If you didn’t grow up on the US East Coast or belong to one of the ethnic groups mentioned, you may wonder why their conversational style is so different from your own.
In Real Life, Not All Interruptions Are Rude
Deborah Tannen for The New York Times 9.25.21
Ms. Tannen is a university professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of many books on conversation, gender and other topics, including “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.”
Interruption — the offense of stealing the floor when someone else is talking — has become the grand larceny of conversation.
Many viewers applauded Kamala Harris’s justified rebuke of Mike Pence during the vice-presidential debate last year, when she repeatedly insisted, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” Her protests — and his verbal intrusions — had particular resonance because of increasing awareness and research showing that men interrupt women far more often than the reverse.
It seems self-evident. Starting to speak before another has finished violates their right to the floor. In formal contexts such as political debates, it breaches the rules. In casual conversation, it is simply rude.
But it’s not so simple. As a linguist who studies the mechanics of conversation, I’ve observed and documented that beginning to talk while another is talking can be a way of showing enthusiastic engagement with what the speaker is saying. Far from silencing them, it can be encouragement to keep going. That’s a practice that I call “cooperative overlapping.”
As offices and schools reopen, and we venture into more in-person social gatherings, we’re having to relearn how to have conversations: how to start them, how to join them, how to get the floor and keep it. On screens, it’s relatively easy: Click on the raised-hand icon or signal with an actual hand, and you’ll be invited to speak when the time is right. But when talking with others in person, how do you show you have something to say without seeming rude? How do you handle it when you feel interrupted?
These challenges are emotionally loaded, because talking isn’t only about communication; it’s also about relationships. You may resent — or dislike — those who speak over you. And being accused of interrupting when you didn’t intend to feels terrible. It could come as a relief to know that what might be going on is cooperative overlapping.
The concept was recently plucked from my academic writing and thrust into public discourse when a journalist, Erin Biba, tweeted a TikTok video in which a user named Sari shared her excitement over discovering the term in my book “Conversational Style.” Many expressed their relief that the “interrupting” they had been criticized for is a recognized supportive conversational move: “Ahhhh omg it feels so validating to hear this has a name!” tweeted the entrepreneur and writer Anil Dash. “I really struggle with talking over people (I understand many experience this very negatively) but it’s an incredibly difficult pattern to change because it’s literally how I grew up communicating enthusiasm & support.”
Indeed cooperative overlapping, like all conversational habits, has cultural roots. It is learned the way language is learned: by hearing others talk while growing up. I first identified the conversational move — and its misinterpretation — while analyzing a dinner table conversation I had taken part in, along with five friends. Three, including me, were from New York City, two were from California, and one was from London.
By transcribing the two-and-a-half-hour conversation, timing pauses and noting when two voices were going at once, I saw that we New Yorkers often talked over others. When we did this with another New Yorker, the speaker kept going, undeterred or even more animated. But if we did the same thing with a non-New Yorker, the speaker stopped.
Someone overhearing the conversation or reading the transcript might think it obvious that a rude interruption had occurred: Someone began speaking while another was midsentence, and cut them off. But based on close analysis of the entire conversation, I could see that the awkwardness resulted from differing assumptions about overlap.
Cooperative overlapping is a particularly active form of what I call “participatory listenership.” All listeners must do something to show they haven’t mentally checked out of a conversation. If they don’t, the speaker will have trouble continuing — as you know if you’ve ever talked to a screen full of motionless faces, or a roomful of blank stares. Signs of listening can range from nodding or an occasional “mhm” or “uhuh” (or a shower of them); to a murmured “I would’ve done the same thing”; to repeating what the speaker just said; to interjecting briefly with a similar story, then yielding the floor back. Even true interruptions, if they’re mutual, can rev up the conversation, inspiring speakers to greater conversational heights. The adrenaline makes the mind grow sharper and the tongue more eloquent.
Anthropologists and linguists have described overlapping talk as enthusiastic participation in various cultures around the world: Karl Reisman for Antiguans; Alessandro Duranti for Samoans; Reiko Hayashi for Japanese; and Frederick Erickson for Italian Americans, for example. And people from many other backgrounds, including Poles and Russians, Indians and Pakistanis, Armenians and Greeks, tell me they recognize the practice from their own communities.
Of course, not all members of any regional or cultural group have the same style. And those who grow up in one environment then move to another can get rusty. One of the New Yorkers at the dinner I studied told me that he’d lived in California so long, he had to struggle to stay part of the conversation. But he’s still a New Yorker: His California-born-and-bred wife often accuses him of interrupting her.
It’s when conversational styles clash that problems arise. Those who aren’t used to cooperative overlapping can end up feeling interrupted, silenced, maybe even attacked — which clouds their minds and ties their tongues. The Californians and the Londoner in my study felt that the New Yorkers had “dominated” the conversation. In a way, we did, but not because we meant to. From our perspective, the others chose not to join in. Cooperative overlapping is part of a conversational ethic that regards perceptible pauses as awkward silence, to be avoided by keeping pauses short — or nonexistent. Those of us who converse this way often don’t realize that someone who wants to speak might be waiting for a pause to join in.
Once, when I was talking about this study on a radio talk show, a listener called to say she identified: After she and her husband had hosted a great dinner party, he would accuse her of hogging the floor and shutting him out. “He’s a big boy,” she said. “He can speak up just like me or anyone else.” In the background, her husband’s voice explained why he couldn’t: “You need a crowbar to get into those conversations!” His metaphor was perfect: If the pause you expect between speaking turns doesn’t come, you really can’t figure out a way to break in.
Not all overlapping is cooperative. It can really be intended to dominate the conversation, steal the floor or even to undermine the speaker. But understanding that talking along may be cooperative can make our conversations better, as we return to in-person socializing and work. If you notice someone has been silent, you might count to seven before beginning to speak again, or invite them to speak. If you’ve been waiting in vain for a pause, you might push yourself to jump in. And if you feel interrupted, try continuing to talk, instead of stopping.
If “Don’t interrupt me” is sometimes a reasonable request, so is “Don’t just sit there! Please overlap — cooperatively!”