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
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.”