There are times when it’s okay to interrupt someone. If they have food on their face. If their dress is tucked into their tights. If a tsunami is coming up behind them. And there are times when it really isn’t okay, like during a business meeting, or when conversing with a colleague. I know, because I’ve learned about those “not okay” cases the hard way.
I have always been a fast talker, and have always operated under the assumption that speaking quickly is the same as speaking with confidence. It’s a presupposition backed up by most of my personal relationships: My friends converse so aggressively that newcomers get lost in our relentless verbal volleys. My relatives talk over each other by default, family rules dictating that whoever is being the loudest is the one most successfully making their point. (Add wine to either of these equations, by the way, and all speed and volume levels double.)
But as important as banter is to my personal relationships, attentive and respectful dialogue is just as crucial for my professional ones. I spend many of my working hours conducting job interviews and chatting with coworkers one-on-one. Constantly cutting those people off mid-sentence seems like an important habit to break. So I turned to some experts for help—and learned that I’m actually just conversationally Jewish.
“You can’t blame one person for an interruption; it was the creation of both,” says Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University who has been studying conversational styles for more than 30 years. “Maybe if you’d been talking to someone else, they wouldn’t have been interrupted.”
Tannen is the author of books with pithy titles like You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation and You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships (the latter out May 2). Tannen has also been studying interruptions for decades, and wrote her doctoral dissertation and first book on what she’s dubbed “New York Jewish conversational style.”
“Any time two people speak, they have to have some way of gauging when the other person is done and it’s their time to begin,” she explains. “If there’s even a slight difference in timing, the person expecting the shorter pause ends up interrupting.”
Tannen calls long-pause people “high-considerateness” conversationalists, and short-pause people “high-involvement” conversationalists (I’ll let you guess which applies to New Yorkers). Other hallmarks of high-involvement conversation include a “fast rate of speech, the avoidance of inter-turn pauses, and faster turn-taking among speakers,” as well as “pitch shifts, changes in loudness, exaggerated voice quality, and accent.”
Encouraged by the possibility of reframing my character flaw as a cultural byproduct, I next took my queries to Rhonda Scharf, a corporate trainer, consultant, and fellow interrupter. Scharf agrees that interruptions are usually unintentional, and often the result of differences in verbal style. An important distinction, she says, is whether the interrupter is simply speaking at the same time, or actually failing to listen.
“If I were to say to you, ‘Oh, when my husband and I got married we went to Italy on our honeymoon,’ a good listener would say, ‘Oh, where did you go?’” Scharf says. “But most people will say, ‘Oh my god, I’ve been there’ or ‘Oh my god, I want to go there.’ Because they’re so excited about what they want to say, they stop listening. It becomes about stealing the conversation back.”
As I reflect on the number of honeymoon conversations I’ve ruined, Scharf points out that paying attention to the thread of a conversation can solve a lot of problems. If you’re not trying to wrest back control of the dialogue, you’ll inevitably interrupt people less. If that fails, she also has some practical tips, like counting to two before starting to speak, apologizing when interruptions do occur, and sometimes literally biting your tongue.
Armed with the tools (and excuses) needed to check my interruptions in a professional setting, I still wondered whether I should rethink the habit in a personal one. Would “Sorry, but this is a high-involvement convo” be an effective rebuttal the next time I get side-eye for finishing a friend’s sentence?
According to Tannen, it all comes down to perception. “If you talk along and your friend thinks you’re not listening, that’s threatening to the relationship,” she says. “I have an example [in my book] where a woman accused her friend of not listening. The friend felt she was listening …. She was just also talking.”