Nov 27, 2013
At the recent CFAR Workshop in NY, someone mentioned that they were uncomfortable with pauses in conversation, and that got me thinking about different conversational styles.
Growing up with friends who were disproportionately male and disproportionately nerdy, I learned that it was a normal thing to interrupt people. If someone said something you had to respond to, you’d just start responding. Didn’t matter if it “interrupted” further words – if they thought you needed to hear those words before responding, they’d interrupt right back.
Occasionally some weird person would be offended when I interrupted, but I figured this was some bizarre fancypants rule from before people had places to go and people to see. Or just something for people with especially thin skins or delicate temperaments, looking for offense and aggression in every action.
Then I went to St. John’s College – the talking school (among other things). In Seminar (and sometimes in Tutorials) there was a totally different conversational norm. People were always expected to wait until whoever was talking was done. People would apologize not just for interrupting someone who was already talking, but for accidentally saying something when someone else looked like they were about to speak. This seemed totally crazy. Some people would just blab on unchecked, and others didn’t get a chance to talk at all. Some people would ignore the norm and talk over others, and nobody interrupted them back to shoot them down.
But then a few interesting things happened:
1) The tutors were able to moderate the discussions, gently. They wouldn’t actually scold anyone for interrupting, but they would say something like, “That’s interesting, but I think Jane was still talking,” subtly pointing out a violation of the norm.
2) People started saying less at a time.
#1 is pretty obvious – with no enforcement of the social norm, a no-interruptions norm collapses pretty quickly. But #2 is actually really interesting. If talking at all is an implied claim that what you’re saying is the most important thing that can be said, then polite people keep it short.
With 15-20 people in a seminar, this also meant that people rarely tried to force the conversation in a certain direction. When you’re done talking, the conversation is out of your hands. This can be frustrating at first, but with time, you learn to trust not your fellow conversationalists individually, but the conversation itself, to go where it needs to. If you haven’t said enough, then you trust that someone will ask you a question, and you’ll say more.
When people are interrupting each other – when they’re constantly tugging the conversation back and forth between their preferred directions – then the conversation itself is just a battle of wills. But when people just put in one thing at a time, and trust their fellows to only say things that relate to the thing that came right before – at least, until there’s a very long pause – then you start to see genuine collaboration.
And when a lull in the conversation is treated as an opportunity to think about the last thing said, rather than an opportunity to jump in with the thing you were holding onto from 15 minutes ago because you couldn’t just interrupt and say it – then you also open yourself up to being genuinely surprised, to seeing the conversation go somewhere that no one in the room would have predicted, to introduce ideas that no one brought with them when they sat down at the table.
By the time I graduated, I’d internalized this norm, and the rest of the world seemed rude to me for a few months. Not just because of the interrupting – but more because I’d say one thing, politely pause, and then people would assume I was done and start explaining why I was wrong – without asking any questions! Eventually, I realized that I’d been perfectly comfortable with these sorts of interactions before college. I just needed to code-switch! Some people are more comfortable with a culture of interrupting when you want to, and accepting interruptions. Others are more comfortable with a culture of waiting their turn, and courteously saying only one thing at a time, not trying to cram in a whole bunch of arguments for their thesis.
Now, I’ve praised the virtues of wait culture because I think it’s undervalued, but there’s plenty to say for interrupt culture as well. For one, it’s more robust in “unwalled” circumstances. If there’s no one around to enforce wait culture norms, then a few jerks can dominate the discussion, silencing everyone else. But someone who doesn’t follow “interrupt” norms only silences themselves.
Second, it’s faster and easier to calibrate how much someone else feels the need to talk, when they’re willing to interrupt you. It takes willpower to stop talking when you’re not sure you were perfectly clear, and to trust others to pick up the slack. It’s much easier to keep going until they stop you.
So if you’re only used to one style, see if you can try out the other somewhere. Or at least pay attention and see whether you’re talking to someone who follows the other norm. And don’t assume that you know which norm is the “right” one; try it the “wrong” way and maybe you’ll learn something.