As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted . . .

July 06, 1994|By Linda Shrieves | Linda Shrieves,Orlando Sentinel

If you listen to listening experts, we are a nation of interrupters.

"I think most people are interrupters," says Bonnie Jacobson, director of the New York Institute for Psychological Change, who is writing a book on listening. "Listening is really a lost art."

It's not that people intend to be rude. No one wants to be known as the chronic interrupter. For many people, interrupting is a subconscious habit.

"Constant interrupting is almost like a twitch," Ms. Jacobson says. "You're not aware that you're doing it. No one would do it intentionally."

Certainly, most friends wouldn't interrupt chronically in friendly conversation. Of course, there are always some people who interrupt intentionally -- and usually it's the boss, determined to let you know who's boss.

What's really astonishing is that most interrupters think they are helping the person whom they are interrupting.

"The interrupter thinks they're giving the other person something -- attention, information," Ms. Jacobson says. "They think they're really involved in the conversation."

But the message that the interruptee gets isn't even close, says University of Central Florida psychology professor Randy Fisher.

"It is a kind of one-upmanship," Mr. Fisher says. "It says, 'My words are more important than yours.' "

Ms. Jacobson blames television for some of Americans' tendency to interrupt. Because we spend so much time watching TV, and so much less time conversing with others, we have forgotten how to listen.

Add to that the frantic pace at which most people operate these days and you'll see most people think they don't have time to listen to another person's full version of events. Feeling antsy, they interrupt.

Some interrupting, however, is regional. In the South, Mr. Fisher says, people talk more slowly and interrupt less. But in the Northeast, he notes, people "tend to have a more rapid and aggressive verbal style."

"It's certainly cultural," says Leslie Beebe, a sociolinguist at Columbia University in New York City.

"In Japan, for instance, you are virtually never interrupted. There is a space -- called wait time -- between when person A stops talking and when person B starts talking. In English, even people who aren't considered interrupters start talking immediately after you stop talking."

For that reason, the Japanese find Americans very difficult to talk to, Ms. Beebe says.

And within the United States, Ms. Beebe says, what is considered polite and permissible varies.

"New Yorkers will start talking before you're even done speaking," says Ms. Beebe. "And some New Yorkers will start talking as soon as they think they've grasped your point."

In some parts of the country, she says, people feel more obligated to listen to a person's entire spiel -- even if they don't want to hear it.

Of course, some people interrupt more than others. Men, for instance.

In studies, researchers have found that men are consistently more likely to interrupt women than women are apt to interrupt men.

Sometimes interrupting has less to do with gender than with power, say some sociolinguists, who study language and how it affects people.

If the boss interrupts you, you're going to take it. But if a peer does it regularly, it's going to bug you.

"The inference I make is that they think that what they have to say is more important than what I have to say. Or they're impatient with what I have to say," says Mr. Fisher, the UCF psychology professor. "It's a kind of put-down whether it's intended as one or not."

Likewise, Ms. Beebe says, parents hold positions of power in the family. They interrupt their kids all the time.

Some interruptions are more welcome than others. If you're telling a funny story about how your mother always cut the end off a ham before she baked it -- and a friend jumped in to say, 'Hey, my mom did that too!' -- you probably wouldn't mind.

But when the interrupter changes the course of the conversation, people get aggravated.

"People feel it's rude when someone jumps in and redirects the conversation," Ms. Beebe says. "It's that feeling of being derailed that makes you mad."

Also critical, she notes, is how important you judge your conversation to be.

"If it's chitchat, you may not get mad if someone interrupts. But if it's very serious business, any interruption will be considered a greater violation," Ms. Beebe says.

All of which leads us to back to Bonnie Jacobson, the New York psychologist, who has some advice for anyone who suspects they might be an interrupter.

"An old, wise man once told me: God gave us two ears and one mouth and that proportion was for a reason," Ms. Jacobson says. "We should listen twice as much as we speak. The people who listen learn a lot. If you're constantly interrupting, you're missing a lot of what's going on."

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