linguistic anthropology

The semiotics of mansplaining

Q: Where does a mansplainer get his water?
A: From a well, actually.

You probably don’t need me to explain the joke, but just in case: the stereotypical mansplainer begins every sentence with Well, actually. At this point, we all share an association with those two words: they introduce (often-minor) correction delivered with a maximal dose of condescension.

When I talk about stereotypical associations, I’m talking about indexicality. That is, I’m talking about different ways of saying the same thing that point to different non-referential meanings. And you can have layers of indexicality, one on top of the other. Let’s talk about the case of well actually.

Let’s start by looking separately at well and actually.[1]

Both well and actually are discourse markers, and they don’t provide much in the way of referential meaning. Try to define them and you’ll see what I mean. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t meaningful. It’s just that what they do is provide a sense of cohesion and structure across utterances, and that’s a lot harder to explain succinctly.


In general, well alerts the people you’re talking to that, in some way or another, you’re not going to provide the expected response. Examples here, and I recommend John Heritage for the specifics.

Well works a little bit differently, depending on what comes before and after it. Here’s the short version:

  • The expected response to a positive yes-no question is yes. And if you start with well, it indicates some other response — a no, or an extended or qualified yes.
  • You can use well to begin your response to a wh-question, but not with a straightforward answer to the question.
  • The expected — or at least preferred — response to a statement is agreement. If you start off by saying well, you’re going counter to expectations for how you’d typically respond, which probably means critiquing the statement or disagreeing with it in some way.

More specifically, Heritage goes on to argue that well doesn’t just disappoint expectations. It also allows you to privilege your own experience or perspective over someone else’s, even when you’re agreeing.


It turns out that actually has different social functions depending on where it goes in the sentence. I won’t get into all of them, but corrections and rebuttals are among them. And Rebecca Clift notes starting an utterance with actually can be highly confrontational, which is why well so often precedes actually.[2]

Well actually…[3]

Basically, when you start talking by saying well actually, you’ve just added together a word marking your refusal to provide a preferred or expected response in a way that privileges your own perspective and a word marking that your confrontational disagreement is immediately forthcoming. At best, well actually indexes the beginning of an explanation from someone claiming superior knowledge of the issue at hand. It’s a claim to authority.

But because certain types of people (*ahem* white men) both assume their authority over others and claim that authority more frequently than others–and possibly because of power dynamics that make it easier for us to think of those people are authoritative–well actually has come to index that identity as well. You know how I said before you can have layers of indexicality, one on top of the other? This is what I mean. Well actually indexes both “I’m going to explain something now” and also “I’m probably a white guy.”

And then there’s an additional level. White men’s willingness to claim authority eventually becomes associated with the emptiness of those claims. White men aren’t just infamous for claiming authority — they’re infamous for claiming authority specifically in cases where they lack any expertise. And well actually becomes a caricature of just that — which is to say, mansplaining.

I leave you with this:

(Background: a few days earlier, some jerk who works used to work at Google wrote a long screed arguing that men and women are suited for different types of work due to biological differences. He was summarily fired for creating a hostile work environment.)

[1] With gratitude to Joshua Raclaw, Anthropology Liaison of the VHCA [Very Helpful Conversation Analysts].
[2] For the technically-minded, Clift writes: “In the instances above, ‘well’ acts as a buffer to mark an orientation to the forthcoming dispreferred action. This differentiation in terms of placement made by speakers regarding WHOSE turn is being countered shows considerable sensitivity to the potentially confrontational characteristics of actually. Indeed, those instances of actually that are placed turn-initially in such environments support a view of actually as potentially highly confrontational.”
[3] With further gratitude to Sarah Shulist, who unpacked all this on Twitter but didn’t have time to write it out.


One thought on “The semiotics of mansplaining

  1. jmenon270 says:

    Is it okay to say “well” because you need a moment to think of what you want to say? I say it a lot for that reason. It just takes me a little longer than normal to reply properly.


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