Linguist Deborah Tannen’s research helped save my marriage—and if he could only get control of himself, it could improve Donald Trump’s abysmal performance in the American presidential debates. But I doubt Trump will listen.
Much has been made of the number of times Trump interrupted his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, during the first of their debates. By Vox’s count, Trump butted in 51 times, while she interrupted him just 17 times. Trump looked sexist, boorish, and rude. Clinton, smiling through the chaos, seemed super competent and unflappable.
I hate to admit it, but Trump and I have a lot in common. We’re both men, we’re both native New Yorkers, and we’re both serial interrupters. The three are closely entwined.
New Yorkers are acculturated into very particular norms of conversation, ones quite unlike those that prevail elsewhere. Linguists such as Tannen have identified interruptions as a distinctive feature of conversation among New Yorkers, who fill silences and finish each other’s sentences as expressions of interest.
When my wife first moved to New Jersey from her native Colorado, she was shocked at how we spoke to one another in greater New York, and was barely able to get a word in edgeways. When we moved to England together decades later, the accents may have been new to both of us, but the conversational style in Britain was actually much closer to that of her childhood than anything I was used to.
As for gender, Tannen and her colleagues found that men have a tendency to interrupt women far more often than women interrupt men. Women—who make up a majority of the American electorate—are familiar with the experience of trying to keep their cool when dealing with men who speak like Trump.
We New Yorkers have long known that the modes of interaction we take for granted are perceived as rude nearly everywhere else in the English-speaking world. Men are also now beginning to learn that our tendency to interrupt women only reinforces gender inequality. Our pushy conversational habits may not be our individual inventions, but we are surely accountable if we don’t take steps to correct them.
Trump’s advisers surely told him that interrupting Clinton would look (never mind be) rude and sexist. That Trump was still unable to control his bad habits is probably among the many reasons why most Americans polled so far believe he lost the first debate—especially given the contrast with Clinton’s immense poise and self-control.
You might argue that Trump’s obnoxious conversational style would be a very superficial reason to vote against him. But it could also be argued that this nasty tic reveals a much deeper character flaw: a frightening lack of self-control.
There is a long tradition in my field of political philosophy that associates injustice in the state with disorder in the soul. It dates back to our founder, Plato. He was no fan of democracy, but did view it as a turn for the worse when democracies turned into tyrannies, as he thought they were all too prone to do.
Since the main characteristic of democracy is individual freedom and the absence of external control over our lives, many have thought that the psychological profile most dangerous to democracy is what the social theorist Theodor Adorno called an authoritarian personality—a type of person obsessed with order and control.
Plato, however, argued that self-control is vital to democracy. To him, the greatest threat to democracies came from people who can’t control themselves, who can’t curtail their bad habits or rein in their appetites. Plato feared that these sort of out-of-control tyrannical souls would stop at nothing to get what they want; if they were to gain power, they would destroy the democratic societies into which they were born.
Not every man from New York who can’t (or won’t) control his conversational habits is a tyrant in waiting. Nor is Trump’s inability to control his speech the most worrying of his clearly tyrannical tendencies. Nonetheless, it’s a key part of the disturbing picture we have of the Republican nominee as an out-of-control demagogue.
But while I, like tens of millions of others, am chilled by Trump’s megalomania, xenophobia, and untruthfulness, it’s his uncontrollable “Noo Yawkishness” that I find especially telling. Whereas I battle all day, every day to politely wait for my Coloradan spouse and my English colleagues to finish speaking before I start talking, Trump seemed barely able or inclined to control his conversational impulses for the first ten minutes of a mere 90-minute debate.
There have been many great New Yorkers in American politics, from Alexander Hamilton to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Donald Trump isn’t one of them.