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It's a very minor case which prompted my writing this question, but it's one that is likely to come up in the future. I'm sure it's come up in the past as well, but I didn't see any existing threads on it and the effective decision on the question in question made me curious about how we're going to handle things going forward, and where the line is.

The question is How to ask people to not take up more than one seat on public transport by manspreading, while avoiding conflict?

So that there is no confusion, I want to say upfront:

  • I believe that this is a valuable question
  • I 100% agree that manspreading exists. While many people take up more than their share of space on public transit, in my observation it does seem much more common for men to do so in the manner described in the question

My concern with the question is that it seems to be written to a standard that I think we're unlikely to use in the future.

The question itself describes a pretty common situation, but seems to be a bit off in the gender angle. The question describes people, in general, but the activity being asked about is clearly scoped for men only. Only men can manspread, after all. So this isn't a general strangers-on-public-transit question, it's specific to men.

That's sensible-- it's a problem that does seem to have a gendered component, and strategies to deal with the general case problem of spreading might differ if talking to a man or a woman anyhow.

My concern is around the word manspreading. It's a marginally loaded term, and I don't really see what it adds to the question. Swap out manspreading with taking up too much room or spreading out (or similar) in the question-- no content relevant to the question is lost, since men are referenced throughout. The only function of manspreading that I perceive is to tie this behavior to men's behavior generally. Again, not a huge deal as this is legitimately an issue with a gender component, and the asker is looking for solutions when dealing with men, specifically. The word may not be required to talk about the problem, but it fits.

But there are going to be other cases where the word might be considered less... anodyne, but the complaints raised about them will be the same. If a user posts a question about a woman complaining, I really doubt that we'd let a word like "b**ching" stand, and would demand that the question be rephrased or closed. Other words to describe the situation exist, and that particular one offers nothing beyond them except some gendered scorn. I certainly hope we wouldn't allow a racial epithet in a question, even if its meaning is understood and is congruent with what the question is asking.

So what would we say to a user posting a question containing words like that? The definitions are commonly accepted, so they aren't "wrong" words for the intended meaning. And whether or not they are intended to offend, the asker presumably felt that there was some nuance or other reason to use that word in particular, rather than another. In chat about this post, the asker mentioned that manspreading is a correct word for what they wanted to express and that they had no interest in changing it to avoid "male tear".

The effective conclusion I draw from all of this, in sum, is that the word manspread is technically accurate for what the asker wants to convey, and that other users being offended by the term is not a reason to change it. But that seems to me to be similar to reasons not to use words like the examples described above, and I would absolutely expect removing those words to not be optional.

Since we all work together to moderate the site (if to varying degrees), what standards should we be applying to words which attach undesirable behavior to broader groups, offend some who identify with those groups, and are not necessary to convey the problem being asked about?

I'm not looking to get into a discussion about what makes a word a "bad word" here, or anything similar. I'm asking about what practical guidelines we, as a community, want to apply when it comes to suggesting (versus requiring) that certain words be changed or softened in a question.


Update, which may or may not affect answers:

The OP of the linked question indicated in chat that they did not see other users being offended by the word as a valid reason to change it. In such a case, how do we want to handle mods and/or high rep users making edits over the objections of askers in situations like these?

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    I, for one, am very interested in the question posed in the update section. How do we handle askers who are obstinate, for a lack of a better word, on a specific word change? – Lux Claridge Sep 17 '19 at 19:37
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    When I know I won't annoy people, I "manspread", and I don't find this term offensive. My right to take as much as I want of available space stops when someone comes close. Yes, it targets men, but, hey! I've seen too many of us doing that. With no respect. And when women bagspread, it's often because some ***** takes advantage of a crowded bus/metro to "glue" a woman. Is this attitude a matter of gender ? Guess so... Offensive? Not to me (the word, of course!). Either way. Just a way to explain/describe a behaviour. – OldPadawan Sep 17 '19 at 19:42
  • @LuxClaridge We remain calm, and chat a bit more, and we might get there eventually. At least in this case we did, which is great :-) – Tinkeringbell Sep 17 '19 at 19:46
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    @OldPadawan I think the more general question isn't to decide whether manspreading is offensive or not... but more about what to do with questions that use language that generates a lot of people discussing, saying their hurt or that the language isn't hurtful to them... And are basically just shorthand for something that can be described with more neutral words ;) – Tinkeringbell Sep 17 '19 at 19:50
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    @tinkeringbell : clearly understood it that way! To me, the word isn't offensive and could be used without twisting around :) the act as described isn't nice, I agree, but the word?! – OldPadawan Sep 17 '19 at 20:31
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    @OldPadawan As I've encountered the term it is strictly negative, and not something a person can do without infringing on others' space. Regardless, my question is about what we should do when people raise concerns over terms that they find offensive. A given user not personally feeling offended by the term doesn't affect that. Someone might describe a particular woman as "a shrill, hysterical shrew", claiming that it's just a thorough description. I think that that phrasing is inflammatory and not good for IPS. Some words are definitely going to be out of bounds here, so the question arises. – Upper_Case Sep 17 '19 at 20:32
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    "in my observation it does seem much more common for men to do so in the manner described in the question" And women are more likely to "bagspread" :P – Hugo Zink Sep 18 '19 at 8:02
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    The question title is already quite long and while "manspreading" has some very mild negative meaning, it does save a lot of words compared to neutral understandable alternative of "spreading out their legs". A "shrill, hysterical shrew" on the other hand can be replaced with some shorter no less descriptive alternative. Also catering to everyone is impossible, as is determining whether your wording is offensive or not. I find "manspreading" to be a technical term that describes action perfectly, but apparently it's offensive. How many people have to get offended before title has to change? – IcedLance Sep 24 '19 at 5:18
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The real issue with a provocative word isn't whether or not the word is actually rude/offensive/bad/etc... The issue that is relevant to IPS (which Tinkeringbell pointed out in a comment) is the volume of pointless side discussion that it creates.

I think the more general question isn't to decide whether manspreading is offensive or not... but more about what to do with questions that use language that generates a lot of people discussing

We are here to ask and answer questions about interpersonal skills, and that should always be the main focus of all posts on the main site. Any conversation that is generated about whether or not a word or phrase in a post is offensive is just noise that will distract readers from the important (in the context of IPS) information which is how to solve interpersonal problems. If something in a post is generating a lot of noise and can be rewritten to properly convey the ideas that the author has without generating the noise, then it should be rewritten

I think that scohe001 said it best in chat

If people are taking what I'm saying a different way than I want them to, I'd change the way I'm communicating.

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  • Thank you for your reply. Is this a standard that you think we should enforce, or at least encourage, here at IPS? The balance of opinions I've seen suggests to me that site-consensus is no-- that people should perhaps be willing to adjust language, but should not be pressed to do so or overruled at all. We already delete plenty of comments, so that might be a natural way forward. – Upper_Case Sep 23 '19 at 21:14
  • @Upper_Case I think that the standard we need to shoot for is that the right thing to do is going to be whatever is best for the stack. Our job as community members of this stack is to ensure that we keep the signal to noise ratio as high as possible. If something that gets posted which is generating excessive noise, we need to address that. I'm not saying we should immediately change any language that starts to generate noise, but we should be willing to discuss it as an option. – Rainbacon Sep 24 '19 at 14:57
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├ćlis, thank you for adding more information about your thought processes and experiences. I tried to keep the meta question a bit more general than your specific main-site question because I think that it's (at least superficially) similar situations in the future which are going to cause more substantial issues, but as you've referenced your specific question I thought that a more specific reply might be worthwhile. I'll start by trying to make my explanation on this specific post, and then some replies to your specific response afterwards.

This question

1. The specific word used seems not to be necessary in this case

The question reads similarly to me before and after the edit. It's not clear to me what details of the situation are missing after the edit, or what misunderstandings might arise because of the different words used, or how the presence of the word manspreading in describing the question would affect any proposed solution or approach.

Further supporting this similarity is that the answers people offered for the question didn't strike me as being all that different from one another before and after the word change. If people are suggesting very similar approaches to the problem either way, it suggests that using one specific phrasing over another isn't important for expressing the problem or working towards a solution.

Whatever effects word choice has on describing the problem or suggesting solutions, it doesn't seem to be the case that the word manspreading is in some way fundamentally required to ask this question.

2. Interpersonal skills are the focus of this stack, and we should promote good interpersonal skills throughout

Displaying good interpersonal skills doesn't necessarily mean doing the most satisfying thing, a thing that you technically are justified in doing, or even, sometimes, doing the easiest, clearest, and most direct thing. Even if you feel 100% justified in using a given term, it might still be a poor interpersonal choice to use one. You might still feel that that tradeoff is worthwhile, that furthering other goals is worth displaying and advocating poorer interpersonal skills.

But that's not the focus of the stack. If a user asks a question about how to accomplish something good answers are generally expected to include advice on how to accomplish that thing without causing conflict. If a user asked a question on how to anger someone for no particular reason, it's unlikely that that question would stay open-- that's not how "good" interpersonal skills run.

I think that there is little question that the word didn't fit well with interpersonal skills-based solutions. After all, the user who asked the question posted an example comment that they made which did not include the word manspreading. Answers posted to the question did not include the word in their suggested dialogue, either.

Even if it's a word which technically applies, it might still be better interpersonal skills to not use it. Even when that's true, the balance of the situation might still favor using that word. But it might not, and not only do I think that that's fine to discuss here, that's kind of the whole point of the stack.

3. The general attitude expected of IPS users

In general SE expects users to treat each other respectfully (in terms of online interactions, at least). The very same idea keeps lots of other words off of the site because some people or groups find them offensive and feel that their presence on the site would make it unwelcoming for people like them.

Some users were upset by use of the word manspreading. They have every bit as much right to feel included as anyone else here, and even if their preference did/does not not prevail (and the word manspreading became officially acceptable across the stack forever) it's sensible and reasonable for them to take their complaint to the broader community for discussion. It's certainly not a question that should be decided unilaterally by a single user.


Perceptions of how the question was treated

1. "It makes me feel like a crowd was screaming 'NOT ALL MEN' at me"

I would bet that that's where at least some of the complaints were coming from, but the response seemed pretty mild and quickly moderated to me ("crowd" and "screaming" seem a bit strong to me). Comments in which users complained were addressed, and removed, pretty quickly.

If there is there something users could have done to discuss this issue in a way you wouldn't have felt screamed at, maybe we can look at promoting that approach in the future. No one deserves to be screamed at here. But no one is insulated from challenge or discussion, either.

2. But removing this word made me feel like men's egos were more important than women oppression

This seems a bit strong to me. Especially given that the word seems like it's not unique in being able to describe the problem, it's difficult for me to see using a different word or focusing on the topic of this stack as synonymous with or a meaningful aspect of female oppression.

Obviously I could be wrong-- I don't claim any special expertise on these issues. But, as I outlined above, the question, and answers to it, seem essentially the same to me either way. The main difference (again, that I can perceive from reading the question and discussions around it) seems to be that one way contains a word that some find offensive (rightly or wrongly). And if the reason to prefer the one version of the question is specifically because it offends some, even among a specific group, that seems problematic for the stack. Again, this is something which the broader community should discuss.

3. Feeling horrible as a criterion for moral assessment

I certainly don't think that you need to feel horrible about having used the word manspreading. But that's also not the relevant criterion. If a Person A does Thing Z, we don't judge the moral quality of Thing Z by how Person A feels about it. That is to say, using the word manspread doesn't become acceptable just because you would feel horrible if it were bad to say because you'd already said it. The word manspread being good, bad, or neutral (however you want to define those) is totally separate from how any one person might feel about their past conduct based on that assessment.

4. I would rather deal with the moderation load

That's all well and good for a particular question, but as I described in this meta question the issue extends beyond this one question alone. The moderation to come would include fighting with users who want their questionable term to stay, or who think that their argument that a group they identify with is marginalized enough that they should get a special exception too, or swarms of people complaining about heavy-handed, prejudiced mods.

The moderation load may indeed be better. But it's the community's choice to make.

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  • I'd say in general that the advice would be "do not feed the trolls" but that's coming from the horrible assumption that there will be people here trying to troll the community. The question itself did attract a man that got on the soapbox on why OP was wrong in asking the guy in the metro to close his legs and the answer not only was quite bad before the edits (IMHO, it is still quite bad because the "technical justification" provided doesn't stand scrutiny for more than 1 minute), it also generated massive backlash. – Juliana Karasawa Souza Oct 1 '19 at 16:34
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I agree with what @Rainbacon and @scohe001 said, if I am communicating in a way that is offensive to some people, I would try to change my communication style.

I think in international sites it is easier for this kind of things to occur. For instance, to me "manspreading", seems funny and not offensive, just like someone said in a comment "bagspreading". But I can see how in some places it could have a loaded meaning.

However as far as I know, rules say that when we post in these sites (SE Network), we should play nice, we shouldn't be offensive and we should try to phrase questions, answer and comments in a helpful way. So in this case, since that word has a negative connotation in certain areas, you could argue it is in direct violation of the rules.

I think pointing this out to the OP should make it clear.

The word you used has negative connotation in some places, and in this site we ask users to be friendly, it is actually part of the rules (link here). Please change it to something else (suggestion here) so your post is in accordance with teh site guidlines.

Note:

I don't think saying "taking too much space" is equality descriptive as "manspreading" in this case. You must note there could be a certain embarrasment linked with the situation. So I think maybe it should be replaced by something like "ask a man to not open his legs so wide that is touching me or pushing me out of my personal space". It is a mouthfull, but is exactly what bothers the OP, and I think that is why the OP didn't want to change manspreading for "taking too much room". Afterwards a valid answer could say something like "it is the same whether he is pushing you with his elbow or his legs, you have to do this or that".

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    But how many people have to get offended before you switch your style? Is one enough? What if someone gets offended by the inconsistency of your communication style? One just can't accomodate everyone. – IcedLance Sep 24 '19 at 5:35
  • @IcedLance well if several people agree it is rude or it has a negative connotation in certain areas, I don't think is a stretch to change it. – Mykazuki Sep 24 '19 at 15:43
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The word choice speaks to the perspective of the asker, and tells you something about the situation that should meaningfully change the answers.

To stick with the example, "man-spreading", "bag-spreading", and the generic "individual needlessly taking up two seats" each convey similar behaviors, but the surrounding context changes quite a bit. I would hope that the nuance of context would lead these questions to be answered differently.

Stripping context from a question is probably a bad idea, if you want specific answers to specific questions.

Even in cases where language may be a bit loaded, it speaks to intent. How someone describes their question, those subtle and not so subtle word choices, tell you about that someone.

I was alerted to this discussion because I received an email about a rejected edit to an old question.
https://interpersonal.stackexchange.com/review/suggested-edits/18220

After seeing this meta post, someone deleted this:

To use pop-terms... It's like a man having the nerve to mansplain feminism to women. Or a white American whitesplaining away about how America is now post-racial to an African American. Or a straight person hetsplaining┬╣ what is and isn't homophobic to ... well... me.

There's a heap of context there. It tells the reader something about the asker. If nothing else, it tells them that I'm the sort of person who uses that language.

... But another part of it, and I hope an important part of it, is that editing out that chunk of the question is, at least from my point of view, an example of the sort of behavior the original question was about.

Keep in mind, the question was:

"How can I effectively tell people that their defensiveness over me bringing up an issue is part of the issue?"

I'd like to think the editor in this case was just responding to this meta discussion, but... Regardless, it's not a great look for the community, and may end up sending a signal that the community doesn't want to send. When policing language it's very important to understand why you're policing that language. You may unintentionally end up afflicting the afflicted and comforting the comfortable.

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  • Hey apaul, I think you should be more explicit in your last paragraph: "may end up sending a signal that the community doesn't want to send". Not everyone will understand what kind of message you are afraid this will send (I think I understand, but I'm not really sure) – Ael Sep 21 '19 at 15:43
  • @Ælis see update – apaul Sep 21 '19 at 15:52
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    I think this is a good warning. Policing language leads down a dark road that can begin to look like censorship. But at the same time, allowing any language that someone argues is "necessary" to their question, no matter how inflammatory, can be just as bad. In this situation with Ælis, I see both sides of the argument. It definitely feels like we're walking a knife's edge with no right answer... – scohe001 Sep 23 '19 at 19:36
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I know this question is suppose to be about more than the use of "manspreading" in my question, but I still would like to share my specific experience with that.

When I used the word "manspreading" and people started complaining about it, it makes me feel like a crowd was screaming "NOT ALL MEN" at me.

Of course it's not "all men" and I know some women can "spread" too. And yet, manspreading is still, for me, one of the microaggression I experience every day as a (perceived) woman. It's one more sign that show that public space belong to men.

I know you feel that the word was problematic because it was causing too much noise to moderate. But removing this word made me feel like men's egos were more important than women oppression (and the oppression I was currently facing).

IPS isn't the place to talk about oppression and yet, by making a specific decision about the usage of this term, we are taking a stand about that.

If we choose one way, we are saying:

Men's ego is more important than women oppression.

If we choose the other way, we are saying:

Letting women be able to talk about their oppression is more important the oppressor ego.

Here is a good article that describes why saying "Not all men" is missing the point (and here is another interesting one).

I know I was the one who agreed to remove the term from my question. But I would have rather deal with the moderation load then feeling like I did something horrible (by using "manspreading") and that I had to let people remove it (even if no one ever intended to make me feel that way).

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    It's not one over the other. It's neither belonging on IPS. It's a very hard tightrope to walk, but if we allow soapboxing on the one subject, we have to allow the other side too. By keeping both out of a question/answer we can focus on interpersonal skills instead of oppression. – Tinkeringbell Sep 23 '19 at 20:31
  • I don't think the problem was the "NotAllMen". I think that the problem was it had a negative connotation. However as a person that receives microaggressions from Men you should seek men allies, and using words that could hurt those allies can actually work against you. We need to be fair, and generalizing is bad. However I felt your word was more correct to use than what it was changed to, precisely because it was loaded with additional meanings than the final expression they selected lacked. It is hard sometimes to say certain things without hurting other people. – Mykazuki Sep 30 '19 at 21:29

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