Both sexes can perpetrate and suffer interruptions. Yet researchers in the art of communication have repeatedly found that from the age of three on, males tend to interrupt and females tend to pass the conversational ball. The right to interrupt or dominate a conversation often serves as an expression of superiority or status. Nevertheless, when women yield the floor to men, it is not so much a display of inferiority as an indication of the importance they attach to accommodating others in conversation.
Even conversationally accommodating people can come off as interlopers. Women like to overlap a speaker with words of encouragement, agreement, or a parallel situation. (“I know what you mean, Bill. My family also had to struggle to make ends meet.”) Though she intends to establish empathy, she may annoy a man who doesn’t value verbal displays of support. (“That wasn’t my point. Let me finish.”)
Men also complain that women disrupt their concentration when they need total focus on a project – or even the newspaper. Some researchers believe women have greater ability than men to focus on more than one stimulus a time. So while she may not consider interrupting him watching the nightly news as a big deal, he may experience it as a rude disturbance.
Good communication is important. Tina was sure her lab partner was a conversational clod. Right when she was getting to her point, Rich would speak up and steer the conversation in a totally new direction. Rich insisted that they didn’t have to be overly polite with each other and wondered why Tina didn’t just butt-in as well. Tina didn’t think that returning boorishness was a solution. She wanted to know if Rich’s steamrolling was remediable.
We discussed the Five I’s for:
Interceding with an interrupter
Ignore him. You can’t be interrupted against your will. Next time you’re tempted to yield, remember that you have the right of way. Helpful ignores:
Put your index finger up.
“Let me finfish.”
My turn now – hold it.”
“I was saying that …”
Or Tina’s favorite, “Yo, Rich, I’m up at bat now.”
Interpret the interruptions. Look at the patterns in the interference. What’s the intention of the interrupter? What purpose does impeding your serve?
To tune you out
He: “We have to make sure to buy…“
She: “My mother’s visiting this Sunday.”
To be one up
She: “It’s important to make sure we test…
He: “I told you that company’s glass wasn’t strong enough.”
To help you out
He: “WE have to make sure to buy enough…”
She: “Yeah, let’s put in a big order this time.”
Inform him. Let him know you’ve caught him the act, and share how you feel.
“Just now I was talking about ordering supplies and you started talking about your periodontal problems out of the blue.”
“I was trying to explain how many parents never has any money, and you started talking about your family.”
Indicate a better way to interact with you.
“I’d appreciate it if you’d let me finish my story.”
“I wish you’d wait until I finished my sentences.”
“I’m talking about our test-tube order. When I’m done we can talk about your mother’s visit.”
“Talk to me after I finish reading the paper.”
Instruct the innocent. If someone’s interruption patterns are pervasive (she interrupts everyone), it could be that she never learned the rules for polite patter. Like a small child, she interrupts whenever a thought comes to the mind, or because she’s excited about sharing. Give her these basic instructions for innocent offender:
- Don’t pounce. Do not jump in when he’s uh-ing, umm-ing or still has his mouth in a ready-to-speak position. For advanced interruption control, wait two seconds before adding your two cents.
- Inhibit your impulses. Don’t express every thought the moment you have it. Stop and weigh whether an idea would contribute to conversation or derail it.
- Back off politely. Conversational etiquette requires you to say, “Go ahead” or “Sorry” if you mistakenly step in his sentence.
Excerpted from the book He & She Talk by Laurie Schloff and Marcia Yudkin.