A few weeks ago, a friend and I decided to embark on a social experiment together. Over the course of one night, each of us would keep tabs on how often our partners interrupted us while we were speaking.
Neither of us got very far. When my friend and I later compared notes, we discovered that we’d had nearly identical experiences: After ten or so interruptions in the first hour, we both stopped counting.
That’s not to say that we’re uniquely put-upon in that regard. Far from it, in fact. From Kanye to cable-news pundits to Senators, we live in a culture where interrupting is both common and commonly accepted. Being interrupted is frustrating for anyone, but if you’re a shy, soft-spoken, or introverted person, it can make it especially difficult to communicate.
That’s because, whether the interrupter realizes it or not, cutting in while someone else is speaking can be a way of asserting dominance over them. “Interrupting is a way to demonstrate power in interpersonal situations,” explains Dr. Joel Minden, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at California State University, Chico.
That might sound like an exaggeration. After all, Minden notes, some interruptions might be rooted in a desire to help, like when you want to clarify or add on to what the other person is saying. And there’s a difference between overlapping with someone’s speech — like when you finish your best friend’s sentence because you can relate to what she’s saying — and interrupting to shut the other person up.
But the “good” interruptions still have the same effect as the more malevolent ones: Either way, you’re diminishing the other person’s role in it so you may assert your own. “Not allowing someone to complete a statement conveys messages like, ‘I want you to stop talking’ or ‘What I have to say in this moment is more important than what you’re saying,’” Minden says. And while your best friend’s overlap might not be a big deal, “frequent and aggressive interrupting, without showing respect for others’ views, is likely to be destructive.”
Studies show that some people are more likely to be on the receiving end of aggressive interrupting than others. Here’s where I should note that our little experiment followed a pretty typical pattern for interruptions: My partner is male, as is my friend’s, and both of us are women. A fair amount of research, including a pioneer 1975 study from the University of California, Santa Barbara, have found that men are much more likely to interrupt than women, and they’re also more likely to interrupt women than they are other men.
In the study, the authors observed and analyzed 31 conversations in various public places, like coffee shops, libraries, and drug stores. Ten of the conversations were between two men, 10 were between two women, and 11 were between a man and a woman. There were few interruptions in the same-sex conversations, the researchers found, but in the male-female group, there were 48 interruptions. Of those instances, a whopping 46 were men interrupting women.
More than 40 years later, the findings still hold up, though perhaps to a lesser degree. In a similar 2014 study, male participants interrupted an average of 2.1 times over the course of a three-minute conversation with a woman; if the conversation was between two men, the number dropped to 1.8. (The study also found that when women interrupted, they were much more likely to interrupt other women rather than men.)
There are plenty of factors at play in this discrepancy. Outright sexism is one; some communications researchers have cited gender-based differences in communication styles as another. When you’re on the receiving end of an interruption, though, it can also be helpful to consider a factor with a more immediate solution: Plenty of chronic interrupters don’t know that they’re chronic interrupters.
“Why do you interrupt?” I asked my husband at one point.
“Did I interrupt?” he asked. “I didn’t even realize I was doing it.”
For nonaggressive communicators like me, this offers up a relatively easy next step: Make the interrupter aware of what they’re doing. “Many times, the person who frequently interrupts others is not aware of the habit or has not be told of the habit in a respectful way,” says Carla Marie Manly, a licensed clinical psychologist based in California. “If possible, have a ‘behind the scenes’ talk with the interrupter. Give the interrupter a few helpful, thought-provoking tips.”
Manly suggests that one of those tips should be encouraging interrupters to engage in something called “reflective listening.” “Reflective listening is when the listener rephrases what the speaker said and reflects back what was heard. This gives the opportunity to really clarify the discussion and also stop interruptions,” she explains. For people on the quieter side who may be natural listeners themselves, this is a more organic and accessible approach than confronting them head-on about the problem.
Which is a relief, considering that much of the advice out there requires a boldness that can be hard to summon. In a recent column titled “What I Learned About Interruption From Talk Radio,” writer Rose Eveleth outlined a few strategies for holding your conversational ground: Call the other person out on their interruption, repeat their name until they let you cut back in, just keep on talking over them. All are excellent tips, but they’re also things I know that I, and other shy people like me, might have trouble pulling off.
Continuing to talk after being interrupted is also an ineffective solution for soft-spoken communicators. I’m a pretty quiet, introverted communicator; talking is only part of the process for me. During a conversation, I also rely quite a bit on visual feedback from the other party — body language and other subtle cues that clue me in on how they’re processing my words. If the other party is talking at the same time, there’s no feedback, which makes communication not only pointless, but also impossible by definition.
“Trying to match someone’s emotional intensity by talking louder and ‘interrupting back’ to retaliate can also backfire,” Minden says. “Doing so demonstrates that you’re gearing up for a power battle that, if you’re typically quiet, you’re unlikely to win.”
Manly’s advice encourages the interrupter to match your communication style, rather than the other way around. This isn’t always possible, though. In other situations, it might simply help to adjust your own body language. In another study on this topic, published in 1983 in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, researchers noted that men interrupted women more often when they were leaning away, not making eye contact, and smiling. This suggests that subtle cues, like leaning in and meeting the other person’s eyes can show your engagement in the conversation, making an interruption less likely.
Ultimately, though, you may need to force yourself to get a little assertive. If that’s something you struggle with, it may help to reframe the way you think about assertiveness in general: You’re not being confrontational; you’re just being direct.
“Examples of important messages to communicate directly include informing someone that you don’t appreciate being interrupted, that you’d like to finish expressing yourself, and that you’re willing to listen after you’re done talking,” Minden says. “If people refuse to accept these reasonable requests, you can respectfully state that the conversation isn’t productive and that it would be best to talk another time.”