Whether or not someone interrupted seems like it should be simple to figure out. If one person cuts another off mid-sentence that’s an interruption. If they waited their turn to speak, no interruption. But science shows real-life conversations are a lot more complicated than that.
Stanford linguist Katherine Hilton, for instance, recorded male and female actors reading the exact same script and then asked others to assess whether the people they heard in the recordings were interrupting. Women were judged far more harshly for their interjections, Hilton found, while men were more often perceived to be simply enthusiastic about the discussion. Clearly, what counts as a rude interruption isn’t cut and dried.
And now a recent online discussion has added another complication to the question. As Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen explained in the New York Times, people with different culture backgrounds also have different styles when it comes to interruptions.
Are you a cooperative overlapper or a turn taker?
The discussion of the whole topic was kicked off by a TikTok video from a user Sari Rachel. In it she calls herself “an interrupty person” and expresses her joy in discovering that there’s a term for her tendency to cut others off near the end of what they’re saying to interject excitedly with her own take on what they’re saying.
As Tannen explains in her book Conversational Style and her article responding to the video, that conversation style is called “cooperative overlapping” and it’s common in particular groups, such as some Mediterranean and South Asian cultures and among New Yorkers.
The intent of “cooperative overlap” isn’t to silence or disrespect your conversational partner. It’s to signal your enthusiasm and interest in what they’re saying. Which works great when you’re talking to someone who shares this conversational style. But when an overlapper meets a person more accustomed to viewing any interruption as rude, misunderstandings often arise.
A fact Glitch CEO Anil Dash has experienced personally. He chimed in with a tweet explaining he too has struggled with having his well intentioned enthusiasm misinterpreted as pushiness. “It feels so validating to hear this has a name! 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,” he wrote.
Leaders, talk to your teams about conversation styles.
Just knowing that these two conversation styles exist can help you tune your way of speaking to your audience. Tannen suggests that “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.”
But as a CEO, Dash also notes in a blog post following up on his tweet that business leaders can take things a step further and actively discuss this issue with their teams to help avoid unnecessary conflict. “There’s not as easy a way to accommodate both overlappers and turn-takers,” he concedes, which means the best way for leaders to address this tension is probably “by making explicit that both forms of communication are valuable and that each is the default for different people.”
That should not only make for smoother, more productive conversations, but should also make your team more welcoming to the broadest possible range of talent. “I think as inclusion efforts move past platitudes and obvious stumbling blocks, much of the harder, trickier, less straightforward work of team-building is going to move to finding ways to talk about, and support, these causes of stress or tension,” Dash observes.
The key to reaping the most benefit from understanding different conversational styles is accepting that neither style is right or better. Or as Tannen puts it: “If ‘Don’t interrupt me’ is sometimes a reasonable request, so is ‘Don’t just sit there! Please overlap — cooperatively!'”