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The Communicative Advantages of Interrupting

“May I Finish?” is usually a sign of bigger problems.

Particularly galling among the many people in my life who have asked me not to interrupt are the diversity specialists who seem only to see me as a dominating white man and can’t seem to imagine that I am expressing my culture’s communication style. These apostles of cultural relativity and cultural tolerance can be quite dictatorial when it comes to interrupting. I’m certain that the public relations for my culture would go better if my culture had a name, like Puerto Rican, or Italian, or Jewish. I suppose we’re New Yorkers, or maybe we’re just Karsons, but I’m going to call us Livelies (from Vitalistan).

In Lively culture, except in certain circumstances detailed below, you interrupt someone to communicate that you understand what they are saying, that you consider them interesting, and to facilitate dialogue. In Lively culture, if you don’t interrupt someone, it usually means you think they are stupid or boring, too stupid to merit a response to the point they are making or too boring to have kept your attention. Interruption spares your communication partner from having to wind up every sentence with a grammatical stopping point. It is the equivalent of playing catch and not expecting to do tricks with the ball when it happens to be in your possession while your partner stands there shifting her weight.

Interruption also protects you from saying something incorrect and then discoursing on it; in contentious debate, it’s a good strategy to let an opponent dig himself into a hole (like Obama telling Romney, “Please proceed, Governor”). In cooperative debate designed to get at the truth, you’re doing us both a favor when you set me straight.

In Lively culture, you often speak when others are speaking and you are not interrupting at all. In Goffman’s terms, the speaker is on the content channel, like Anderson Cooper on CNN. Other speech can be on the overlay channel, like the scrawl at the bottom of the screen or, even better, like the picture captions on The Daily Show, a humorous commentary not designed to derail the content but to enhance it. Thus, in Vitalistan, while one is speaking, others are injecting factoids, corrections, helpful hints, mots justes, and above all comedy into the speaker’s content. Discussion is a group effort. Dialogue is a bicycle built for two.

There are exceptions. When people are not speaking to each other, but to some third party (like opposing experts trying to convince a judge or a TV audience that their view is correct), then interrupting can be a way to hog the microphone, and the third party or a neutral party must manage whose turn it is to talk. The issue is whether the parties have a genuine interest in understanding each other, and if they don’t, this must be acknowledged and managed with some sort of structure or rules, or else addressed directly and fixed, depending on the type of discussion it is. Interruption can interfere with other people’s engrossment, as at a performance, a sermon, or a classroom lecture. However, this is true only if other people are in fact engrossed, and when someone is droning on, or some blowhard has made the conversation all about himself or herself, interruption is a godsend. Some engrossments are required only for a small amount of time, as when reporting a snippet of conversation, an anecdote, or a limerick. It’s a bad server who asks about the meal as a diner is approaching a punchline to an attentive audience, although the same intrusive server has rescued many a patron from a desultory or poorly told anecdote.

So some questions are in order before condemning an interrupter. Is the interrupter engaged in the point the speaker was making and trying to get at the truth or is the interrupter merely hogging airtime?

Is the setting conducive to long speech acts or is it one where the microphone should be shared? The main consideration is often the size of the group, with larger groups finding it harder to create a shared conversational space. But keep in mind when answering this question that the Sermon on the Mount, read aloud, takes 8 minutes, so be wary of any speech act that goes on for longer than that. I feel fine about lecturing for an hour if I’m pretty sure I’m saying something new or relevant, but I would be embarrassed to preach a sermon or deliver an administrator’s remarks to faculty that lasted longer than Jesus’s. The bigger question is whether, to paraphrase the Declaration of Independence, the speaker has the consent of the audience. When there is a power imbalance, who is going to tell Nero that his performances are too long?

Is the situation intended to be deadly? There are certain settings where deadliness is desired, rituals where the full-fledged members of the community intend to marginalize discordant voices. Many committee meetings, for example, are not intended to be discussions, and the droning chair is tasked with getting to the end of the meeting without anything happening. (Of course, if you happen to be the marginalized party, you would like to interrupt, and you have my blessing if you do.) Whenever the person with the most power in the room goes on for more than eight minutes, you can be sure that someone else is ready to explode, although for decorum’s sake, we often just tune out.

Except for the situation where one person is drowning out another, interruption is usually a lively move. If I interrupt too soon, I’ve been told good-naturedly, “Wait, I have more to say.” When I’ve been told, “May I finish? That’s twice you’ve interrupted me,” it’s invariably a move toward deadliness, toward dominating the conversation rather than playfully approaching a meeting of minds. Perhaps the most telling evidence supporting interruption is found in close observation of what happens inside our own heads when we am trying to refine our opinions, think critically, or organize our thoughts. If a good idea occurs to us, we always interrupt ourselves with it, presumably because we are more interested intrapsychically in getting the best idea than with status issues concerning which part of us thought of it.

If you’re concerned about interrupting per se, you’re not in a real working (or playing) group. If you’re put off by an interruption, it should be an occasion to visit its function with metacommunication (“I can’t tell if you’re excited or dominant”), not to automatically deploy a set of deadly rules. In my experience, a dominating interrupter is no more likely than an interruptee who can’t distinguish play from fighting.