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When is an interruption not an interruption?

posted: 10.25.12 by Andrea Lunsford

Like millions of others, I’ve been watching the presidential debates (and the vice presidential debate) with fascination bordering on obsession.  For a rhetorician and teacher of writing, there’s not much more exciting than this every-four-year spectacle, much of it surrounded by a cacophony of political ads, cartoons, and media commentary.  So I watch intently and purposefully, taping the debates so I can play them over again.  (I’ve also tried listening to them on the radio versus watching them, which is also very instructive.)

The first debate this year, the one in which many viewers felt like President Obama didn’t show up, was particularly interesting for the way both candidates used body language and tried to interact with the audience not just in the hall but via cameras.  While President Obama looked down a lot and seemed to be mulling over points, Governor Romney strode about, “owning” the space much of the time, and even occasionally interrupting.  I noticed the interrupting behavior but didn’t make much of it, except to think that it made Romney seem overly aggressive for my taste.  Then came the vice presidential debate, which featured Joe Biden interrupting Paul Ryan and even talking over him—which seemed to invite Ryan to give the same back to Biden.  So I started watching for interruptions in particular, and I saw plenty of them during the second presidential debate.  By my rough count, Romney out-interrupted the President, though both of them used this strategy.   Sometimes a lot.

The third debate featured plenty of interruptions as well, though they seemed a bit less prominent to me because the President and Governor Romney were seated and because the camera often focused on only one of them at a time. Compared to the second debate, when the candidates were standing–and when they occasionally walked toward each other or the moderator, in essence invading another’s space, the interruptions weren’t as noticeable or potentially troubling to me this time around.

So how did these interruptions affect the outcome of the debate, if at all?  Many commentators fixed on one interruption in particular, in which Obama started to say something and was scolded by Romney who said, essentially, “I’m talking now. You wait your turn.”  That seemed to many to have stepped over the bounds of good sense and judgment, making Romney look like a bit of a bully, and disrespectful to boot.  So I was very interested to see Deborah Tannen, well known linguist and author of many books on communication patterns, take up the question in a column in The New York Times.  Tannen points out that not all interruptions are equal—that what appear to be interruptions can often be interjections or corroborations—or requests of some kind.  But she also notes that, in the western world especially, interruptions can often be all about power:

How people perceive interruption is inseparable from their sense of relative power. This is particularly true in town-hall-style debates, where the line between assertiveness and aggression is thin. Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney frequently stood up on Tuesday to try to take the floor. Al Gore got into trouble when he walked into George W. Bush’s space in 2000; Mr. Romney’s aggressive posture in Tuesday night’s debate — his hot to Mr. Obama’s cool — risked offending viewers because he was a former governor confronting a sitting president, and a white man taking on a black one.

Tannen also comments on gender, noting that women are typically interrupted more than men, for example.

Reading her column got me thinking about interruptions in our classes, about who interrupts whom and why and how often.  Over the years, I have done a few studies of my own classes, finding that men speak a great deal more than women, that they interrupt more than women, and that—and this one surprised me—a male student almost always speaks directly after me, rarely a woman.  In each class I’ve presented the findings to students and asked them to think about them and then to start monitoring their own behavior and that of the whole class.  Doing so has definitely led to some changes, and almost always to a better balance in speaking time.  Now I think I will try looking just at interruptions to see what I can learn about how students interact with one another.  We want our classrooms to be places where all are comfortable speaking and where all practice the kind of respect that gives everyone space and time to participate.  Can we—or should we–expect the same kind of behavior in presidential debates?

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