climbing · men

Men explain things to me: the bouldering edition

This week, I was going to post about my new bike and commuting with it, but I’m afraid this is going to have to wait until another time (though spoiler: I’m loving it). Something happened to me this week that really annoyed me, and I need a space to vent.

Mansplaining apparently never gets old. When I prepare a post I always double-check it hasn’t already been written, or what the other fit feminists here think about a topic. Lo and behold, when I checked for “mansplaining”, a post from Sam came up from 2014: Men explain things to me: The Gran Fondo Edition. Five years later, enter the bouldering edition!*

I’ve written before about how bouldering is a social sport that is a lot of fun in a group, and it is. Even if it so happens that you show up at the bouldering gym alone, you will usually end up chatting to someone about a problem that you’re both working on. And most of the time it’s nice. On Monday, however, it so happened that I just wanted a bit of quiet time figuring stuff out for myself. It’s been really busy round here, we have visitors at home (whom my partner was taking care of for the day), and I needed a bit of space. So maybe it wasn’t the best idea to engage in an activity that usually provokes chats. Maybe I should’ve just gone for a run. But I wanted to boulder, so off I went.

A smiling Bettina hanging off a bouldering wall, enjoying the triumph of a solved problem.

Oh boy, did people talk to me. And by “people”, I mean men. Out of an admittedly small sample of n=3, 100% of the people to give me unsolicited advice on problems I was working on were male. I got so pissed off I left earlier than I normally would have, or else specimen no. 4 would have had a “CAN A PERSON NOT HAVE SOME SPACE IN HERE?!” thrown at them. I didn’t want a hypothetical specimen no. 4 to suffer thusly.

The most blatantly mansplainy exchange was this:

ME: *works quietly on a boulder problem, chickens out before the end because doesn’t want to slip and bite the wall*
RANDOM GUY (RG): But you almost had it, you just have to step up on the last bit!
ME: But I didn’t want to. If you slipped there, it would be really nasty.
RG: Hm, OK. But have you tried this problem? *points to problem next to the one I’d been trying*
ME: No, I haven’t.
RG: You should, it’s a fun one.
ME: OK, sure, I’ll give it a whirl.
RG: Try it, and then I’ll show you how.

I mean, seriously???!!! I hadn’t asked him for help, I hadn’t asked him what problem to do next, and I certainly hadn’t asked him to “show me how”. The conversation went on like this for a bit as I tried my hand at the problem (he wasn’t wrong, it was kind of fun, just not with a random guy watching and doling out “helpful” advice). Eventually, I sort of bowed out and scampered off to the other end of the gym. Yes, I enabled this guy by agreeing to do the second problem. But what does one do in such a situation? Is there a way of shutting mansplainers down without being rude? Or should one just be rude?

Interestingly, I have hardly ever encountered unsolicited advice-giving from women. Mostly, they either don’t say anything, or they wait till you ask. On rare occasions, they have said something along the lines of “Have you tried doing this or that? It might not work for you, but it did for me!” As in, not just telling me what I “just have to do”, and waiting a while until politely offering a possible solution, while being aware of the fact that it may not work for me.

Often, I’ll have an exchange with someone and a witty reply will come to me after the fact. This time, I’m still stumped. What would you have done? How do you all deal with this sort of situation?

*Others have written about this too, notably Kim in her post “Why I hate spin“.

18 thoughts on “Men explain things to me: the bouldering edition

  1. When I read this I IMMEDIATELY thought about my friend. Alisa. She is the most direct boundary drawing person I know. You talked about being witty in your replies and I wonder about the pressure to “be witty”, or cute or whatever. It’s part of the same issue. Alisa is not witty. She is direct. “Do not touch me when you move by me in this space.” “Do not play that machine I had obviously reserved it. That was my coat you moved” “Do not talk to me while I’m playing I didn’t ask for your help” (she plays a lot of pinball). I listen to her and watch her do it “your dog licked my sandwich I think you need to buy me a new one” and I’m viscerally uncomfortable. But I KNOW she is right. So my hope for you is a little of her chutzpah. “I’d like to solve this problem on my own please don’t offer unsolicited advice to me” “I came here to be alone today so please let me solve this one by myself” “No thank you I don’t need your help and I don’t want to do that wall.” In the end, these people are probably flirting, or at least taking up the flirt space they feel entitled to whether they are serious or not and THAT is the problem. Not that they flirt, but that we don’t feel like we can just say, “no thanks” and it will be fine and we will get the space we want. Good luck. And that is a super cute pic of you on that wall.

    1. Wow, kudos to your friend Alisa! I wish I had her “zero fucks given” attitude.
      You’re also right, at least one of them – the guy from the conversation above, actually – was almost certainly flirting (“do you come here a lot?”). I wish I’d just had the guts to send him to get some fresh air (as they say in Spanish). Just thinking about it makes my blood boil all over again. The other two were genuinely trying to be helpful, I think, but were being really clumsy about it.

  2. I am truly laughing out loud (gratefully, as the alternative would be angry tears)! I am so sorry you had your “me time” interrupted three times by unwanted “help!” I’ve been working on a piece about that in the gym, but while there’s a longer version to it, the short one is “don’t.” Don’t offer help. I know how to ask for help, when I want it. I imagine you do, too.

    I am absolutely bummed to hear there’s a culture of conversation with bouldering, though! I pretty much never want to work out with other people–I’m super-introverted and I need that “in my own head time” to be nice the rest of day. 🙂 I was thinking bouldering or rock gyms might be a great way to mix up my strength work some time. But after a few lessons, I’d absolutely want to do it alone! Do folks wear earbuds and such, or is that not part of the culture, either?

    1. Exactly, had I wanted help I would’ve asked!
      With bouldering there’s certainly a culture of conversation, which I find nice on most days – but I had spent the entire day being nice as you said and interacting with people, and I had just exhausted all my reserves of sociability. But yes, some people totally wear headphones or earbuds, and then I don’t think people would talk to you. But here’s an interesting thing: when I think about it, most people I’ve seen bouldering on their own have been guys. I have a hunch that they’re not as prone to receiving unsolicited advice as women! Unless a woman is very, very good, but even then…

      Looking forward to your post about the gym.

  3. It sounds like Susan’s friend Alisa should give workshops for the rest of us on developing confidence to shut down mansplainers and flirters. We often think we have two choices: put up with it or be rude. Maybe Alisa isn’t rude– let’s reframe it as a real and honest response. I’m not good at this at all, but your post and these replies are encouraging me to work at it. Thanks for the great post!

    1. I would certainly sign up for that workshop! I’m getting better, but I’m definitely not there yet with the boundary-setting. In this particular scenario, I think I found it even harder because I was so on edge already. Had I been in a better frame of mind, I might have been able to calmly shut them down. In the moment, it felt like a choice of either shouting at them or going along with it, so I went for the latter because I didn’t want to be very rude.

  4. Everything said here RESONATES too loudly! I don’t know if I ever do. bike ride alone in Central Park without some man giving me a piece of unsolicited training advice. It’s exhausting. Frustrating. And in this political moment, I finally feel like I’m allowed to also feel enraged, but that brings me back to exhaustion. We need Alisa’s workshop!

    1. Yeah, I’ve had guys comment on my running form while I was out for a jog. Frustrating and creepy.

  5. I don’t know if I’m up for a workshop folks but I think I could probably write a blog about boundary setting. I can also tell you that lots people do not love my boundaries… but I don’t really care. The alternate is to have people intrude in my space and I would do much rather have people dislike me (especially those who think my boundaries are unreasonable) than have people freely trounce in my bubble. And usually my statement is correcting a weird assumption someone has made about what is okay with me.


  6. “Please don’t give me unsolicited advice” is a good mantra. It draws the boundary really quickly without being rude, and turns the thing around by pointing out that you didn’t ask what they thought. And if the dude keeps splaining you just repeat that over and over and over again word for word until he gets tired and goes away.

    That said, you’ll have to have your Spidey-Sense turned on for whether the dude is likely to escalate the situation, and use that good judgement from there.

  7. My response to mansplainers at the gym, grocery store self-checkout, subway, (whatever!) is always “thank you” and a curt nod. Maybe that could be interpreted as encouraging to some, but it’s basically my version of a “I’ve heard you, now move along, I’m not interested”.

  8. Thank you for this post! I’m a climber myself, and I can totally relate. I am usually happy to receive tips, partly because I’m one of those people who have rather poor coordination and close to zero body awareness. But, for the same reason, my problem is very often not that I don’t *know* what I am supposed to do to solve a problem, as in, for instance, where I should place my feet or how I should turn my hips. I happens very often that I know these things, but I have troubles executing the necessary moves. It can take me a number of attempts before I can position my body the way I want it to be positioned. And, of course, in such situations, there would often be a guy approaching me and explaining to me that I needed to do what I was already trying to do. When I explain to him that this is exactly what I was trying to do (hoping he would just go away and let me keep trying), he would show it to me (“but you just have to do this…”). And if I still keep failing, he would tell me or show me the same thing over and over again, getting sort of annoyed (!) that I’m not following his brilliant though unsolicited advice. Usually situations of this kind result in me going to a different part of the gym. What makes it really frustrating is that I don’t consciously decide to be nice instead of responding with “thank you, but could you just let me work on it on my own”, simply “leave me alone”, or something along these lines. The thought that I could have reacted in a more assertive way usually comes to my mind long after the whole situation is over.

    I should stress though that luckily, most of the time, my encounters with strangers in boulder gyms are nothing like that. I particularly like it when someone simply works on the same problem as I do. In such situations, we help each other out just by trying and seeing each other trying different things, maybe discussing possible options, but there might be no chatting at all.

    1. Exactly!! And in most cases it is just like you describe at the end. But it seems when you are alone as a woman, it’s like an open invitation for some guys to start giving unsolicited advice. In one of my cases the other day the solution the guy proposed simply wasn’t viable for me because he had longer arms than me and could exert pressure on two sides at the same time, while I just barely managed to reach both sides, let alone push against them. I had to explain this to him in detail until he finally let it go! Blech.

  9. Oh yes, there is that too! At first I actually wanted to comment on what you wrote about women giving advice — that they tend to acknowledge that what worked for them might not work for others. My first thought was: “Exactly! Why guys don’t get that?” But then I realised that my wonderful climbing buddies, the majority of whom are men, are well aware of that, and, when asked for advice, they are usually able to tailor it so that it might actually work for me despite me, say, having shorter arms. I’d risk then a hypothesis that being that guy who gives unsolicited advice to women he doesn’t know correlates with the lack of such understanding. Or maybe it’s just insufficient empathy?

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