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The Gender Politics of Turn Taking

Are interruptions used as power plays, an attempt to take over the conversation?

What are the consequences of blurting out a comment or question and interrupting the speaker? Those being interrupted often feel that the listeners aren’t really listening, but instead are planning how, when, and with what they can interrupt the speaker. If a woman intrusively interrupts a man, there may be a stronger sanction (the “bitch” label). This is the paradox of acquiescence and power. Some women were taught to speak when spoken to or defer to men in speaking. Women tend not to interrupt out of politeness. But guess what? If a woman chooses to be too polite, she may not get heard. Conversely, if she goes to the other side by interrupting and speaking up, she risks getting labeled a bitch. Politeness has its usefulness and value. Women support others with compliments and friendship, but they also need to know when to jump in and take the floor. This doesn’t require moving to the opposite extreme and being rude. There are ways to speak assertively, which we discuss throughout this book. Here our focus is on women keeping the floor and managing interruptions. Women simply need to use their patterns of relationship to be supportive and use their skills to take charge.

We’ve said that women tend to interrupt less than men, out of an effort to be polite and let the other person finish before responding. These talking patterns aim at maintaining the relationship between people[md]the woman’s role. Women’s job description is social maintenance (see Chapter 2). Men, on the other hand, tend to interrupt to take control of the conversation, according to linguistics professor Janet Holmes, but without the intention of causing disrespect or offending others. Men want to get to the bottom line. They want to hear the end result and take action[md]the man’s role (Mr. Fix-it). Finish your thoughts and sentences before permitting him to respond or play Mr. Fix-it.

Let’s go back to how people view interruption. The speaker may view the intrusion as disrespectful, as harassing, or as an effort to discredit her (or him). Those who witness the interruption also may view the interrupter as rude or disrespectful. Marianne LaFrance, a Yale psychology professor, determined that “the interrupter was rated significantly more indifferent, irrational, strong, argumentative, assertive, rude, dominant, competitive, overbearing, and concerned with self than the interruptee.” There’s the tightrope again. We can’t always be Miss Congeniality, hoping everyone will still like us after we speak up. LaFrance also found differences in perceptions of the interrupter: women interrupting men were perceived more negatively[md]as rude, irritable, and self-centered[md]than woman interrupting other women, or men interrupting women or men. Has that ever happened to you? You’re in a meeting, sitting at the big wooden conference table. You interrupt the man speaking and you get a disapproving glance from the others, as if they’re saying, “Who are you to interrupt him?” The message: women, don’t interrupt a man.

Interestingly, Holmes noted that women displayed different types of polite behavior than men. This polite behavior included cooperativeness in which women show support for other women by completing each other’s sentences. On the other hand, many men seem annoyed when a woman completes their sentences.

Are interruptions used as power plays, an attempt to take over the conversation, or an effort to change the topic? Or is the behavior supportive, like an overlap, confirming that the listener understands and supports the speaker’s view?

Taken from, Code Switching: How to Talk so Men will Listen (co-author) Audrey Nelson PhD