The opposite of talking isn’t listening.
The opposite of talking is waiting. ~ Fran Lebowitz
A long accepted workplace practice when women and men are present in any kind of meeting — regardless of the industry or setting — is men speak and women listen, or women speak and men interrupt them. On the whole, women are fed up with this practice.
An Age-Old Problem
Studies analyzing this phenomenon go back decades. The most prominent of which was published in the 1980s by professors Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman in their groundbreaking paper, Doing Gender, in which they differentiate between sex, which is biological, and gender, which is behavioral. And their ’70s paper on interrupting women finds “striking asymmetries between men and women with respect to patterns of interruption, silence, and support for partner in the development of topics. We discuss these observations in this paper and draw implications from them concerning the larger issue of sexism in American society.” According to a ForbesWoman article regarding the latter paper, “In this study, the authors analyzed 31 two-party conversations that they had tape recorded in public places such as cafes, drug stores, and university campuses. Of the 31 conversations, 10 were between two men, 10 between two women, and 11 between and man and a woman. In the two same-sex groups combined, the authors found seven instances of interruption. In the male/female group, however, they found 48 interruptions, 46 of which were instances of a man interrupting a woman.” (Bolding is mine.)
A more recent study conducted in 2014 by Associate Professor Adrienne Hancock and then graduate student Benjamin Rubin revealed similar patterns. Added to this disrespectful behavior — which has its own designation called, “manterruption” — is the patronizing habit of many men of so-called “mansplaining”, a condescending habit of telling women something that they already know and in most cases know better than the man ‘splaining it!
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up!
A disheartening example of mansplaining — as well as a truly cringe-worthy moment — occurred in a meeting of Project Greenlight, in which Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, two white males, sought out first-time film makers for their projects. Keeping in mind that a long-running hot topic has been the entertainment industry’s race problem, this meeting to discuss a current project included only one black person, a woman, who suggested that diversity should extend to the director of a film as well as the cast. Mr. Damon responded, mansplaining — as well as “racesplaining” — to her: “When we’re talking about diversity you do it in the casting of the film not in the casting of the show.” He apparently meant that it wasn’t necessary to have diversity among the filmmakers, just the actors. O-ka-a-y. Um, what?!
And a truly outrageous and high-profile instance of manterruption was the one to which songwriter and recording artist Taylor Swift endured on stage in 2009 upon receiving the VMA Award. A male celebrity leaped on stage, confronted her as she was giving her acceptance speech and proceeded to praise one of the other nominees!
But the kicker occurred last year on a panel that was discussing Silicon Valley gender and diversity issues when Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt repeatedly interrupted U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, the only woman on the panel. Finally, Google’s global diversity manager pointed this out to Mr. Schmidt. “Given that unconscious bias research tells us that women are interrupted a lot more than men,” she said, “I’m wondering if you are aware that you have interrupted Megan many more times.”
You can’t make this stuff up. Well, you can, but we aren’t. And, of course, less dramatic but just as egregious are those everyday encounters that occur in workplaces across America and around the world.
Women Don’t Talk Enough
As a result of men interrupting women and mansplaining to them as an ongoing strategy — whether overtly or covertly, consciously or unconsciously — women at all levels of the corporate hierarchy tend not to talk as much as men in workplace settings. Because when they do they are all too often interrupted, disrespected and treated condescendingly.
Observations and studies have shown that when men speak up with their ideas and opinions are viewed as creative, forceful, intelligent, contributing and competent; but when women speak up with their ideas and opinions they are viewed as aggressive, threatening and selfish, and their ideas are typically derided, ignored or appropriated. Even in the United States Congress powerful female Senators speak less on the Senate Floor than do male colleagues!
Women Talk Too Much
The perception has always been that women talk too much, with jokes abounding such as the classic by the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who wisecracked, “I haven’t spoken to my wife in years. I didn’t want to interrupt her.” And when my husband, who is mostly a taciturn fellow, and I went on our first date it was clear that we had hit it off because I talked all evening and he listened with rapt attention! Without interrupting! The next day he had an art deco poster delivered to my office; it was of an elegant couple out on the town with the caption, “I couldn’t get in a word all night.” I was delighted to learn that this man had a great sense of humor! He signed it, “I had a great time. Let’s do this again soon!”
It does seem that women talk more than men, but some researchers disagree. Studies from the University of Arizona, California State University and Harvard show that women and men speak about the same amount, but it depends on when and where and the specific circumstances.
Do We See the Irony?
There might be some science to back up the perception that women talk more than men, such as the study that indicates that we ladies have more of the speech protein, FOXP2. But if it is true that females are biologically wired to be chattier, and if the data in the Doing Gender paper is to be believed, i.e., that women are more frequently interrupted because of learned and practiced gender behaviors, then the dichotomy is ironic, as well as illuminating.
Conversely, while men might be biologically wired to be less chatty they are also wired to be combative and dominant, not only toward women but also toward other men. Thus, aside from having terrible manners, men who chronically interrupt women might be doing so to dominate and perhaps intimidate the speaker, and maybe even show off. Such individuals may be driven partly by biology and partly by learned behaviors. We know that behaviors can be changed, that good sense can overcome primal urges, so let’s hope that this is one of those occasions.
The Rules of Etiquette
To Fran Lebowitz’s point, waiting until someone has stopped speaking is when we may begin speaking, not during.
And, of course, the problem of interrupting others when they are speaking is not just a woman’s issue; it is a violation of a basic tenet of business etiquette, protocol and professionalism. The rules of etiquette are based on the respect for and the comfort of others as well as to keep things running smoothly and pleasantly. Interrupting demonstrates a lack of manners as well as empathy on the part of the interrupter.
But the practice of men interrupting women goes beyond a violation of good manners and is considered to be a form of covert sexism, which lends itself to just as hostile a work environment as overt sexism.
How to Fix This
Not to oversimplify the solution to this complex problem, but we can start with these steps:
To Stop Interrupting:
- Practice Empathy – Before interrupting someone stop and consider how you feel when you have been interrupted and spoken to condescendingly. Make that type of behavior stop with you.
- Demonstrate Professionalism – Consider how you look to others when you rudely interrupt someone. Such behavior does not lend itself to leadership. Someone will notice eventually and your brand, reputation and advancement prospects might be negatively impacted.
- Examine Your Motives – Ask yourself why you interrupt when someone, especially a woman, is speaking. Do you have the urge to dominate the situation as well as the individual? Do you have issues with her? If it’s simply a matter of brushing up on your manners, easy peasy; but if it’s something deeper professional counseling or sensitivity training might help.
- Be Aware – Take stock of your and others’ behavior and make a concerted effort to improve. If you are in charge of a meeting — no matter how large or small, casual or formal — set the rules to ensure equal opportunity for everyone to speak. If some people tend to run on and you have a limited timeframe, set equal time limits for speaking. If someone interrupts another participant, interrupt the interrupter. After awhile attendees will understand that your meetings are a No Interruptions Zone!
To Handle Interruptions
- Set the Pace – If you are chairing a meeting (see Be Aware, above), set the pace from the get-go. Get your thoughts out at the beginning of the meeting and ensure that everyone can get their thoughts out as well.
- Be Pleasant but Firm – When you are interrupted (by anyone except your boss or someone else superior to you in the hierarchy), first smile and raise your index finger to indicate that you wish to finish making your comment or point. If the interrupter persists, respond pleasantly and, if appropriate, with humor, but also with firmness, perhaps with a comment like, “Please jump in, Ed, but first may I finish my thoughts?”
- Have a Chat – If someone in particular regularly interrupts you, don’t call him out in public but have a non-threatening private chat with him to point out his behavior and let him know how it makes you feel. This includes your manager.
- Let it Go – Pick your battles. If the person who interrupts you also interrupts everyone else, don’t take it personally. The interrupter is likely somewhat of a joke to everyone and taking him on in public, or even in private, could make you look like the bully. This also goes for someone who doesn’t mean to offend, but simply has poor manners. Try to deflect interruptions the best you can, but know which situations you want to take on and which you want to let go. For example, it’s not worth a confrontation with someone who is temporary or with whom you only occasionally have interaction. Use your good judgment.
Is It Ever Okay To Interrupt?
There are some occasions when interrupting someone while speaking is acceptable. Aside from emergencies, such as physical disasters or urgent business issues, interrupting someone during a casual conversation when someone new arrives to be introduced or interrupting in a kindly or jovial manner during a friendly casual conversation among colleagues is usually fine, provided it isn’t constant.
And, as a woman, when you are in a situation where you can’t seem to get in a word, or someone is rambling on, it’s okay to interrupt. As we know it’s often hard for women to be heard in a meeting. The first woman to be appointed to the post of U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, knows a few things about working in a man’s world, and she advises, “…if you’re going to interrupt, you have to know what you’re talking about. And you have to do it in a strong voice.”
And remember, if you interrupt a man you will be judged by some as aggressive, so if you have a chance after you’ve spoken, give a nod and smile to say, “thanks.” Little gestures can go a long way to balancing your toughness with a hint of softness, so you don’t scare everyone too much by speaking up and saying something brilliant! And there are those manners to demonstrate to all that while you are forceful you are also impeccably professional.
Until next time,