Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about “nerdsplaining.”
I’m sitting with my friends at one of our stores, getting ready to play our monthly Carrion Crown game. We’re chatting casually about Pathfinder characters we want to play while our GM finishes setting up for our game. I talk a bit about my kitsune warpriest of Daikitsu I’m working on, and my dwarven unchained monk that I played for the first time a few weeks before. I’m relatively brief in what I say; I want to be a warpriest that’s good at disarming and tripping things, because that’s what my deity’s favored weapon is best at. He starts talking about a build he wants to play; a multiclass barbarian / fighter who can wield the biggest weapons in the game with Weapon Finesse. He starts bemoaning the lack of a specific magic item in his build, because its not PFS legal. He mentions it briefly, “If only the effortless lace was PFS legal; it would let me count my massive bastard sword as being light for my build.”
“That sounds cool,” I chime in, “But that’s not how the effortless lace works.”
“No, it totally does.” He then begins to ramble off text from off the top of his head. I shake my head.
“I am certain it doesn’t work. I wrote that magic item,” I pause as I see his face, a flush of embarrassment and defeat, “But I can double check if you want.”
Before I start with my article, I want to address the elephant in the room; yes, I’m going to talk about nerdsplaining today, which is a portmanteau of the words “nerd” and “explaining.” I am fully aware of the existence of the similar portmanteau, “mansplaining,” and I fully intend to talk about mansplaining in the context of nerdsplaining. Believe it or not, but I have someplace I’m going with this, and I only ask that you follow me there before deciding if my use of my portmanteau is appropriate or not.
So, okay, nerdsplaining! I guarantee you that every single nerd in the history of nerddom has nerdsplained before. I guarantee you that people who don’t consider themselves, “nerds” in our sense of the word has nerdsplained something before. As you’ll soon see, nerdsplaining is a fundamental part of being a nerd, but I think acknowledging what it is will ultimately be important for the health of our hobby. With this idea in mind, let’s get started.
What is “Nerdsplaining”
I mentioned “portmanteau” already, and if you don’t know, a portmanteau is basically a linguistic blending of words, in which two or more words and their meaning are combined together. So for “nerdsplaining,” we’re combining the words, “nerd” and “explaining.” In which case, this is the phenomenon that most of us have experienced of even performed of nerds over explaining stuff to other people. That’s going to be our key phrase for this article: over explaining. You can be a nerd and explain stuff without nerdsplaining; that only happens when you’ve overloaded the recipient with too much information.
To give an example, my younger brother saw the Ratchet and Clank last Friday. He’s huge into gamer culture and the movie’s release excited him; he really wants to live in a world where he can see movies of his favorite video game character’s antics on the big screen. So I pick him up from the movie theatre and ask him, “What did you think of the movie?” to which he replies, “It had its good moments.”
I was curious and wanted to keep the conversation going, so I asked him, “Oh? What didn’t you like about it?” I didn’t find out the answer to that question for nearly TWENTY minutes. My brother proceeded to explain every little detail about the movie; its heroes, it antagonists, the minor characters, the setting, tie-ins to the video game continuity, his favorite jokes, and so on. It wasn’t until I finally stopped him and said, “Okay, but what DIDN’T you like about it?” that I actually got the answer to the question I was looking for.
I had just been nerdsplained.
Why Shouldn’t I Nerdsplain?
So what’s the harm in nerdsplaining? Why SHOULDN’T you share the wealth of knowledge that you have in your head with every single fellow nerd that you encounter? Well, the answer is pretty simple: it is annoying. Like, super annoying. The reason is that when nerdsplaining happens its usually because you as a nerd have made one of two social mistakes: either the person you’re explaining to knows the information you’re trying to explain to them or they simply don’t care.
So let’s look at the two examples I gave: in my first example, my friend nerdsplained the rules of the effortless lace to me, a set of rules that I was already familiar with. How annoying this is depends on what’s being explained; if it’s a fringe rules case, it’s usually less of a big detail then if something basic is being nerdsplained. For example, explaining how the Upsetting Shield feat, a brand-new feat that’s been out for less than a month that’s from a Player Companion, is less demeaning then explaining how to make an attack roll, or explaining how the movement rules work.
In the second example, my brother nerdsplained a movie to me that I hadn’t seen by providing me with information I hadn’t asked for. This happens often with my brother, but it can still be annoying because it often feels like he’s dominating our conversation and doesn’t really care about what I’m trying to contribute to it. A good conversation is like a good partner dance; both members are giving and taking, they’re both contributing to something that is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts. By dominating a conversation, my brother limits what I’m able to offer to him in return in our conversations.
Nerdsplaining and Mansplaining
Okay, now that we’ve talked about nerdsplaining a bit, we need to talk about what happens when you try to nerdsplain to a woman. You’ve likely heard the term mansplaining on the internet before, so let’s talk briefly about what mansplaining is. Like nerdsplaining, mansplaining is a portmanteau that combines the word “man” and “explaining,” and it typically refers to a very specific type of interaction: when a male explains something to a woman in a manner that is condescending or patronizing because she is a woman. Mansplaining can also occur when a man explains something to a woman in order to try to use that woman’s gender as a way to appear knowledgeable by comparison. So, for example, if you decide that you should explain something to a woman because, “She might not know X, Y, or Z because she’s a woman,” then there is a near 100% chance that anything you’re about to say will be mansplain material. Even if you don’t intend it to be.
Guys, here’s a simple truth—we cannot comprehend the amount of mansplaining that the average woman endures on a daily basis. If you’ve never thought about it before, you yourself might not be aware of the amount of mansplaining that you’ve done to your female friends and cohorts on a daily basis. Now, the simple truth is that being marginalized is both demoralizing and exhausting, and most women are not going to tell you when they feel like they’re being mansplained to, and frankly, they shouldn’t have to. We as humans should be decent people to everyone we meet and assume the best of those we encounter, even if experience teaches us otherwise. This brings me to my most important concept when we’re talking about nerdsplaining and mansplaining:
Consent is Your Superpower
The best way to avoid these conversational problems: to avoid wasting people’s social and emotional energy by dominating conversations or demoralizing others with your interactions, is to simply care about people enough to ask for their consent. Before you go on a massive rant, telling another person about your crazy shapeshifting druid build where you end up with seven butts and twelve tentacles, ask if the others are familiar with the concept you’re talking about, or ask them if they’ve heard your story before. This will cause several things to happen:
- You will keep conversations meaningful, because you will keep everyone engaged. If you’re talking about things your listeners already know, they’re not paying attention to you; and by loosing them in the details, you’ve lost them for the big picture of what you had to say.
- You will keep conversations enjoyable. People will want to socialize with you because they know that you care about them as a person and try to keep them included. You won’t end relationships by making people feel marginalized or inferior to you.
- You will keep a good reputation with others. It doesn’t matter how much you know or how much you love your hobby, if other people don’t like you, they will not care about what you have to say. An eye for an eye makes the world blind, after all.
One final story, by far the worst of them: my friends were playing at a local store. They had a great group of friends getting ready to play a PFS scenario. Someone that they knew, but whom they didn’t play with much sat at the table. This guy LOVED alchemists, and was excited when he found out that one of my friends was also playing her alchemist. He started spouting about how superior the class was to everyone else, and asked her for her build and spell choices. When she told him, he quickly chastised her for her choices, snatched her character sheet out of her hands, and began jotting down his whole spell list on her character sheet so she could spent her money to copy his formulae into her book. All without asking her what she thought or why she made the choices she made for her character.
I wasn’t there for this night, but my friend knew that we (the Philly VOs) had recently enacted a reporting process for discriminatory behavior and harassment. He reported the occurrence to our Lodge’s VL, who quickly checked in with the player to reassure her that action would be taken, and then took care of it. Without seeing the exact circumstances that led to this, I sort of feel bad for the guy. Part of me truly thinks that he thought he was helping my friend, but in reality his behavior did nothing but discriminate against her because of her gender, annoy everyone at the table, and ultimately ruined his reputation with everyone in my gaming circle. (We don’t make up the WHOLE lodge, but six is a pretty significant number when your lodge has roughly 30 regular players.)
And folks, let me tell you, when it comes to gamers your reputation is the most precious thing you have. Don’t squander it.
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.