“Stop!” my friend said, throwing both hands up. “I can’t even follow this!” Mom and I were telling a story, talking over each other, interrupting, finishing sentences, all of it as smooth and perfectly timed as a choir singing rounds.
Obediently, we paused, both of us puzzled. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t even know how you do that!” he said. “You keep interrupting each other, but somehow it’s not rude, and you both know where you are….”
We shrugged. Lots of long talks, lots of practice.
Years later, listening to linguistics professor Deborah Tannen on the Hidden Brain podcast, I begin to see how alien our “verbal style” (apparently we had one) must have been to an outsider, especially one raised with Scottish formality. Tannen talks about the pause after someone finishes speaking, and how culture determines its length. Laughing, she recalls an early experience of her own, one that showed her how easy for a New Yorker to plow right through the pause while someone from California is still gathering their thoughts, and for New Yorkers to “talk over” each other instead of taking turns.
Tannen calls the way my mom and I talked “cooperative overlapping,” which sounds a bit nicer than “talking over” or “interrupting.” “Beginning to talk while another is talking can be a way of showing enthusiastic engagement with what the speaker is saying,” she says. “Far from silencing them, it can be encouragement to keep going.”
Sometimes we were so into the topic, we really did interrupt, though, sure we had the juicier memory or example. That is ruder than overlapping, but as long as it is mutual, Tannen offers absolution, saying interruption “can rev up the conversation, inspiring speakers to greater conversational heights. The adrenaline makes the mind grow sharper and the tongue more eloquent.”
I lean back, satisfied. As a reporter, I used to bite my tongue bloody, reminding myself that the conversation was not about me or what I could add. Socially, though, I continued to see overlap as a show of engagement and enthusiasm. When a friend snapped, “Let me finish,” I was crushed.
How easily misunderstood are our quirks of speech. Do diplomats time their pauses when they are speaking with someone from another culture? Because if not, one speaker can easily be perceived as bullying or disrespectful while the other, waiting more patiently, is seen as weak or reluctant. Whole countries can pay the price.
My mother, from whom I learned the art of overlap, was judgey that way; she did not fancy reserve or introversion and was constantly urging me forward, telling me to speak to adults. I could never figure out how or even when; breaking into a conversation felt like trying to step into a jumprope as it snaked and circled. The boyfriends I liked best were the quiet and smart ones; those she praised were the gladhanders who knew all the tricks. “Hello Mrs. Batz,” because people like to hear their own name, and lots of small talk and interested questions and full answers. My faves just stood there, blushing and shifting from one foot to the other while she chatted, coaxed, tried to draw them into polysyllables.
Only in my twenties, when I met one of my dad’s ad agency partners, did I learn the truth. “I felt so sorry for her,” he confided. “Your dad was older, widowed, and we all threw a lot of parties back then, and your poor mom was so shy. She just got thrust into all that.”
Wait. My mom? Shy?
One after another, the memories clicked into place. Shopping, for example, and her suddenly dragging me behind a carousel of clothes, hiding so she would not have to greet someone she knew from school or work.
Yet she had learned how to be a gracious hostess, how to always make everyone feel comfortable. How to be—she loved the phrase—“well-met.” That was why she was so eager for me to step forward, to learn this social language while I was young, the way you start a preschooler on Spanish or Chinese.
Understanding slides into outrage: how dare she judge the quiet people, the gentle reflective types or deep-thinking introverts, because they did not bubble like champagne? When she herself had been shy for so long, and had to fight so hard to overcome—
Of course. She judged them because she had fought so hard to overcome her shyness. Ergo, everybody should do that. Words gushing back at her told her that she was welcome in the conversation; she had not struck the wrong note; the interest and warmth were reciprocal. Her old shyness was to blame: it left her needing that extra reassurance.
So is it better to talk too much, even interrupt, than to not talk enough? Maybe at a cocktail party. Maybe, too, in the political realm, where disagreement is often silenced. Russian tv producer Marina Ovsyannikova stalked on set and held a sign behind the news anchor: “NO WAR. Don’t believe the propaganda. They are lying to you here.” Then she talked over the anchor, delivering her urgent message before she was stopped and detained by the Russian state.
On the other hand, interrupting can also silence. In courtrooms, it is a trick that distracts the jury, and judges will slap it down hard. And we will never know all the brilliant ideas, important criticisms, and painful confessions that have been swallowed because the speaker, interrupted, lost courage.
Life coach Marty Nemko is appalled by conversational overlap. He calls it “interruptus horribilis” and points out that it is rude, disrespectful, egotistical, arrogant, more in love with your words than the other person’s, incapable of self-control or restraint. Conversations conducted in this way leave you “more tense, feeling you need to be ready to jump in even before the person finishes,” he says. You have no time to let what they say sink in and reflect on it for a minute, gathering your thoughts and tempering your response.
Waiting a few seconds after someone finishes is also more powerful, Nemko adds, because they will grow anxious waiting to hear what you think. (Okay, that I think is rude, not to mention manipulative.) But Nemko has answers for my other objections: if you are afraid you will forget what you were going to say, jot it down or memorize a single word as a cue. As for overlap being a way to show you grasp what is being said, or finishing each other’s sentences as proof of intimate understanding? Pshaw, he says; the liabilities outweigh the benefits. Just wait, and then respond thoughtfully.
Those pauses would have made my mom nervous, I think. But Nemko says you can use body language and warm responses to prove you are engaged in the conversation. Before responding, though, you should pause at least long enough to say “one Mississippi,” because “in just that one second, countless brain neurons fire.” Your response will be smarter, more tactful, more nuanced.
My hunch is that overlap is fine when nobody minds and the conversation is not rocket science. Maybe the two of you are recounting a funny story to a third person. Or you are brainstorming, and ideas are firing fast and do not yet need to be well-considered. A more sensitive exchange might call for an “eleven Mississippi” pause. So, to decide whether interrupting is rude, you cannot generalize. You need to know the style (verbal and cognitive) of everyone in the conversation, as well as its tone and its level of difficulty.
“A perfectly tuned conversation is a vision of sanity,” Tannen remarks. And that, too, is elusive.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.