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Most of us believe that women interrupt less than men. But is it true? Picture: Shutterstock

The science behind interrupting: gender, nationality and power, and the roles they play

Those annoying chatterboxes who interrupt when we are in full flow are not always of the most obvious types

Teal Burrell

IT HAS happened to all of us. You’re in the middle of an important point, or reaching the climax of a humorous anecdote, and someone barges right in. You may jump back in to finish your story, indignantly stammer a few more words or quietly fume while the interrupter takes the floor, but the moment has passed: your eloquent point is lost, your story garbled.

Media reports tell us that men often interrupt and “mansplain” things to women – last month, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got unflattering attention for doing so – and stereotypes would have us believe that people from some countries are more likely to jump in than those from others. But take a closer look at how interruptions play out and things are not always what they seem. Figure out why and how people interrupt and you might find yourself more forgiving of the big mouth who stole your moment or better placed to avoid it happening again.

Let’s start with the oft-cited finding that men are much quicker to interrupt and talk over women than the other way round. Media reports aside, the original research backing up this idea comes from the 1970s. It showed that, in covertly recorded conversations between men and women in the United States, the men cut in 46 out of 48 times. And a 2014 study found that men and women both interrupted women more than they did men.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been ridiculed for “mansplaining” to women. Picture: Reuters

But psychologist Ann Weatherall at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand says the early studies counted all overlapping speech, skewing the results. “Sometimes people overlap and it’s not interruptive at all,” she says. It is also hard to know whether men interrupt because of their gender or their status, she says, with men more often holding positions of power.

To try and disentangle the relationship between gender, status and interrupting, Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law in Chicago took their research to the US Supreme Court, in a manner of speaking. In this arena, where nine justices must together reach a decision, the ability to dominate the floor can determine the fate of a case.

Ann Weatherall.

By documenting court hearings, Jacobi and Schweers found that interrupting was indeed highly gendered, regardless of whether a woman was in a more senior role. Male justices interrupted female justices three times as often as the reverse. Female justices were also interrupted three times more than their male colleagues by male lawyers arguing the cases, despite clear rules against doing so to justices. “Even when women reach such a high pinnacle in their profession, they are interrupted by men, not only their colleagues, but also their explicit subordinates,” says Jacobi.

Ethnographers would write that in Scandinavian conversations, one might wait a whole minute before a response
Nick Enfield, professor of linguistics, University of Sydney

So it seems women, at least supreme court justices, have to fight to be heard. But accepted wisdom about interruptions goes beyond gender. Generalisations abound in popular culture and the scientific literature about nationalities, too. Italians are famed for animated discussion, with people talking over each other, and Japanese speakers are reported to leave long gaps between each person’s turn in a conversation. It is a similar story if you offer Swedish visitors a cup of tea, says Nick Enfield, a professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney. “Ethnographers would write that in Scandinavian conversations, one might wait a whole minute before a response,” he says.

To find out if there is any truth to these potentially offensive stereotypes, Enfield and his colleagues analysed hours of videotape of natural conversations between people speaking in 10 languages over five continents.

We know that English speakers do not wait for a distinct pause in the conversation to take turns speaking, but instead rely on grammar and other signals in speech, such as intonation, to know when it is their go. The ideal is to avoid both gaps and overlaps – in everyday speech, English speakers are actually finely honed in the skill of not interrupting. Is this turn-taking system any different elsewhere?

Tonja Jacobi.
What Enfield’s team found challenged all their preconceptions. The English speakers took about 240 milliseconds between speaking turns, whereas Danes waited nearly half a second and Japanese were quickest to respond, jumping in after just seven milliseconds. “What surprised us was how small the differences were,” says Enfield. In fact, they were so tiny, the team concluded that this finely tuned ability to take turns without talking over each other or waiting too long is universal across languages, geography and culture. Because it is so widespread, this ability may even provide clues about the earliest social interactions from which all languages were built.
Any time two people are speaking that have a different sense of how long of a pause is normal, the one who is expecting the longer pause will get interrupted
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington DC

So if speakers of certain languages are no more likely to interrupt, where do these ideas come from? Enfield believes it boils down to subjective experience. “Even though the difference between average response across the cultures is tiny in terms of clock time, we are exquisitely sensitive to timing in conversation,” he says. We are so fine-tuned to the tempo of the languages we speak, we feel these tiny differences to be much longer, or shorter, than they are.

Nick Enfield.

Inevitably, that can lead to interruptions. “Any time two people are speaking that have a different sense of how long of a pause is normal, the one who is expecting the longer pause will get interrupted,” says Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington DC. She has found that New Yorkers inferred Californians had nothing to say because of their supposedly long pauses, while Californians felt they couldn’t get a word in. Moreover, New Yorkers tended to jump in, assuming the other person would stop them if they weren’t finished. So next time someone speaks out of turn, remember they might just be experiencing a language-induced time warp.

You could also consider their reasons for interrupting, which do seem to vary across cultures.

According to work by Han Li, a professor of psychology at the University of Northern British Columbia in Canada, Chinese people tend to interrupt each other more often with “cooperative interruptions”, such as agreeing with what was said or providing assistance with a word or idea, than with “intrusive interruptions”, such as attempts to steal the floor or change the subject.

In comparison, Canadians used intrusive interruptions slightly more than cooperative ones, although the difference was not significant. The contrast may be because Chinese culture is more collective, rather than individualistic like Western culture, and cooperative interruption is a way of working together to facilitate the conversation. Studies of Thai and Japanese speakers have revealed similar patterns to those of Chinese people.

Han Li.

Men and women also use different types of interruptions when talking to their same-sex peers. Tannen counted more interruptions in women-only conversations compared with men-only conversations, but women interrupted each other to agree and build on the point being made, rather than to argue or change the topic.

“Two people talking at the same time can be positive, it can show positive engagement with what somebody else is saying,” says Weatherall, like when couples finish each other’s sentences. Besides, interruptions are a part and parcel of our conversations. “A lively conversation is one where everybody’s jumping in,” says Tannen.

Interrupting starts at an early age. In a 1990 review, psychologist Eleanor Maccoby at Stanford University in California wrote that by early school years in the US, boys are already more likely to interrupt one another, while girls are more likely to acknowledge what someone has said or pause to let another girl speak.

Understanding the differences in styles is a good first step to conversational harmony. “The solution is for us to become more aware of the workings of conversations so that we can overcome our instinct to quickly jump to conclusions about the intentions of others,” says Enfield. People who respond quickly are not pushy, people who respond slowly are not docile, and someone may leap in to show interest, not to take over.

Men may not be conscious of interrupting women, so awareness can help there too. Since her study was published, Jacobi has noticed Chief Justice John Roberts give the floor back to women more often than before (although she has not formally quantified this). “It looks like the court actually paid attention to this and that it wasn’t deliberate,” says Jacobi. She also notes that the research has made her male co-authors realise how often they interrupt women. “The traditional power dynamic is just so ingrained in us that men just think it’s natural that they interrupt women,” she says. “A lot of times, it’s just a matter of realising they’re doing it.”

How to interrupt like a boss

Sometimes you need to cut in. “When what you’re doing in a particular social interaction requires holding the floor, then interrupting is part and parcel of that activity,” says psychologist Ann Weatherall at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. So how best to do it?

Do not bother raising your hand. Research shows that the longer women serve on the United States Supreme Court, the more they learn to just jump in – as their male peers do. This strategy is viewed more negatively when women do it than men, but Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington DC, says it is a trade-off women sometimes have to make.

Once you have the floor, there are tricks to keeping it. Speak more quickly than feels natural, and if you get interrupted, Weatherall advises saying, “Let me finish,” speaking loudly or using phrases to fill pauses.

“Don’t stop, just keep going,” advises Tannen.

Types of interruption

Interruptions are not always bad news. Han Li, a professor of psychology at the University of Northern British Columbia in Canada, created the following categories:

Cooperative interruptions

Agreement: shows support or elaborates on the speaker’s idea.

Assistance: provides a word or phrase the speaker was searching for.

Clarification: asks for an explanation of something just said.

Intrusive interruptions

Disagreement: jumps in to voice a different opinion.

Floor taking: takes over the conversation, but stays on the same subject.

Topic change: cuts in to change the subject.

Summarisation: paraphrases the speaker’s point, often minimising it.

New Scientist