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By Diana Diamond

Please stop interrupting me! Right? Wrong?

Uploaded: Oct 6, 2021

Some people are shy. They don't talk much. Some people like to talk; some love to talk, and talk, oftentimes without seemingly coming up for a breath of air. Some people usurp air time. Some just love to hear their own voice.

So, this brings up the issue of interrupting someone who is speaking. Rude? Impolite? Necessary? Depends what part of the country you are from.

I grew up in a small suburb, about an hour's ride from New York City. It's an area where people talk fast, and also feel culturally free to interrupt someone who is speaking. Some just add a short comment, others take total control of the airtime. It's also a part of the country where I realized as I grew up that people loved to discuss, argue, question and occasionally deliberately provoke others. That all meant people were involved and having a good time. It's just the way things worked there.

I remember my mother's voice was strong and distinct (alas, a gene I did not inherit.) At parties, her voice stood out, and she could overtalk anyone else who was speaking.

My father-in-law, who grew up in the Midwest, talked very very s l o w l y. It would take him two minutes to say what New Yorkers could do in seconds. I was polite when he talked, but it was hard. Just get to your point, I would think.

Here in northern California, we seem to have two unwritten rules: 1) do not interrupt, 2) try to say only nice things. I unconsciously break those rules most of the time.

For example, I have this one friend who also talks slowly. And when I think he's through and I start to speak, he says, unbroken by my thought, "But also, remember..." I guess I just haven't got the interruption timing right yet, even after years of living here.

On the other hand, those who talk and talk and usurp all the airtime are a problem for me. What entitles them to routine lengthy monologues? Is s/he a narcissist? selfish? self-centered? failing to realize the air time s/he takes?

Or am I the problem because I'm rude? demanding? unfairly stealing time from another? or even violating that person's right to the floor?

I guess there are no right or wrong answers here -- it just depends which side of the fence you are on, how you were raised, and when your conventional style clashes with another's.

I have a relative who calls with an opening "I need to tell you about ... " He does, nonstop, for at least 25 minutes, then finally asks, "How are you doing?" "Well," I say and he interrupts with a "Oh, it's 4:30 already and I have an important call I need to make right now." I once confronted him on his monologues, and he responded, "Well, I get passionate about what I'm working on." My problem is his passion is not my passion. If h he gave five-minute summaries, I would be more enthused.

In a recent NYT Sunday column, "In Real Life, Not All Interruptions Are Rude," Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, a native New Yorker, and the inspiration for this blog, presented a positive spin on these interruptions, calling the practice, "cooperative overlapping."

One former New Yorker told Tannen that when he moved to California, he had to try hard to stay with the conversation because some people were talking so slowly! Same is true for me when a person goes on and on. My attention wanders.

Interruptions can add to a conversation, she said, because not only does it fuel thoughtful fires, but it is also letting the speaker know that not only are you listening, but also provide him with another idea to consider as he moves forward. Ever have a conversation with someone who doesn't say a word, nor nod his head, nor volunteer a quick response? I think that maybe she doesn't listen, or worse, even care about what I am saying. As Tannen said her preference is to gently say, "Don't just sit there, please overlap, cooperatively."

Tannen made a couple of other observations, based on her studies:
• Some people think the interrupters and talkers are dominating the conversation, while those who talk a lot think the others are choosing not to join in.
• People are afraid of awkward pauses in a conversation. Some talkers admit they keep on talking to avoid the pauses.
• Men interrupt more than women do. (I could write a whole column on this!)

Women who have worked in corporate offices complain that men don't listen to them as much as to other males at the same meeting. One friend told me she was at a company board meeting and made what she thought was a very important point, and no one responded. About 15 minutes later, a man in the room made the exact same point. Other males replied, "That's a great idea, Tom! We should absolutely do that." She blurted out with, "But I made the same point 15 minutes ago!"

She wasn't invited to any more board meetings. Other female friends of mine quickly agree the same thing happened to them.

So, we still have a lot more to learn about talking interrupting and listening. Tannen suggests that if you feel interrupted, just keep on talking. But she also says, "Don't interrupt" can be a reasonable request, but also it's great to suggest a person not just sit there -- "Please overlap -- cooperatively."