Saturday, January 25, 2014

Voices, Interrupted

You know what I hate? I mean really hatey mchate haterpants hate? Like super-duper detest with grumpy sauce on top?

I hate it when people interrupt me while I’m speaking.

Interrupting comes in several flavors, some smothered in selfishness, a few spiced with condescension or domination, and most sprinkled with a kind of benign thoughtlessness. Below are a few examples.


1. The I’m-so-enthused-about-this-topic interrupt. Sometimes the interrupter is bouncing with happiness, so eager to discuss something they can’t wait till you finish your sentence. They're often involved in your story, frequently potraying great interest in your words, and sometimes even practicing active listening techniques. Are they carried away by the sheer awesomeness of the topic, so overwhelmed they forget Manners 101? Or so excited to demonstrate their keen analytical skills, appropriately-tuned emotional reaction, or ability to craft the perfect situational joke they just can’t hold it in One. More. Second?

2. The why-do-you-even-bother-speaking-when-you-could-be-listening-to-me interrupt. This happens especially when power inequalities exist in the relationship. For example, I see this most often perpetrated on women by men and subordinates by their bosses. I have a

coworker who does this, and I listen in fascination to him while he conversationally plods forward, never allowing his progress to be swayed, never opting for interaction when someone can be acted upon, never letting his coworkers finish a single sentence. Our words are annoying distractions from his story, which is the only one he acknowledges as situationally valid. If life came with subtitles, his would constantly flash underneath his face: “STFU. Seriously.”

3. The I-know-the-end-of-your-sentence-and-am-gonna-helpfully-hand-it-to-you-so-you-don’t-have-to-over-exert-yourself interrupt. You know this person. You’re having a perfectly reasonable conversation, and ever-so-often, your conversation partner plays Carnac the Magnificent and predicts the end of your story. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes not. The one constant? The interrupter’s underlying message that they’re so eager for your sentence to be done, they’ve already delivered, signed for, and assembled your punchline.

4. Your garden-variety, competitive interrupt. Like number two, these interrupters regard conversation less as verbal intercourse and more as verbal masturbation. The key difference, though is the somewhat-mutual nature of the conversational wanking. These folks aren’t going to act as though your words don’t exist, as number two-ers do; they actually engage with you. Well, sorta. The conversation involves two people, but it’s two people with competing stories – a kind of verbal dueling banjos. Your words shape the conversation, even while the other person only engages with your example by comparing it to their own. They tend to interrupt because your words take away from their own stories, and they feel you’re trying to co-opt the conversational platform. No malice is involved; indeed, they tend to expect the same thing from you.

5. The you’re-great-peeps-and-all,-but-my-information-is-more-pertinent-than-yours-right-now interrupt. This is the most common type, at least in my experience. The person who’s doing it doesn’t disrespect other conversants, although they’re often more dominant personalities or culturally empowered persons. They simply glide into the conversation with their input, regardless of whether someone else is talking. I honestly don’t even think most of them realize they’ve interrupted; they’re simply getting their information out there.



These types all vary in tone, intensity, and frequency. However, they share a few vital characteristics: First, interrupting steals others’ definitional authority. Each interpersonal interaction has to negotiate the purpose, function, and tone of the exchange. A person who interrupts others denies their co-conversant(s) the right to fully exercise and actualize their definition of the situation. Interrupting tells the other person their input, not only into the informational exchange but the very structure of the moment, isn’t as valid as one’s own.

Interrupters steal others’ rights to exist equally in the moment. Even if the interruptee's ultimate point is as challenging to predict as the end of a Disney flick, an interruption nabs their right to get there. Everyone has a right to claim cultural space, whether physically or verbally. Interruptions are the conversational equivalents of shoving someone into a corner and using one’s own body to block them from common view.

Nobody puts Baby in a corner.

For some of us, it’s difficult to claim the right to speak. Some of us are shyer than others. Some are introverts. Some of us, like women and non-Whites, have had fewer opportunities to let our voices ring. For many of us, getting our conversational engines humming requires great acts of energy and courage. We’re not used to having cultural space automatically carved out for us, and as a result, we’ve either remained silent or fought for each instance of public speaking. Interrupting stalls our engines and, if we decide we wish to pursue the conversation, requires mustering up more energy to crank our motors. Being interrupted is exhausting, especially for those for whom public space is already an unwelcome or alien place.

Finally and most simply, taking away our right to participate equally in a conversation is an act of verbal bullying, and “bullying” is simply the childhood word for “oppression.” 

7 comments:

  1. I agree with a lot of what you have written.. However, there are speakers from certain ethnic groups who consider certain kinds of interruptions natural patterns of speech. (Now, whether this works to dominate a less privileged sub group within the ethnic group is another question.) You may already be aware of this...

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    1. That's a fantastic point. I definitely didn't account for non-Americans and for various subcultures. Thanks for pointing that out.

      It's also worth noting there are lots of types of interruptions, including minor interjections like "I know!" and "No way!" that have their own functions and deserve some interpretation.

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  2. Wonderful! I am an interrupter, though not an evil (selfish, eff you because what I have to say is more important) one, and I think that, for me, the normalization for that behavior comes from which groups I belong to. I am an introvert and a lawyer, which means that I don't often engage in polite conversation simply for its own sake (and I actually detest it). I interrupt because I don't have countless hours to listen to folks stroll down memory, or "think outloud," lane while I smile politely and pray they take a breath.

    In my world, interrupting is not "oppression," and I think that it isn't in many groups. Is it a domination technique? It can be, but then so can many, many other things, like use of time, and various body language messages, and so on. In my world, interrupting can be the right thing to do, because if my opposing counsel is waxing eloquent on the rights of her client, and inserting all kinds of BS facts, it's my job to say, "your honor, I object. counsel is testifying/considering facts not in evidence/etc." And previously, in my former life as a cop, interrupting is sometimes very necessary. When some a-hole is screaming in my face that his wife is an effing c--t, I am not sure that waiting politely until he is finished is the right tactic.

    What I'm saying is that, IMO, interrupting is nuanced and its meaning prerequires a contextual analysis, or at least a nod at the speaker's group dynamics. I know how much you hate interrupting, but your world (IMO) is starched white and squeaky clean, and it's different in the "dirtier," if I may, societal neighborhoods.

    I am not saying that interrupting, as well as ignoring and belittling (sometimes done by something as banal as by blinking your eyes rapidly while someone speaks), are not oppressive tactics.They sure can be, and in some groups, nearly always are. I have a coworker who interrupts me all the time, and it makes me want to beat seven kinds of hell out of him because it's at its worst when I am talking about personal things, so his message of "it would be hard for you to matter less to me" is extremely clear. I don't find it oppressive, however. I find it immature, and socially awkward, and I think it means he will never be much of a success in out field, because interrupting, like all behavior, is regulated, and he does it at times when, as you so eloquently pointed out, it is never acceptable.

    You're brilliant, as you know. Rock on.

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    1. I agree with you, LJ, that interrupting is contextual. We can't always paint it with the same colors, since members of different groups regard it differently. I should have emphasized this more above. As my friend, Frannie, pointed out, members of certain subcultures find interrupting a perfectly normal way of interacting. I didn't allow for those differences in my post and appreciate folks pointing it out.

      I can say I find interrupting me to be an act of domination, whether the person intends it or not. Maybe it's not their intent; in fact, I imagine it's often not. I guess I'm hoping by pointing this out, I can start chatting about it with peeps and scope out middle conversational ground.

      Thanks for the kind words. They mean a lot. <3

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    2. It occurs to me that there are some times when interrupting, while not kind, is quite appropriate. You provide some examples above in the courtroom. There are times in the classroom when a student rambles on and on and on. And on. I get antsy and use body language to indicate their time is done and point made. If they persist, I will give them a moment more, wait for a natural pause, and (yes, reluctantly) butt in. I know it sucks, but seriously, they don't get that I just saved them from bodily harm from other students.

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  3. This is my worst fault. I think I'm sort of like your first example. Something triggers a thought that I want to add to the conversation. I have to really sit on myself to not jump in all the time with my point of view! The problem is, as Lauri & almost all my friends know....I ALWAYS have a point of view! :(

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    1. I know the feeling, MJJ. When I catch myself interrupting, it's almost always the number one version. I just get so excited and want to contribute, I have a hard time not tossing my opinions or examples into the ring. :)

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