Scientist, Educator & Speaker
Two colleagues are discussing a work plan to improve retention of the most talented and productive employees in their organization.
Colleague A: “Where have you been all week? We have a lot to do.”
Colleague B: “Senior management sent me to a 3-day workshop on employee retention, and …”
Colleague A: “Senior management is expecting a Retention White Paper by the end of next week.”
Colleague B: “The workshop was run by management professionals with expertise in recruitment and retention issues, and I think …”
Colleague A: “We need to start working on this plan today.”
Colleague B: “Don’t you want to hear what I learned about practical and established tools to improve retention?”
One of the colleagues above is a man and the other is a woman. From your own experiences you can probably guess which is which. The interrupter is not allowing the other speaker, thus far, to provide information that could very well be germane and important to their task. By interrupting, Colleague A is minimizing the contribution of Colleague B and is making an attempt to dominate the conversation. This type of conversational conflict is a common problem in male-female communications, and has been suggested to reflect the broader gender-power relations in our society (Zimmerman and West, 1975).
Studies have shown that men interrupt conversations far more than women, especially during discussions involving both men and women (Zimmerman and West, 1975; West, 1979; Jacobi and Schweers, 2017). For example, in a controlled laboratory setting investigating cross-gender communication, 75% of interruptions were initiated by men (West, 1979). And more recently, a study of the United States Supreme Court Justices showed that the female Justices were “interrupted at disproportionate rates by their male colleagues, as well as by male advocates”; also, the women interrupted other Justices at disproportionately low rates (Jacobi and Schweers, 2017). These interruptions of female Justices in the highest US court points to the women having less influence during oral arguments. “When a Justice is interrupted during her questioning, her point is often left unaddressed. Without being able to ask her question, and without receiving an answer, the interruptee may be inhibited from using this point to persuade her colleagues” (Jacobi and Schweers, 2017).
How should men and women resolve the problem of “deep” interruptions that are intrusive and violate the etiquette of speaker turn-taking?
West (1979) suggests that the most assertive method of resolving interrupted speech (and the least used) is the Competition/Continuance approach in which the interrupted speaker insists on her right to speak during her turn by talking louder and stretching or recycling portions of her discussion over the interrupter’s ongoing jabbering. However, there is a social cost to interrupting. In a study of same-gender and mixed-gender dyads, listeners rated interrupters and interrupted speakers for status and likeability. Not surprisingly, the interrupter was perceived by listeners to be more powerful and influential than the person being interrupted. It was also noted that the interrupter, especially if it was a woman, was less liked than speakers who did not interrupt (Farley, 2008).
Decisions need to be made by the target of conversational interruption in the moment that it happens. Would you rather be heard and taken seriously, or would you rather be liked? It appears that women especially cannot have it both ways.
Zimmerman DH and West C (1975) Sex roles‚ interruptions and silences in conversation. In B. Thorne & N. Henley (Eds.)‚ Language and sex: Difference and dominance. Rowley‚ MA: Newbury House.
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