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.

Cross-posted at my personal blog.

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You may be interested in Raymonde Carroll's Cultural Misunderstandings, which is about differences in French vs American cultures and how these manifest in everyday affairs. Much of the second chapter ("Conversation") is devoted to puzzling out the differences between what you call the interrupt culture, and Carroll classifies as the norm for French conversation, vs the wait culture, which for her is the norm for American conversation.

A few quotations (there's much more on this in the book):

a party, in a university town in the United States, in honor of a well-known French academic. The host and most of the guests are French. There are a few scattered Americans. The French academic, who has just been introduced to an American historian, looks interested. “I’m very interested in history . . . Are you familiar with Z (famous American historian)?” “Yes.” “What do you think of his latest book?” The American responds, talking about what he thinks of the book in question. The Frenchman, having stopped listening at a certain point, is glancing around the living room, and he eagerly widens the circle when another Frenchman approaches and “brutally interrupts” the conversation w

... (read more)

I have naturally low Latency of Verbal Response, and was raised in the intersection of several cultures where the normative LVR was negative (that is, you're expected to start replying just before the other person finishes).

When I experienced minor aphasia due to brain trauma, my LVR ballooned astronomically. This made it impossible to talk to some people... but it also revealed to me that several people I'd known for years and thought of as "quiet" were more than happy to talk to me at length and actually had quite a bit to say.

Since then, I've made more of a conscious effort to do some initial "handshaking" in conversations to work out what someone's natural LVR is, and to match it. (I often fail, but I do try.) I encourage it as a way of expressing interest in what someone has to say, if nothing else.

A little while back I read a Language Log post on this, one of Mark Liberman's breakfast experiments. He looks at differences in switch timing, which I think is the same as what you're calling LSV, between male and female speakers in a large corpus of telephone conversations.

* blink * I have absolutely no idea, in retrospect, why I repeatedly wrote "LSV". I meant "LVR" (Latency of Verbal Response). Fixed. And yes, I think Mark is talking about the same thing I am.

How do you go about the handshaking?

Nothing fancy. I say something and then wait attentively until the other person either says something in response or wanders off altogether, then wait a similar length of time (well, more typically split the difference) before replying. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This is really interesting, and I'd be interested in hearing more about your experience with aphasia. Would you consider writing a short bit about it?

My aphasia was pretty minor; it mostly consisted of difficulty retrieving words, which is technically speaking anomia (though a few times I lost the ability to form sentences altogether, and on one memorable evening I lost the ability to conjugate sentences and proceeded to talk like Captain Caveman for a couple of hours).

The most interesting thing to me about the aphasia itself was how much I "knew" about the word I didn't know. I remember being shown a picture of a whistle and asked what that was called. My reply was something like "It's a perfectly common word. I know it, I just can't retrieve it. It's a device you blow into and there's a little ball in it and it makes a sound. And the name of the sound is the same as the name of the device. And you do it to a happy tune, and you do it while you work."

Along the same lines, I was blocked on the word "wheelchair" for a long time, but whenever I tried to say it I'd get words like "washing machine", "skateboard", "roller skate", "dishwasher"... the word-space of compound-named machines.

I remember having a lot of trouble with years. People were forevermore asking ... (read more)

... with important rotating components (the drum, the wheels, the wheels, and that spraying-blade thing, respectively).
Thanks for sharing! Interesting stuff.
The thing I find odd here is that you didn't just draw it in the air with your finger or something, or describe it with a lot of more common words you did know. Plenty of ways to bypass occasional missing words. (source: habit of learning about something cool in one language, then having to explain it in another)

In the whistle case, I was specifically being asked to name the object as part of a lexical inventory to evaluate how much of a deficit I was running; the point was to come up with the word "whistle."
In the wheelchair case, I would generally bang on the wheelchair I was in and say "this thing." The issue wasn't that I was unable to communicate, the issue was that I'd lost access to perfectly common words.
Hope that clarifies matters.

Similarly, people understand me perfectly well when I not conjugate sentence properly, but is still frustrating when I know is wrong but cannot say right.

When I'm trying to remember a word, I get a lot of associated detail, usually including something about the sound of the word. Initial sound, number of syllables, that sort of thing-- did you get something about the sound?
Very very rarely. Usually if I could get to a confident feeling about the sound-shape of the word, I had the word. This contrasts with my normal word-search experience, which is similar to what you describe, and I suspect the exceptions were cases where I would have had trouble finding the word even without the anomia.

I attended a group discussion in regard to religion and ethics where there were very firm rules about how interaction could take place. No interrupting, no cross-talk, people's statement's were timed with a little hourglass and all took less than 60 seconds... I think (if I recall correctly) they even had a "talking-item" which you had to have in your hand in order to speak. When we read over the rules at the beginning of the discussion, I remember rolling my eyes and thinking, "Seriously? We are all adults... Can't we just have a discussion without all these rules? This is silly & infantile..."

The discussion was awesome. One of the most productive and interesting discussions I can remember. The rules, with no excepetion, were strictly but politely enforced. It felt silly at first, and then increasingly natural. I listened much more intently to other perspectives than I regularly do. I re-thought and chose to refrain from making statements I normally would have made. It was cool, and I'd say the Wait Culture worked that day.

I've been an 'interrupter'. I like to talk. And I enjoy heated debate. But I've been persuaded it is very unlikely to be the most produc... (read more)

How many solutions are there that we overlook because they seem childish or "cringe"? Maybe that's just something I notice, since I notice myself avoiding "cringe" things too much. I think being averse to cringe is not entirely a bad thing, because it helps rule out solutions that probably wouldn't work.

I've always found interrupt mode incredibly frustrating to deal with, because it takes me longer to come up with appropriate responses than most people's Maximum Wait Time, and by the time a monologue is finished, whatever I thought of is no longer on-topic. I do find it interesting that you associate interruption with nerddom, though. As a tech geek, interruption is a Very Bad Thing because it disrupts mental state. If I want someone's attention, I stand near them, look attentive, and wait for them to swap out. I expect others to do the same. Sometimes I have to ask. But I don't think I've had anyone competent refuse to wait or express confusion about why.

It's possible nerd communities make a distinction between work-interruption and conversation-interruption. Most of my communication is textual so I may not have noticed. One of the things I've always loved about communication on the Internet is that interruption is effectively impossible; both parties can get their say without being dependent on the other party to shut up for a moment.

One of the things I've always loved about communication on the Internet is that interruption is effectively impossible; both parties can get their say without being dependent on the other party to shut up for a moment.

For the longest time I've preferred communicating over the internet rather than in-person, and I think I just figured out why.

Most of my communication is textual so I may not have noticed. One of the things I've always loved about communication on the Internet is that interruption is effectively impossible; both parties can get their say without being dependent on the other party to shut up for a moment.

So very seconded. Text communication is awesome. The fact that it's entirely asynchronous is outstanding for preserving mental flow/state through the entire episode of communication of an idea.

Being able to easily walk away from an unpleasant interaction is also a major plus. I love that it's semi-formalized as "tapping out" here.
Even with realtime text, that is where other's letters appear as they type, I find that interruptions don't happen much. I can read while I type much more easily than listen while a talk. The factors I see are fading speed and channel noise... I've heard stories about people talking and listening simultaneously on a telephone, but can't say I've observed it. So my hunch is that fading speed has more to do with it. Anyone know much about interruption in signed conversation?
In my group at work, it's relatively common to chat "interruptible?" to someone who's sitting right next to you. You can keep working until they're free to take the interrupt, and they don't need to take the interrupt utill they're ready. In f2f conversations, it's mostly an interrupt culture, but with some conventions about not breaking in in groups larger than 4 or so.
You're right, I was mainly thinking of spoken conversation, not conversation by text.

I grew up in a wait culture, and it's really hard for me to talk when interruption is the norm. I've had to deliberately force myself to interrupt people, which is really uncomfortable. If I'm not feeling comfortable already, I just won't really say anything unless asked a question directly. I would really like to experience a wait culture again. I should probably try to improve my skill at talking and making myself heard in an interrupt culture though. Any advice for this?


I haven't experimented with these ideas on other people, but here's what I get from introspection.

Metaconversational interruptions can be easier than regular ones. Examples of these are:

  • Belaying someone else's interruption of you: "Hold on, let me just finish that thought."

  • Pre-interrupting someone else: "I have a question about that, but go on."

  • Helping someone else talk: "I think so-and-so had something to say."

  • Asking people to pause to let you think: "Can you hold on a moment? I want to think that through and see if I understand that." (This works best in conversations involving very few people.)

The more you think about propensity to interrupt as a local norm, the easier it is to switch modes. Practice noticing when and how often people interrupt you and each other, and try to mentally tag it as "interesting" rather than "wrong" when they do.

It can be easier to be confident in a question than in a declaration. Practice interrupting with clarifying questions.

Those things are easier, but the main thing I have a problem with is when I have my own thought that I want to introduce to the conversation. I'll try adjusting my attitude also, and see if that helps.

My usual advice is to go ahead and introduce the thought, even if there doesn't seem to be a natural "hook" for it to hang on in the conversation. That might very well come off as abrupt, out of the blue, or even rude... but if your norm is to stay quiet for lack of such a hook, it's unlikely that reasonable people will be too offended by it. (Unless, of course, they are the sort who are offended when anyone else behaves like their conversational peer, but that's a bigger issue.)

I meant that practicing by doing more of the easy thing might be a good way to work up to doing any of the hard thing. There's also asking a friend explicitly if they mind if you interrupt them, if you have people you're comfortable enough with to do that. That could be another way to practice first in a low-stakes interaction.
This isn't absolutely relevant, and may not be helpful, but my mother is the type of person who will talk at length - easily an hour - if you don't stop. And you can't just say "Um, I was thinking - " or "yeah, I agree", because she'll just talk over the top of you and not listen. My strategy is to wait for a pause (usually a very short one, because she doesn't leave long pauses) and then try to quickly cram a sentence in to divert the top. This may work for you, as you're not technically interrupting - you're just jumping in quickly with your idea - and you may find this is enough to divert the conversation so that you can more easily put your view across (or be asked more).
Also, per MathieuRoy's comment, a "Wait" gesture can also be a stepping stone to interrupting when appropriate.

My sympathies are mostly with interrupt culture, because I find it hugely uncomfortable to have confusions or arguable points or whatever just sitting there, in the past, while the conversation meanders away and thoughts on the past topics dissolve - I have zero "trust" of the kind described in the OP. But in groups larger than three, interruption attempts can turn into multiple simultaneous threads of conversation and I don't have the audio processing capacity to manage that on most days. So then I have to ratchet up the interruption and shout over everyone to pare it down to one thread (with some overlap/interruption, but between tracks that respond to each other, not that are carried on independently and adjacently). I did this just a few hours ago with my dinner party guests.

Since it seems as though a lot of the people I know have your reflexes (and I might just have some of them myself), I occasionally say something like "I've got something I want to lay out. It will take about five sentences."

That's pretty much the attitude I started with. An upside of this is that you can nail down specific points of agreement and vocabulary and proceed methodically, if you can exert enough dominance over the conversation to pull it off. A downside is that it precludes dialectic conversation, which depends on allowing certain confusions to sit there for a while or be played with instead of untangled explicitly. The other thing I've learned is that sometimes people may let points I think questionable or arguable go unquestioned because they don't find that direction as interesting as I do. Recent example from my own life: I was talking with other people under a strong "wait" norm about the question of whether one can have an ethical relation towards nature, land, or the biome. The methodical way to proceed would have been to narrow down what each of us meant by "ethical relation" and dissolve the question into a bunch of narrower component questions, cutting through the confusion and letting us all clearly state our prior opinions. What we did instead was to let the term stand undivided, and instead think through examples of what an "ethical" relation to land might be, look at ways where our language or ideas already seemed in harmony with that, explore some hypotheticals where the term seemed a bit of a stretch, and jointly work through what it might mean to have a land ethic. We didn't end with explicit agreement on all the particulars of what is right, but we ended up instead with a new, fleshed-out idea or concept to apply to relationships with things.

At one organization I work with we mostly have a 'wait' culture, and it is socially enforced, since we have recognized that many of our members are 'waiters' and will not speak if interrupters do not give them a chance.

With more than 3-4 people we use several hand signals to facilitate conversation. We have the usual raised hand to speak next, but we also have a separate gesture for 'I have a direct response to what you just said', which takes priority over raised hands. It works as a 'soft interrupt', and it is up to the current speaker to let the interrupter speak. The interrupter can usually communicate how urgent/important they think their interruption is through body language. Now when the conversation gets heated we have people gesturing hard at each other instead of shouting. I think it does improve the quality of conversations.

We also have a gesture for 'I agree with this', and a gesture for meta-communication. The 'meta' gesture has absolute priority and is used for things like bringing the conversation back on tracks at meetings, or to remind people to follow the conversation rules. We usually don't need a designated moderator as we moderate each other and enforce the norms with the 'meta' signal'.

I've found this system improves the quality and productivity of our group conversations and I've found myself getting frustrated in other groups who don't use hand signals.

I find all this VERY intriguing. I'd be interested to hear what specific hand signals you use, to see if they match the ones I've traditionally used. For completeness, here's my set: * Raised hand - "I would like to ask a question / speak next-in-queue" * Raised fist with index finger pointing upwards - "I have a direct response to what you just said" (some people extend this by raising multiple fingers as they cache more points, and raising the hand higher as the urgency of a point gets promoted) * Raised fist with thumb pointing upwards - "I agree with this" * Hand out, palm forward/down, fingers pointed towards speaker - "please table this for now" / "please give someone else a turn" / "you are violating conversational norms"
Raised hand: 'want to talk' Point at someone with both index fingers, alternating (this gesture is a bit hard to describe, it's like if you were making guns with your hands and shooting at them, with a lot for recoil): 'direct response'. You can usually tell how urgent they think the point is by how hard they're moving their hands/how close they are to the edge of their seat, etc. Triangle with index finger and thumb of both hands: 'process point / meta-communication' Twinkles (wiggling fingers of both hands): when unprompted, 'I agree/like what you just said', or it can be used to answer questions on a scale based on the position of the hands -> high twinkles is positive/I agree/a lot, low twinkles is negative/disagree/a little, middle is 'meh' The wiki article on occupy movement hand signals has pictures and good descriptions of these signals, and others.
Oh, you're using the Occupy system! (I started to recognize it as I read through.) Out of curiosity, how many groups have adopted that system post-Occupy, vs. how many Occupy-descended groups have inherited it? EDIT: Is mentioning Occupy bad around here?
I didn't realize these signals were used by Occupy until I looked for good pictures and stumbled on that article while writing my previous post. The group I was referring to has no ties to Occupy. I'm not sure where we picked up the meme. The wiki article mentions other groups were using some of these signals before Occupy.
How did you get everyone using it? (As I've commented on elsewhere in this thread, I tried to get a similar scheme going using colored index cards once, but it didn't really take off.)
The Occupy movement, for all the thrashing it got in the media, was really PHENOMENALLY well-organized as a social system. Whoever was responsible for its memetics needs to write some books and found a university dedicated to teaching the practice.
They were already using them when I joined, so I'm not sure.

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.

I'm not sure this is necessarily true.

I've found hat, where "interrupt" norms hold sway, a few jerks can STILL dominate the discussion, by interrupting everyone else and speaking loudly and aggressively enough that no one can successfully interrupt them back. If, when someone interrupts you, you simply keep talking as if they aren't even there, and you have the right body language and voice projection tricks to make the rest of the audience keep listening to you and ignore the re-interrupter, you've won.

Agreed. Just interrupting isn't enough to be heard in an "interrupt culture". You have to keep talking (usually loudly) until the other person stops, and they have to be willing to do so, and if your body language is wrong or your charisma is too low or you're not being enough of a jerk yourself, nobody can hear you and you've lost.
Of course, in "wait culture", the same problem exists, but it often manifests by evolving into "interrupt culture" for those whose body language is wrong or charisma too low. I.e., the higher your charisma/social power in relation to your conversational partner, the more likely you are to be able to impose "waiting" behavior on them, and the more likely you are to get away with "interrupt" behavior yourself, even in relation to the wider group norms. And this isn't necessarily a bad thing - even among those of us who have a largely Wait-based circle of friends, I'm sure we all know "that one guy" with that one particular set of pet subjects/rants, for whom everyone will interrupt and say "not this again, Dave".

My experience is that even when waiting is the norm, you can still typically interrupt as long as you "ask permission" first (outside of really formal contexts where there's a rule against interrupting, anyway). Example of a less formal/explicit version: Raise hand slightly, go "Ah-" or "Uh...". Example of a more formal/explicit version: Interrupt with "Can I interrupt you for a second there?" The speaker can then either let you speak (e.g. "Yes?") or not. (Example of a less formal/explicit version: Raise hand in "stop sign" gesture or "just a minute" gesture, possibly also shake head. Example of a more formal/explicit version: "Hold on a moment, let me finish this.")

(This obviously overlaps some with Benquo's comment on metaconversational interruptions, though that seems to be about the reverse problem?)

This is interesting, and seems similar to the issue of ask v. guess, which can create similar problems due to cultural differences.


I was thinking of that when I wrote this and meant to allude to it with the title, so I suppose it worked. :)

I think the culture is one variable. Context is another. They can interact in interesting ways. This was brought home to me in a specific way.

I am a lawyer by trade. I was representing a client in a complex contract negotiation with a Navajo business (and quasi-governmental) entity. My client hadn't seemed to be making much headway, despite lots of negotiation. When I joined the negotiation, I figured out what was going on.

My client interpreted a long pause in discussion as a signal that the proposal was not well received. That was consistent with his experience in the business world: if someone makes a horribly embarrassing proposal, it is polite to pause long enough for them to save face by way of qualification or limited retraction.

A pause among the Navajo is just polite. I subsequently found a study that backs this up (with the significant qualifier of a very small sample size). The normal pause to signal swapping of turns in a discussion is around 4 to 6 seconds among the Navajo subjects in the study, while it is around 1 second for "Anglos" in the literature reviewed in that study.

So my client was negotiating against himself. He would propose something. His Navajo c... (read more)

Had your client literally never read a book on negotiation? Because I thought long pauses were one of the top three basic negotiation techniques (aside from offering a mutually beneficial trade), along with "can you do better?" and "I'll have to ask my boss if I can give you that."
Benquo: (I'm new here, so I started a reply comment, posted it prematurely, then retracted it, then finally deleted it -- just because it wasn't really thought out. I suspect that wasn't the right way to go about it.) I suspect my client had never read a book on negotiation. In my experience, I have seen a lot of people who believe some combination of two things about negotiation: (a) if you can talk, you can negotiate; and (b) negotiations work out for you if the other side acts in good faith. In my experience, these beliefs tend to loosely correlate with some other behaviors that I suspect I see because I am primed to see them due to my job as their lawyer: (c) writing an agreement in normal business-speak and believing that is sufficient (note: I am note defending "legalese"); (d) the agreement that gets written does not address how the arrangement ends; (e) the agreement does not address what happens if the arrangement is a failure or what happens if the failure is simply mediocrity (i.e. neither tolerable nor a dire failure, but some level of moderately unsuccessful outcome); (f) business people referring to "standard" language when there are no standards; and (g) the business people confusing issues of language and issues of substance (deprecating issues of substance as just being about the language). So, I would say that he was naïve, in the same way that most non-experts are about any expert field. By naïve, I mean both ignorant of the substance and ignorant of the complexity of the field. He did, though, do the generically right thing when he discovered his naiveté: he decided to become and expert (no) or to engage an expert (yes) or take the risk of proceeding without an expert (no). My client was extremely sophisticated in his own field -- branding, brand management, advertising, and generally business-to-consumer communication, especially communication without words (images, etc.). He may have initially suffered from the misplaced confidence that ar
Thanks for the correction, you're right that the most important thing in negotiation is often the parts that aren't about conflict at all.
Benquo: It is a good question. I suspect not, but that is an educated guess. He was a small businessman who knew a lot about branding and one-way communication (business to consumer). I have seen a lot of people assume that, if you can talk, you can negotiate. I think not. There are some arts to it, and some simple tricks, and some dirty tricks. There are a lot of resources on negotiation. I thnk the real problem there is sorting the wheat from the chaff. The best ones (to me) resemble the better posts here based on congitive science. The worst ones (to me) are based on aneccdote -- like my post above! Max

Good post. I suggest you make "Cross-posted at my personal blog" a link.

I grew up in a big italian-american extended family - very much an interrupt culture. If I didn't interrupt (loudly) I didn't speak at all.

This pat year and a half I've been at a job that involves interviewing lots of people, and I've been making a conscious effort to wait, and to become more comfortable with pauses. It's amazing how much people will volunteer just to fill a silence.

I'm guessing that if possible, these modes should be chosen depending on the situation. Waiting seems better when discussing something in a group where several people often have something to say at the same time, as a kind of scheduling algorithm to improve fairness and give structure to navigate a more complicated conversation (and control its complexity). A norm that you can interrupt, but only rarely, can rescue a discussion with many participants from this mode. Interrupting seems better when only a few people are interacting, so that there is a more e... (read more)

Another important variable is who the people are. I'm an "interrupter" myself, but I've known "waiters" who find the interrupting style of conversation very difficult to work with, even when they are talking with just one other person. It's not just a matter of perceived rudeness. Some waiters find it hard to keep their thinking organized if they have to switch abruptly and unexpectedly from "talking mode" to "listening mode". Since I don't find it so hard to hold onto my thoughts while the waiters say their peace, it makes more sense for me to accommodate their waiting style rather than to impose my interrupting style on them.
Interesting, I'm more used to a very different style of "waiting" where having a long organized chain of thoughts you have to get through in sequence is an exceptional case - usually you let the other person's response to the first thing you say help steer the conversation. But now that you mention it I recognize the style you're talking about too.

If you know sign language, instead of interrupting the person you can quickly comment something they says (eg. I have a question OR I disagree OR I understand) without interrupting them. Then they can either let you talk, or finish saying what they are saying (if they judge it's better to do so) but at least they'll know what your reply will be about.

This is not an observation, but a proposition. I'm still not good at sign language.

Hand signs are also used a lot in school. How you put up yours hand indicates something about the urgency, I guess that the conventions differ a lot between schools (and countries). But from sitting in class of my sons I clearly notice patterns. * The 'strength' of the sign (how fiercely you put up your hand) clearly indicates subjective importance. * When answering open teacher questions there were two ways to put the hand up: Single handed to indicate a new answer or both hands ("Doppelmeldung") to indicate elaboration in a previous answer. * Acoustic signals (e.g. clicking fingers) are obviously discouraged. * I have often seen that waving the hand indicates doubt about a previous answer or indication of an opposing answer. These are simple and could be used in any group discussion.

I'm reminded of a tactic I implemented in a group context I had some control over once: discussion was mediated by each speaker getting to speak uninterrupted until they were done and then handing the floor explicitly to another member of the group, and everyone (~100 people) was issued four index cards (Red, Green, White, Blue) with instructions to raise them to indicate the following:
Red = disagreement
Green = agreement
White = boredom/disinterest
Blue = confusion/request for clarification.

It wasn't a particularly good mechanism for mediating discussion, but I was intrigued by the ways people differed in terms of their response to various response patterns.

I'm not sure what this means. Do you mean that it seems to you like this should work, but you haven't actually tried it or seen it done?
In fact, I've seen it done with the "wait gesture" (by people who don't know a sign language per se), and it seemed to work well. So I hypothesise that it could work even better if someone knew more signs. But I have yet to put this to test.

An interesting post. I suppose the main difference is the size of the group you are used to, since larger groups can't hold a single conversation in an interrupt culture. Like Error said, on the internet (assuming threaded posts, that is) interruption is entirely impossible. It occurs to me that among deaf people communicating via sign language, there would be a more interesting phenomenon: everyone can sign simultaneously, and everyone can parse what someone is signing no matter how many other people are signing.

Networking protocols face similar challenges. I wonder if there's a rationality of conversation hidden somewhere in here?

I've always held that humans should strive to abide by Postel's Law too.
Could you say more about that?

I think using wait culture is a good solution to this problem about audience/speaker perceptions highlighted on Overcoming Bias. It can also draw out anyone who is shy, has a quiet voice or is a non-native speaker. This is relevant in the London LessWrong group, for example, where we have a very broad range of conversational styles/people.


I find that my favourite long conversations with larger groups (I think without any formal rules, it is possible. though quite infrequent to have workable longer conversations with up to about a dozen people) tend to oscillate between the two modes. It's as if the conversation itself were breathing. The longest pauses and slowest pace would correspond to fully in, the acceleration that then takes place is breathing out, lots of interrupts and competitive yammering is fully out... and then somehow there is a shortage of breath and people slow down to proces... (read more)

This seems good enough for Main.

Thank you, done.

Very interesting. In Normandy, during the yellow-vest episode, we tried with a few anarchists and traditional-left activists a new way of talking in public, we called this "pow wow"; people take the microphone and speak their mind one after another and when everyone has spoken his mind the microphone return to the organisation; in rare cases people had nothing to say and handed over the microphone to their neighbour. Surprisingly, shy people, especially women, who thought they had nothing to say, where found to have a lot of interesting sayings. And sadly ... (read more)

If, in addition, the point of the discussion was to try to determine the truth of something, this could be seen as within the domain of Systems-Oriented Social Epistemology (for one discussion, - article by Alvin I Goldman). I.e. the effect of various communication protocols, media technologies, fads (such as forwarding anonymous emails), social media designs, peer review regimes, etc. on tendencies to converge on truths. To me it seems like the most interesting sort of quest... (read more)