Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Social Life

How to Deal With Being Interrupted

If you never interrupt, you may never be heard.

Key points

  • Interrupting a conversation and being interrupted is stressful.
  • Social intelligence is hard-pressed to avoid escalation or embarrassment.
  • The game of cyberball can be modified to study interruption in addition to social exclusion.

There cannot be greater rudeness than to interrupt another in the current of his discourse. – John Locke

Suppose you are talking to a friend or colleague. A third person, P, walks in and starts talking to your colleague, C. You wait politely, thinking that this might be a matter of urgency soon to be resolved. You then realize that P has effectively taken over or stolen the conversation from you, leaving you wondering about your options. You could assert yourself and retake the conversation, doing to P what he has done to you. (Let’s say that P is a man; Briggs et al., 2023.) Alternatively, you do nothing or slink away, neither of which seems satisfying.

If you have experienced this situation—which is likely—you probably wonder how this could have happened and how you could have, yet again, been taken by surprise. The surprise is understandable because most of us operate on a reasonable-person set of expectations in our day-to-day encounters (Grice, 1975). Reasonable people do not hijack conversations. So, you wonder, what is the nature of the unreasonableness here? Perhaps P enjoys high social status, power, and authority, which would suggest that some allowance be made. If the Pope walks in on two cardinals and starts talking to one of them, all is still well at the Vatican. It may also be the case that there is a true urgency to justify the interruption, and P dutifully explains why this is the case. Then, a reasonable person might concede the floor.

Things are less pleasant if there is no clear justification for the interruption or if P has lower social standing than you, the interruptee. You may then want to point out that you are already engaged in a conversation, but doing so requires the passing of a psychological barrier put up by the burden of self-assertion. As you hesitate, you begin to feel a social trap opening up. The longer your colleague, C, attends to and responds to P, the more complicit he becomes with the interruption. By responding to P, C validates the breach of etiquette.

By now, you are feeling this social trap acutely. If you take back the conversation too quickly, you might thwart a legitimate demand for attention. If you wait too long, you find yourself in an ever-weakening position. Timing is important. The assertive insistence on your right to finish a conversation should come swiftly, but not like a reflex.

Any announcement along the lines of, say, ‘Excuse me, we are having a conversation,’ is serviceable, especially if it is delivered firmly and without anger. There is, however, a price to be paid, namely the attention directed at the intruder, P. As attention-seeking is likely part of the motivating mix on P’s part, being attended to by both you and C is a small reward. So, what might you do instead? A cooler tactic is to continue talking to C and ignoring P altogether. However, for this to work well, C needs to collaborate with you in ignoring P. If C turns toward P while you continue to talk to C as if nothing has happened, you may look even weaker than if you remained quiet and waited.

A full analysis of this all-too-common social situation requires consideration of many variables, only some of which we have touched upon here: the relative status of the three parties involved, the time elapsing before a response is made, body language, speech patterns, and much more. Responding to the challenge of interruption effectively and in a timely manner is a difficult task for our social intelligence to solve. It is a small wonder that many people are familiar with episodes of this type that have not gone well.

Painting the intruder as the villain in this scenario ignores some crucial complexity. There are situations where you feel the need to interrupt others, and you must summon the skill to do this well. Suppose you want to talk to C, who has been in conversation with P for a while. You might find it daunting to assert yourself by walking up to capture attention. The prospect that your planned intrusion might fail creates some anxiety. However, you also know that it can feel exhilarating to wield social power and reclaim the floor from someone who has been hogging it.

Although it is easy to be discouraged by the incompleteness of any attempt at formal analysis, it is good to remember that an experimental research paradigm exists, which could be adapted to study interruption and its discontents. This research paradigm is known as the cyberball game (Williams & Jarvis, 2006). In the cyberball paradigm, a respondent is told there are two other online players. A computer screen shows each of the three individuals as an icon or small photo, and a virtual ball is being passed around among them. In fact, the behavior of the other two players is controlled by the experimenter. After some uneventful ball-passing, the true respondent may then find herself left out of the passing, which induces an experience of social exclusion. Most research is concerned with the nature of this aversive experience and with the behaviors respondents call up in order to cope with it. In one study, for example, a team of researchers I was part of found that the presence of a friendly dog is sufficient for the maintenance of mental equilibrium (Aydin et al., 2012).

Now, imagine the game was modified to include an intercept. You are passing the ball back and forth with your friend C when third person P emerges on the screen, steps between you and C, catches the ball and proceeds to pass it back and forth with C. What is your emotional response? Presumably, there will be more anger than anxiety or sadness. And to whom will the anger be directed? Will you, for example, become increasingly angry with C for not shutting down intruder P?

Further down the road, researchers can also explore the psychology of being rescued. Many people rely on the cunning rescue call to get themselves extricated from a tedious cocktail party conversation, but wouldn’t it be more honest to have the rescuer walk onto the scene in person and own intrusion? This might be rude, but it would also be more honest.

John Locke, in his Thoughts Concerning Education (1693/1996), continued to advise the young English gentleman:

To which, if there be added, as is usual, a correcting of any mistake, or a contradiction of what has been said, it is a mark of yet greater pride and self-conceitedness, when we thus intrude our selves for teachers and take upon us either to set another right in his story or shew the mistakes of his judgment.

The verb 'to interrupt' stems from the Latin verb rumpere, to break. When the social flow is broken, how can we make it whole again? Redirect, Your Honor, might work. Then again, when someone butts in, perhaps just give them the boot.

Note. The original title of this essay was The dance of interruption. The editors changed it.

Facebook image: Lordn/Shutterstock


Aydin, N., Krueger, J. I., Fischer, J., Hahn, D., Kastenmüller, A., Frey, D., & Fischer, P. (2012). “Man’s best friend”: How the presence of a dog reduces mental distress after social exclusion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 446-449.

Briggs, C. Q., Gardner, D. M., & Ryan, A. M. (2023). Competence-questioning communication and gender: exploring mansplaining, ignoring, and interruption behaviors. Journal of Business Psychology, 38, 1325-1353.

Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. Speech Acts, 3, 41–58.

Locke, J. (1693/1996). Some thoughts concerning education. London, UK: Hackett.

Williams, K. D., & Jarvis, B. (2006). Cyberball: A program for use in research on interpersonal ostracism and acceptance. Behavior Research Methods, 38, 174–180.

More from Joachim I. Krueger Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today