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Don’t interrupt me while I’m interrupting

Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin spar during the vice presidential debate at Centre College, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012, in Danville, Ky. Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

They came at each other with hammer and tong, with verbal interruptions and nonverbal injections aplenty.

Joe Biden, current Vice President, and Paul Ryan, Congressman from Wisconsin met last night for the first and only debate between the Vice Presidential candidates. And they spent a good deal of their 90 minutes together not waiting respectfully for each other to finish their respective thoughts.

Vice President Biden and Congressman Ryan also interrupted Martha Raddatz, the moderator, who herself interrupted them when she sought to inject a new question. But the number of interruptions between the candidates seems to have exceeded prior debates by a large margin. By my count, (and I have actually counted these things in studies of conversations), the verbal interruptions this night took a little time to set a pattern but once allowed to run free, there was a verbal intrusion once every minute or less.

Shall we declare such behavior rude and unseemly, still more evidence — if indeed we need more — of boorish politicians?  Or might all those verbal cutoffs indicate something else, something we might actually not want to see disallowed?

Social psychologists and linguists who study conversations know that most people report if asked that it’s patently wrong to interrupt someone who is already speaking but most of us do it anyway and often think it’s just fine. One reason for this apparent contradiction: not every verbal overlap is rude or unwarranted.

Sometimes interruptions are warranted, even necessary. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright felt that her students needed to learn to interrupt. When you raise a hand at a meeting, Albright said, by the time they get to you the point is not germane. The goal is to actively listen, look for opportunities and then go for it.

Occasionally, what looks like an interruption may not be because it turns out the interrupter is merely finishing the sentence of someone already speaking. Overlapping speech might look like one person stepping on another’s verbal toes but indeed such simultaneous talking is often a sign that the conversation is moving along perfectly. Such interruptions reflect a happy solidarity.  In short, what may seem on the surface to be bad manners may actually function as rapport building.

Of course, rapport is probably not the most accurate way to characterize Joe Biden’s “Am I going to get to say anything here?” over Paul Ryan’s discourse on Syria’s Assad or his clearly audible chuckling while saying “Oh God” in response to Ryan’s declaration that he was pleased with the sanctions against Iran. Verbal and nonverbal interruptions such as these by Vice President Biden were clearly intended to take control, to override whatever Congressman Ryan was saying. Being dominant this night for Biden was much more important than being diplomatic.

So it must be said that conversational interruptions are also about power — who has it and is allowed to interrupt and who doesn’t and must wait their turn to speak. We have found in our studies, for example, that obvious verbal interruptions in same-gender pairs were mostly given a pass by observers if interruptions were equally distributed, that is if both people interrupted the other the same amount. However, in mixed-gender pairs, interruptions stood out like a sore thumb when it was a woman interrupting a man but not when the man interrupted a woman.

In the debate both candidates mostly succeeded in conveying their interruptions civilly. Vice President Biden grinned and occasionally grimaced; Congressman Ryan settled into a modest smile. Neither man became noticeably testy or raised their voices while interrupting or trying to counter one — not an easy feat. A close analysis of one other feature of interruptions will probably show who really won the interruption duel. Some interruptions were successful power plays; others not so much.

Dr. Marianne LaFrance is Professor of Psychology and Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University. She teaches courses on social psychology, gender psychology, and nonverbal communication to undergraduate and doctoral students.