men's unsupported overconfidence.

I wouldn't be surprised if part of the trajectory of American politics since 2001 was shaped by, say, the inability to hear Coleen Rowley, the FBI woman who issued those early warnings about al-Qaeda, and it was certainly shaped by a Bush administration to which you couldn't tell anything, including that Iraq had no links to al-Qaeda and no WMDs, or that the war was not going to be a "cakewalk." (Even male experts couldn't penetrate the fortress of their smugness.)

Arrogance might have had something to do with the war, but this syndrome is a war that nearly every woman faces every day, a war within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence, one from which a fairly nice career as a writer (with a lot of research and facts correctly deployed) has not entirely freed me. After all, there was a moment there when I was willing to let Mr. Important and his overweening confidence bowl over my more shaky certainty.

Don't forget that I've had a lot more confirmation of my right to think and speak than most women, and I've learned that a certain amount of self-doubt is a good tool for correcting, understanding, listening, and progressing -- though too much is paralyzing and total self-confidence produces arrogant idiots, like the ones who have governed us since 2001. There's a happy medium between these poles to which the genders have been pushed, a warm equatorial belt of give and take where we should all meet.

More extreme versions of our situation exist in, for example, those Middle Eastern countries where women's testimony has no legal standing; so that a woman can't testify that she was raped without a male witness to counter the male rapist. Which there rarely is.

Credibility is a basic survival tool. When I was very young and just beginning to get what feminism was about and why it was necessary, I had a boyfriend whose uncle was a nuclear physicist. One Christmas, he was telling -- as though it were a light and amusing subject -- how a neighbor's wife in his suburban bomb-making community had come running out of her house naked in the middle of the night screaming that her husband was trying to kill her. How, I asked, did you know that he wasn't trying to kill her? He explained, patiently, that they were respectable middle-class people. Therefore, her-husband-trying-to-kill-her was simply not a credible explanation for her fleeing the house yelling that her husband was trying to kill her. That she was crazy, on the other hand....

Even getting a restraining order -- a fairly new legal tool -- requires acquiring the credibility to convince the courts that some guy is a menace and then getting the cops to enforce it. Restraining orders often don't work anyway. Violence is one way to silence people, to deny their voice and their credibility, to assert your right to control over their right to exist. About three women a day are murdered by spouses or ex-spouses in this country. It's one of the main causes of death in pregnant women in the U.S. At the heart of the struggle of feminism to give rape, date rape, marital rape, domestic violence, and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes has been the necessity of making women credible and audible.

I tend to believe that women acquired the status of human beings when these kinds of acts started to be taken seriously, when the big things that stop us and kill us were addressed legally from the mid-1970s on; well after, that is, my birth. And for anyone about to argue that workplace sexual intimidation isn't a life or death issue, remember that Marine Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach, age 20, was apparently killed by her higher-ranking colleague last winter while she was waiting to testify that he raped her. The burned remains of her pregnant body were found in the fire pit in his backyard in December.

Being told that, categorically, he knows what he's talking about and she doesn't, however minor a part of any given conversation, perpetuates the ugliness of this world and holds back its light. After my book Wanderlust came out in 2000, I found myself better able to resist being bullied out of my own perceptions and interpretations. On two occasions around that time, I objected to the behavior of a man, only to be told that the incidents hadn't happened at all as I said, that I was subjective, delusional, overwrought, dishonest -- in a nutshell, female.

Most of my life, I would have doubted myself and backed down. Having public standing as a writer of history helped me stand my ground, but few women get that boost, and billions of women must be out there on this six-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever. This goes way beyond Men Explaining Things, but it's part of the same archipelago of arrogance.

Men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don't. Not yet, but according to the actuarial tables, I may have another forty-something years to live, more or less, so it could happen. Though I'm not holding my breath.

Women Fighting on Two Fronts

A few years after the idiot in Aspen, I was in Berlin giving a talk when the Marxist writer Tariq Ali invited me out to a dinner that included a male writer and translator and three women a little younger than me who would remain deferential and mostly silent throughout the dinner. Tariq was great. Perhaps the translator was peeved that I insisted on playing a modest role in the conversation, but when I said something about how Women Strike for Peace, the extraordinary, little-known antinuclear and antiwar group founded in 1961, helped bring down the communist-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities, HUAC, Mr. Very Important II sneered at me. HUAC, he insisted, didn't exist by the early 1960s and, anyway, no women's group played such a role in HUAC's downfall. His scorn was so withering, his confidence so aggressive, that arguing with him seemed a scary exercise in futility and an invitation to more insult.

I think I was at nine books at that point, including one that drew from primary documents and interviews about Women Strike for Peace. But explaining men still assume I am, in some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor, an empty vessel to be filled with their wisdom and knowledge. A Freudian would claim to know what they have and I lack, but intelligence is not situated in the crotch -- even if you can write one of Virginia Woolf's long mellifluous musical sentences about the subtle subjugation of women in the snow with your willie. Back in my hotel room, I Googled a bit and found that Eric Bentley in his definitive history of the House Committee on Un-American Activities credits Women Strike for Peace with "striking the crucial blow in the fall of HUAC's Bastille." In the early 1960s.

So I opened an essay for the Nation with this interchange, in part as a shout-out to one of the more unpleasant men who have explained things to me: Dude, if you're reading this, you're a carbuncle on the face of humanity and an obstacle to civilization. Feel the shame.

The battle with Men Who Explain Things has trampled down many women -- of my generation, of the up-and-coming generation we need so badly, here and in Pakistan and Bolivia and Java, not to speak of the countless women who came before me and were not allowed into the laboratory, or the library, or the conversation, or the revolution, or even the category called human.

After all, Women Strike for Peace was founded by women who were tired of making the coffee and doing the typing and not having any voice or decision-making role in the antinuclear movement of the 1950s. Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. Things have certainly gotten better, but this war won't end in my lifetime. I'm still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope that they will get to say it.

See Tom Engelhardt's response here.

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ABOUT Rebecca Solnit

San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit is the author of thirteen books about art, landscape, public and collective life, ecology, politics, hope, meandering, reverie, and memory. She has worked with climate change, Native American land rights, antinuclear, human rights, antiwar and other issues as an activist and journalist. A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she is a contributing editor to Harper’s and frequent contributor to the political site and has made her living as an independent writer since 1988.

If anyone thought snarkiness,

If anyone thought snarkiness, self-importance, and superiority fantasies were limited to men, the comments by "Ainemac" here will lay that to rest. Good for the article, in a way: now gender stereotypes are questioned both ways.

Thank you for posting this

Thank you for posting this wonderful essay. I've been thinking a lot about the silencing of women in today's society -- about how far we still have to go *as* a society to make it stop happening -- and this really brought it home. Namaste.

Thanks for posting this

Thanks for posting this excellent essay. Sometimes worse than being explained to is asking yourself subsequently why you allowed yourself to be put into this position when your knowledge and expertise should have given you equal footing, or even an upper hand. I've certainly wondered how I've ended up in such positions despite being, for the most part, a very accomplished and empowered woman who usually has no problem stepping into leadership roles in her career. I think that we sometimes do ourselves a disservice by guessing--as I have done myself and as I see some people doing in the comments--that the reasons we allow ourselves to be explained to have to do with wanting to be polite, feeling ashamed, or wanting to please people in some way. If I really think about why I've been more silent than I should have been in a conversation, I realize that it's usually not because I feel anything about wanting to be polite to the explainer, or even the immediate social group, but because I'm trying to think things through as quickly and as thoroughly as possible, to make sure my case is air tight before I respond. It is in that space of hesitation that an overbearing person can take the advantage and monopolize a conversation. I realize that I am most often being careful in this way because the assumption is already that I won't know what I am talking about. I'm instinctively trying to protect against the possibility that I'll make an error that will reinforce this assumption rather than providing a riposte that will challenge it. So I appreciate the way you pinpoint a confidence in their ability to be wrong on the part of the men who explain. It helps to understand why even very knowledgeable and assertive women sometimes find themselves being explained to: not because they feel a need to be polite; not even, in many cases, because they are necessarily insecure about their ability to be right; but because they are insecure about their ability to be wrong.

I dare to fantasize about a sequel to this article entitled "Men Who Get Emotional With Me." I can think of more than one occasion when I've made a factual or analytic point which was neither delivered in an emotional manner nor based on feelings in any clear and direct way, only to have the man explaining things to me respond as though I had tried to make a point about an emotional issue I never raised, or to be told that my "passion" was admirable, but that this didn't change that my facts were wrong. (Cell phone technology can be a great boon at such junctures.) On the last such occasion I was, ironically, told I was being emotional by a man who was sweating, red in the face, and bellowing at the top of his voice.

This is going back a bit -

This is going back a bit - but I came across some lightish but good writing on this sort of behaviour in Dale Spender's book 'Reflecting Men at Twice Their Natural Size'. It is probably out of print now, and my copy was lent out and never returned.

I am a man, and I sometimes

I am a man, and I sometimes Explain Things, not just to women, but to men, children, and generally everyone I speak to. I do this because I find that when I give people the benefit of the doubt concerning their knowledge of topics outside the realm of TV news, I often end up with a blank stare. But I usually find a way to assess the knowledge level of my interlocutor before I begin my explanation, if it is necessary, and if it becomes apparent that I was in error, I always apologize for being a pedant. After all, I know how annoying it is to have something explained to me when I'm already quite familiar with the topic, and how that annoyance is multiplied when the explainer has his (or her!) facts wrong.

I can also relate to the feelings of powerless you express during such a situation. I have no way of saying whether I am explained to as often as you are, but when a polite statement that I am familiar with the topic fails to halt the explainer, I too am forced to listen; I have found that your certain breed of Very Important Explainers hates being interrupted just as much by a man as by a woman.

Good story - I am an admitted

Good story - I am an admitted former man-who-explains-things. It took my sister to loudly and embarrassingly correct me in front of others to get me to realize it, and I'm eternally grateful she did. It's so easy to get caught up in your own head (especially as I was a graduate student at the time, who I've noticed tend towards that sort of behavior) that you can begin to forget the limitations to your own knowledge.

The nice thing about not acting like an ass like that any more is that I find that it's much easier to listen to what other people have to say when you're not talking, and consequently learn a lot more about the world.

My advice is to call people out on it. Most will have a naturally defensive reaction, some will take offense to it, but some of them will actually use it as a catalyst for changing and improving their own behavior, making them better people and more pleasant to be around.

An article you may find

An article you may find interesting:

Oh, if I had a penny. The

Oh, if I had a penny.

The real fun starts when some guy starts lecturing you on a topic that women by definition have more knowledge and experience of, such as period pain (he skimmed a magazine article once, making him the expert), or 'Ron in NM' down there explaining to us ladies how the clothes we wear affect men's reactions to us. As if this isn't something we have contended with every day since our teens. Frumpy, plain, unattractive, middle-aged women are hardly automatically listened to and taken seriously. Dress up too much and you're a 'barbie doll', don't dress up enough and you render yourself invisible.

I honestly think some guys don't even realise they're doing it, and have an unconscious anxiety that they are being emasculated if they aren't dominating the conversation.

Another thing that I have experienced and seen happen a lot: a woman speaks up in a group, and one of the men will immediately repeat her statements, a little louder and projected around the room, as if they only have true authority when they come from a male. An ex-workmate was doing this to me once and I turned to him and said 'Polly want a cracker?' It got a laugh from the rest of the group and he stopped it, but was frosty with me from then on.

Sigh. If you're female and you do anything other than smile demurely and concede the point, you're the unreasonable bitch no matter what it is you're reacting to.

thank you! as much as we

thank you! as much as we work towards honoring everyone, we men need to be reminded of our arrogance. I will share it with everyone I know.

A very good essay, but I'd

A very good essay, but I'd like to point out that not all men act that way, and you do qualify it by saying, "some men," at appropriate times.

This may not be related, but maybe it is. It's hard for some men to take women's intelligence seriously, not just because of deep-seated bias, but because so many women are obsessed with their appearance.

So phony, in fact. Blond hair with black roots and black eyelashes. And black thick augmented eyelashes that look like the legs of a black woolly centipede.

No, don't accuse me of hating women. I got my feminist sympathies in the school of hard knocks, not in a conscious-raising session in college. And I'm a white guy, but I was born with no privileges to speak of.

But it really is hard to focus on a woman's intellectual capacities and considerable talents when they look like Barbie dolls. That's all I'm saying.

I have a daughter now, after having raised 2 sons to adulthood, and I wish only the best for her, now and in the future. But I discourage her from trying to make herself into a carnival geek just to be in fashion.

When a woman dresses in sexy clothes and paints her face into plastic obscurity, it does increase the likelihood that a man will patronize her (perhaps while lusting after her).

I like the way women look without all those frills and phoniness. Hey, I'm not opposed to a little lipstick, and if you have a zit, by all means apply a little make-up to cover it. But don't try to be a Barbie doll or a Bratz figure.

And if you'd doubting my sincerity about my feminist sympathies, I'll just say that I spent most of my childhood under an abusive and alcoholic stepfather, and I often used to wonder, why don't children have any rights? And it wasn't long before I realized that children wouldn't have rights until women did. And that's all I want to say about the "school of hard knocks."

Never mind. I think Ron's a

Never mind. I think Ron's a troll.

@ RON IN NM: "but I'd like to


"but I'd like to point out that not all men act that way, and you do qualify it by saying, "some men," at appropriate times."

Yes, she did. Therefore there was no need for you to point it out.

"And I'm a white guy, but I was born with no privileges to speak of."

The fact that you are white and male means you enjoy MANY privileges women and/or minorities do not.

"But it really is hard to focus on a woman's intellectual capacities and considerable talents when they look like Barbie dolls. That's all I'm saying."

It may be difficult for YOU to do so. Don't presume you speak for all men. Not all share this bias. If superficial, external factors like clothes and makeup are so distracting for you that you lose your ability to listen and pay attention to a woman's words, maybe the problem is with you and not her?

And for that matter, you have no idea what the author of this article was wearing at the time she was condescended to. I think you just decided you'd ignore the substance of the article, because you'd rather lecture women about how they should dress in order to earn your oh-so-precious male approval and the right to be taken seriously.

Please don't tar all men with

Please don't tar all men with the same brush! Everyone has a little self importance in them - I even detect some in your own article (how many books make you an expert?) - but there's nothing like family or a spouse to pull you back to earth. I've also run into women that are perfectly happy to tell me their version of all of men's faults (mine especially!) or why women would run the world better than men, so it's not a one-way street.

It doesn't necessarily take a high intelligence to rise to the level of Important In Your Own Mind. Some people confuse their ability to make money or rise in political power for expertise in other subjects. Witness Todd Akin and the other Republicans that make pronouncements on women's health issues (often based on something they heard was in the Bible, of which they also know little about). Most of them deal with hundreds of issues, and turn out to be experts in none of them. Sometimes they're lucky, sometimes it doesn't matter what decision they make, sometimes it's really bad.

At least the reaction from both men and women to Akin's idiocy should convince you that we're not all like that.

@NHSOLARGUY The author went


The author went out of her way not to tar all men with the same brush, so I'm not sure why you've felt the need to go on the defensive.

Socio-linguistic studies have been done on inter-gender communication, and have conclusively proved that men interrupt, talk over and talk down to women, and attempt to dominate the conversation regardless of their knowledge or expertise, far more than vice versa. That's not to say there's no such thing as a self-important woman, but it is by no means an equal problem.

Your comment on Todd Akin is irrelevant to the article.

Why are we so polite --

Why are we so polite -- that's what I'd like to know! Thanks, Rebecca, for explaining this phenomenon so perfectly.

Bless you, Rebecca! In a

Bless you, Rebecca! In a wonderfully humorous and eloquent yet down to earth way you've explained things to me.
I'm not being sarcastic here, I really appreciate what you're saying.
I do often find myself in the position of explaining things to both men and women and will certainly bear in mind the perspective that you've just shown me. I have, however, noticed that very often women switch off when I tell them about technical details, even when they've actually asked me for them. When that happens I just shut up and fix the car! ( I loved it though when once, in conversation with a young woman, she told me she could take a VW beetle engine out in less than 3 minutes and then proceeded to explain exactly how she did it! ;)

Thank you for so eloquently

Thank you for so eloquently describing the experiences that we women have all endured to some degree forever. Throughout my career in communications, I had to invent male authors of the strategies I developed if I expected client buy- in.

Wonderful article,

Wonderful article, beautifully written. I cannot add a thing to the already intelligent comments made except to say thank you for using your voice.

Oh my goodness! Could I ever

Oh my goodness! Could I ever add stories from the "old" days that unfortunately still sound fresh. Like the time I was doing exercises on my living room floor (while on sabbatical) and listening to a discussion on TV. I heard men's voices responding to men's voices, with a woman trying occasionally to be heard. Then one "very sensitive" man in the discussion said something like, "Oh my, I'm so sorry. You've been trying to say something." "Yes," she replied. Then the men went on and I never heard her voice again.

Or my disbelieving female colleague who attended a Masters Thesis Oral specifically to point out a change she felt it important to make. People politely stopped talking when she spoke, and then picked up where they had left off when she finished her sentence. Then a male colleague came in and made the same point to which the group responded enthusiastically, requiring action. My friend came to my office enraged -- and wiser.

Then there's the nicer story where I realized I was getting the same treatment in a meeting where all the others were men. Finally I said, in my lower register voice, "Gentlemen, I fell like if I looked in a mirror, no one would look back." That startled them, and they "got" the explanation. After that, and in subsequent meetings, they made a point -- mostly humorous, but definitely intentional -- to take in the content of what I'd said. Eventually I was no longer silenced. It can be done. Keep the faith.

Thank you so much for this comment!

Rebecca, well the thing is I

Rebecca, well the thing is I do belong to two minorities that live the paradox of this phenomenon: I am a MAN WHO EXPLAINS THINGS TO YOU but I am also a dwarf to whom EVERYONE EXPLAINS THINGS TO, including women. I have five sisters and they have often despaired at that first trait of mine. I did grow up in a culture were THOSE men were the rule, including my very sophisticated father, even though my mother was smarter than he was. I have dedicated my life to studying and practicing self transformation, but it ain't easy to change things ingrained at a young age, as you know. A little compassion for those men would do you good. I have learned to develop all sorts of antics, some subtle some not, to get people's attention and establish some authority. Thanks for your clarity and courage. Love. Jorge

This problem is so enormous

This problem is so enormous that I truly wish that hundreds of books were written about it. We are so often silent. We participate in the very system that silences us. We are so fearful of retaliation, of possible humiliation. Your article takes a slightly humorous approach to it but it is quite horrible isn't it, and in this country we are on the brink of moving backward having consistently failed to put ourselves in control of our own destinies.

I greatly enjoyed reading

I greatly enjoyed reading this article. I am a man and I probably have been guilty of the behaviors to which you allude. I will most certainly try to do better.

I am pretty sure I have ever explained a book to its author.

Thank you. We all have

Thank you. We all have engrained behaviors that we must work against. The first step is accepting that they exist and becoming aware of them.

Thanks for the truth. I am a

Thanks for the truth. I am a man but my girls - the 7 I have raised up - say they think I must have been put together more as a woman than a man. My first was hell bent on going to a huge co-ed university. But she was driving and spotted a beautiful campus - Regis College and checked it out. She went there for the campus and the courses and found herself. Later when she transferred to a university she was shocked to see the difference - the steamroller style of so many male students and faculty. Her time at an all female college had prepared her and she was not intimidated. Today she is a brilliant Licensed MSW having received her Masters at Smith! I often think of how much better we would be if men were given forced hiatuses from all professions - especially Government, and high level executive positions. Hell - Computer cords would at least be in the front!

Rebecca, thank you so much

Rebecca, thank you so much for this essay. I have passed it on to my friends (male and female) who have mentioned this behavior many times but didn't realize how universal it is. The article is also, by the way, very reinforcing. While I have yet to find graceful ways to respond to the over-explainer, I think I'll keep this were I can reread it prior to those kinds of meetings/events.

Nuf said!

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