Gender and interruptions

Lots of interesting stuff here, including the fact that men interrupt women a lot, and that women hardly ever interrupt men. But also that the women who make it to the top do A LOT of interrupting of everyone.

(Thanks, Jender-Mum!)

8 thoughts on “Gender and interruptions

  1. I read this on Language Log last summer. Bloggers and commenters there raised (as usual) very interesting issues and questions.

    One particularly interesting point is that ‘interruption’ is more of an interpretive classification than you might think (apparently Deborah Tannen has done some work on this question). Yuan, Liberman, and Cieri instead used the category ‘speech overlap in conversation’, which requires less interpretation. They studied speech overlap in several of the (enormous) telephone conversation data sets in several languages, separating two kinds of overlap: (i) one party takes over the ‘turn’ before the other finishes; (ii) one party speaks in the middle of the other’s turn. (There is some thought that type (i) can be experienced as supportive and enthusiastic, while (ii) is more aggressive and controlling; but this gets us back to the point about interpretation.) They found that women make speech overlaps of both kinds more than men. So superficially that seems to conflict with Kieran Snyder’s observations, but there are various possible explanations for the differences.

    Maybe phone conversations have significantly different dynamics from the sorts of conversations Snyder catalogued; that’s surely plausible. Another possibility is that status or rank was a heavily confounding factor in Snyder’s study: the higher-status speakers were overwhelmingly men, and lower-status speakers are much less likely to interrupt higher-status speakers (as Snyder confirms). So, maybe within a rank, women interrupt more than men, but men tend to be of higher rank, especially in formal workplace conversations.

  2. Jamie, what was the purpose of the conversations Tannen studied, do you know? Were they personal or professional or a mix? And what was the purpose of the phone conversations Yuan, Liberman, and Cieri studied? Just to be clear, we should note that Snyder is defining an interruption as “any communication event where one person starts speaking before the other person has finished, whether or not the interrupter intended it.” So, that would seem to include any kind of overlap and not involve the kind of interpretation needed to mark the distinction you mention Yuan, Liberman, and Cieri were keen to mark.
    If the conversations in the studies you mention tended to be personal, you might have a small bit of evidence for your status hypothesis. You might think high-status individuals do more of the talking in professional situations–like a teacher with a student or a boss with a group of employees. So, high-status individuals may regard what they have to say as more important than low-status individuals, making them more likely to interrupt anyone, but especially low-status individuals. (Conversely, low-status individuals be less self-confident about speaking.) Personal conversations, unless between parent and child, tend not to divide speakers by status. Professional conversations, including those in social situations, in contrast, can include participants of markedly different status. This is perhaps even what you were suggesting in raising your hypothesis, but I wasn’t sure.

  3. Jan,

    I don’t know what Tannen was studying — someone in a LL comment mentioned that she had worked on it, is all.

    Indeed, the Yuan et al. study used mostly personal telephone conversations among friends and family. They used the CallHome corpora in Arabic (LDC97S45), English (LDC97S42), German (LDC97S43), Japanese (LDC96S37), Mandarin (LDC96S34), and Spanish (LDC96S35); plus some telephone conversations between strangers: the Fisher English corpus (LDC2004S13).
    There is not much doubt that high-status talkers overlap more, nor that they overlap low-status talkers more than they do high-status talkers. Snyder herself found an enormous effect. I was wondering whether that alone explains the difference between what Snyder found (men interrupt more) and what Yuan et al. found (women interrupt more). (So, yes, in essence, your speculation is about the same as the one I meant to suggest.)

    (On the different kinds of overlap: I just think it’s important to keep in mind that what counts as an ‘interruption’ in a study might not always be the sort of thing we’d call an interruption in ordinary conversation.)

  4. Thanks, Jamie. fwiw, I agree that it’s important to distinguish different sorts of speech overlap, not all of which might be experienced by speakers as interruptions. For example, I’ve notice that I sometimes say “oh, wow!” when someone is telling me something astonishing or “that’s awful!” when they’re reporting a horrible experience. I intend that to be encouraging acknowledgement of what they’re saying and so (I hope!) comes across as quite different from cutting someone off before they’ve finished expressing their thought, (which is not to say that I don’t do that, too, unfortunately.) I take it that this is the sort of distinction you have in mind?

  5. Yes, and specifically there appears to be a big difference between jumping into the middle of someone’s sentence, on the one hand, and starting your ‘turn’ a little early, overlapping the other person’s ‘turn’. (If you have $175 burning a hole in your pocket you could buy this, and report back to us.)

  6. I think as Jamie has pointed out, interrupting, like basically every linguistic action, is polysemous. They mean different things in different contexts. E.g., a woman interrupting another woman may be, culturally, a sign that she’s high-involvement and interested in what the speaker has to say (she may be completing sentences, asking questions, in a friendly, collaborative way); alternatively, someone might use interrupting to challenge the speaker as a way to exert power. Both of these are interrupting but their significances are different. (I think Tannen makes this point nicely.)

  7. I hope someone elaborates on this phenomenon.
    I (who look like a woman) tried to do this, extensively interrupt, a while ago during a public lecture by a well known philosopher, and I was surprised to find that instead of getting told to stop interrupting it just got easier each time!

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