Do You Get Interrupted While Speaking?

Being interrupted and bullied happens in debates and in life.

Posted Oct 17, 2020

“I was so upset after the Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates, I couldn’t sleep,” a friend told me. “I’m going to have PTSD!”  The tenor of both face-offs deeply disturbed me, too. 

In watching the debates, many of us cringed, especially when President Trump kept interrupting  former Vice President Joe Biden. We felt as if he were directly attacking our deepest values – our trust in democracy, fairness, common decency and respect for others. Vice President Pence, similarly, interrupted Harris twice as much as she interrupted him, and the moderator repeatedly failed to stop him.  

The American Psychiatric Association prohibits me, as a psychiatrist, from offering a “professional opinion” about individuals I have not interviewed. But research has revealed many critical features of interruptions in general. Interruptions have “ripple effects” that disrupt social situations, and interrupters usually take into account the social setting and barge in on other speakers more when they have less of a prior relationship or feel they have more power.   Hostile interruptions of others, disregarding boundaries, constitute bullying, efforts to try to dominate, harm or intimidate others who the perpetrator feels are vulnerable. These behaviors makes situations tense for not only victims but onlookers and, alas, occurs in numerous settings, across all ages.   

Over three-quarters of junior and high school students have been bullied. Over one-third of junior high school students consequently feel unsafe at school, but are usually afraid to tell anyone. Seventh grade is the worst. I still vividly remember being bullied one morning as I walked to the cafeteria in junior high school. “Hey f*ggot!” A tough student taunted me. I  wasn’t certain what the word meant, but sensed it was bad, and hurried away down the hard cinderblock hallway as swiftly as possible, shaking.  My heart pounded.  Such incidents make many students anxiousdepressed, and even suicidal

Boys bully more than girls, but do so differently.  Boys tend to directly assault others physically, sexually or verbally, while girls socially ostracize their victims.  Studies indicate that bullies are usually disruptive, lack empathy, and need to dominate others, lack problem-solving skills, often lack confidence, and will violence to resolve conflict. 

Adults also bully each other, especially at work, aggressively interrupting others, disrupting social situations In conversations, people usually take turns speaking, and respect this norm.  Certain interruptions can be cooperative – saying, for instance, “Wait a moment – I’m not following you…I may have misunderstood.  What do you mean?" 

But many other interjections discombobulate us, making us lose our train of thought.  Men interrupt women more than vice versa.  Less intelligent, more neurotic extroverts, who need more social approval interrupt more than do others.  

In conversations among equals, we can say, “can you please stop interrupting me?”  But in other situations, that is hard.  Most doctors interrupt patients after the first 11 seconds of their interactions. 

Individuals with more power than the bully or interrupter –  a teacher or principal – can however, step in and help.  Research has led to successful prevention efforts, especially in schools, using multi-level interventions, with teachers discussing the problem in class each week, encouraging positive relationships and respect for others, supervising lunch, recess and other breaks, learning to detect signs and symptoms, and talking with bullies and their parents.  Offering carrots and sticks — motivators and punishments — can alter many problematic behaviors.  Limiting-setting is critical, and needs to be clear, consistent and simply stated, with a rationale, and alternative behaviors suggested (“I would prefer if you did this instead of that.")

Interruptions and bullying happened in both televised presidential debates.

We could turn the TV off, but many of us remained viscerally shaken, feeling assaulted ourselves, seeing others attacked, and often reminded of experiences when we were assailed as well.  

Yet, the debates can also serve to remind us of the larger problems of individuals bullying and aggressively interrupting others, which many people encounter daily, particularly teenagers, and of ways we can address and reduce these problems.

In junior high school, when verbally assaulted, I ran away.  Since then, I’ve learned to respond better.  

Hopefully, the debates can increase our awareness of these difficulties, and lead us to address them better in our own and others’ lives, and our wider world.

This also appeared on CNN.