Men interrupt more than women

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Below is a guest post by Kieran Snyder, taken with permission from her always-interesting tumblr Jenga one week at a time.

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About a month ago at work I overheard one woman complaining to another woman about a man’s habit of interrupting everyone in meetings. Then they went further. “That’s just how it is around here. The women listen, but the men interrupt in meetings all the time,” one of them summed it up.

As a moderate interrupter myself – I’m sorry if I’ve interrupted you, I just get excited about what you’re saying and I want to build on it and I lose track of the fact that it’s not my turn and I know it’s a bad habit – I started wondering if she was right. Do men interrupt more often than women?

Search for “do men interrupt more than women” and you will find a variety of answers. The answers loosely break into two categories: 1. no, they don’t, and 2. yes, they do.

The empirical linguist in me got to thinking, and a few weeks ago I decided to figure it out.

The setup: I wanted to find situations where I could observe groups of men and women interacting without being a significant participant in the conversation myself. I am not always a talker, but when I am a talker, I am a seriously big talker and I am a definite interrupter. So I needed to find contexts where I wasn’t going to be tempted to talk myself. I also didn’t want to eavesdrop, so I needed to find contexts where I was a welcome listener.

I defined an interruption as any communication event where one person starts speaking before the other person has finished, whether or not the interrupter intends it.

The reality: I spend a lot of my weekday hours in the office, and in the job I have, I am invited to a lot of meetings. I started looking at my calendar to identify meetings where I was mainly going to be present as a listener, where there were at least four other people in the room, and where the gender mix was close to even. Since I work in tech, this last one is easier said than done, so I wasn’t able to strictly apply it, but I got close. On average, 60% of the speakers in any given room that I observed were men, and 40% were women.

I wanted to understand four things: how often interruptions happen; whether men or women interrupt their colleagues more often; whether men or women are interrupted by their colleagues more often; and whether men and women are more likely to interrupt speakers of their own gender, speakers across gender, or some other pattern.

I took notes that covered fifteen hours of conversation over a four week period, and the conversations contained anywhere from 4-15 people (excluding me). It is totally possible that I missed some interruptions since I didn’t record the meetings like I would have done in a real field linguistics study.

What I found was interesting.

People interrupt a lot.

And the more people who are in a conversation, the more interrupting there is – until some peak rate is reached and holds steady no matter how many additional people are added into the conversation.

I noted 314 interruption events spread over 900 minutes of conversation, which means that collectively people interrupted each other once every two minutes and fifty-one seconds, or just over 21 times per hour. But the actual interruption rate (y-axis) correlated closely with the number of active participants in the conversation (x-axis):

This is interesting because it suggests that there are only so many interruptions that a conversation will tolerate before it’s not a conversation anymore. Keep in mind that all the conversations I observed were formal work meetings where people mostly adhered to a single conversation thread; it is very likely that in a more informal setting, many of the larger groups would have split themselves into smaller groups having multiple conversations. In fact, these results make me wonder if 7 people is the natural tipping point for that kind of splitting in social groups. Someone has definitely studied this, but I have not.

Men interrupt more than women overall.

All told and no other factors considered, men accounted for 212 of the 314 total interruptions, about two thirds of the total. The men I observed accounted for about twice as many interruptions overall as the women did.

It’s worth noting that the groups I observed were not 50/50 split between men and women to begin with. Among the individuals I observed, 60% were men; I worked hard to find rooms to observe that included high representations of women, which took some doing but luckily is not as hard to do in design as it is in engineering. That means that if men and women had shown the same rate of interruption, we would expect to find that 188.4 of the interruptions came from men. We actually see 212.

So there you have it: at least in this male-heavy tech setting, men do interrupt more often than women do.

Men are almost three times as likely to interrupt women as they are to interrupt other men.

Here’s where things start to get really interesting. Of the 212 total interruptions from men that I logged, 149 of them – that’s 70% of the total – were interruptions where women had been previously speaking. Men do interrupt other men, but far less often.

These numbers are a little worse than they look in terms of balance since the rooms had only 40% women to begin with. Although I didn’t track gender representation in overall speaking turns (I only tracked interruptions), I believe women in this setting are taking far fewer than a 40% share of speaking turns. That would make these numbers even more skewed than they already appear; whenever women take a speaking turn, they are getting interrupted.

Women interrupt each other constantly, and almost never interrupt men.

Of the 102 interruptions from women that I logged, a staggering 89 of them were instances of women interrupting other women. That is to say, 87% of the time that women interrupt, they are interrupting each other.

Let’s pause and dwell on this for a sec: In fifteen hours of conversation that included 314 total interruptions, I observed a total of 13 examples of women interrupting male speakers. That is less than once per hour, in a climate where interruptions occur an average of once every two minutes and fifty-one seconds.

Does anyone else think this is a big deal?

I’m used to thinking of myself as an irritating interrupter, and I probably am. I didn’t track my own behavior over the same time period because it’s impossible to get that right. But looking over the data has made me wonder whether I really exhibit the pattern that I thought I did. How many of my own interruptions are directed towards female colleagues?

There’s lots more to investigate here. If I were still a Real Linguist, I’d see this as an opportunity for a Real Study. For instance, how much does the male-centric nature of the tech setting bias these results? Like, if someone did the same observations during faculty meetings at an elementary school, would they find the inverse pattern? And what actually does happen in single-sex environments? And this is a whole other enchilada, but how much does sexuality play a role in interruption patterns? I didn’t attempt to track that this time, but my informal observations suggest that this would be worth a study unto itself.

So there you have it, take or leave: men interrupt more than women. And when they interrupt, both men and women are mostly interrupting women.


Above is a guest post by Kieran Snyder.

A relevant study, whose findings are somewhat similar and somewhat different from Kieran's findings, is Jiahong Yuan, Mark Liberman, and Christopher Cieri, "Towards an integrated Understanding of Speech Overlaps in Conversation", ICPhS 2007. The abstract:

We investigate factors that affect speech overlaps in conversation, using large corpora of conversational telephone speech. We analyzed two types of speech overlaps: 1. One side takes over the turn before the other side finishes (turn-taking type); 2. One side speaks in the middle of the other side’s turn (backchannel type). We found that Japanese conversations have more short turn-taking type of overlap segments than the other languages. In general, females make more speech overlaps of both types than males; and both males and females make more overlaps when talking to females than talking to males. People make fewer overlaps when talking with strangers than talking with familiars, and the frequency of speech overlaps is significantly affected by conversation topics. Finally, the two conversation sides are highly correlated on their frequencies of using turn-taking type of overlaps but not backchannel type.

Note that we looked at very different sorts of conversations — Kieran observed business meetings in a male-dominated technology company, while Jiahong, Chris & I analyzed telephone conversations among family and friends – the CallHome corpora in Arabic (LDC97S45), English (LDC97S42), German (LDC97S43), Japanese (LDC96S37), Mandarin (LDC96S34), and Spanish (LDC96S35) — and telephone conversations between strangers — the Fisher English corpus (LDC2004S13).

As Kieran notes, there are results pointing in several different directions on the question of whether men interrupt more than women. There are several obvious (and compatible) reasons for this variation: differences in types of people and types of conversations; possible failure to distinguish among the several very different sorts of speech overlaps; interactions among gender, age,  and status of interrupters and interruptees; etc.

It would be interesting to compare (for example) the ICSI Meeting corpus (speech and transcripts), which include about 75 hours of recorded and transcribed meetings held at ICSI during the years 2000-2002. These are multi-person face-to-face working meetings in a high-tech organization, and thus similar in that respect to Kieran's sample.

 

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23 Comments »

  1. tpr said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 2:09 pm

    status of interrupters and interruptees

    I expect this is hugely important to control for. In a tech company and indeed most other societal contexts, men still tend to occupy more senior positions, so if the ability to interrupt is a function of status, we should expect to find men interrupt more often than women and that both sexes interrupt women more often than men.

  2. John Shutt said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 2:20 pm

    This seems to beg for lots of studies of other kinds of situations, to avoid leaping to conclusions that, well, may be right but desperately need to be treated skeptically if they're to stand up to criticism. How about generalizing the situation to a mix of two groups, where one of those groups may have lower social status (noting the suggestion that one is more likely to interrupt someone one treats as familiar). Which parts of the observed data on men and women can be predicted by a straightforward difference in social status, and which appear to be peculiar to the particular groups studied? I'm wondering what sort of study might be done of a mix of adults and children.

  3. Mateo said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 2:23 pm

    [S]o if the ability to interrupt is a function of status, we should expect to find men interrupt more often than women and that both sexes interrupt women more often than men.

    Though perhaps greater status is conferred via being male in the first place, thus allowing men to more easily attain senior positions?

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 2:37 pm

    Note that the alternative headline "Women interrupted more often than men are" is also true on this dataset (and more robustly so), and although at first glance it feels like that ought to just be the other side of the same coin, it's not *necessarily* so.

    It would be interesting in any study like this to track the subsequent behavior of interruptees in response to the interruption (and how it might vary by age/sex/whatever): do they, for example a) themselves interrupt right back fairly promptly; b) wait for a subsequent natural break in the conversation but then jump back in and try to politely reorient the flow to complete the interrupted thought ("going back for a moment to what I was saying earlier . . ."); or c) never really resume whatever they appeared to be in the middle of saying?

  5. Rebecca said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 2:56 pm

    I think it's worth observing that interruption does require a certain amount of consent from the interruptee– if they just keep on talking then someone has to back down or you've just got a bunch of people talking over each other.

    In my experience, men are much less inclined to accept interruptions from women then the other way around. That is, when I go to interrupt a man, I often find that he ignores my introjection and keeps on talking, but when another man interrupts him, he stops speaking to listen. Over time, this results in just not trying to interrupt those people (and quietly resenting it instead.)

  6. Kieran Snyder said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 3:07 pm

    Thanks everyone! I am working through a few followups right now:

    - How seniority/level is or is not a factor – I think it is.
    - Whether a small % of people in any given room account for a large % of interruptions
    - What happens in single-sex environments (or coed environments with significant gender skew)
    - Whether there are different kinds of interruptions (e.g. total hijacks vs. clarifying questions) and whether that plays a role in the patterns
    - What happens in non-tech settings and with kids in particular (for instance, I am working on a similar study that includes my 4yo daughter and her friends)

    I have the data for some of this today but not all of it. I’ll probably post some follow-ups in the next couple of weeks with the analysis that is possible from the data I have today.

  7. sally said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 3:36 pm

    I would further wonder what the communicative intent and outcomes of the interruptions were. Were the interrupters disagreeing with what was being said? Building upon what was being said in a constructive way? Supporting what was being said ? Did the interrupter continue to hold the floor after the interruption or return the floor to the interruptee?

  8. Biljana said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 4:12 pm

    Further to Rebecca's comment, I recall work by Deborah Tannen where she argued that interruptions are an interpretive category, as opposed to cross-talk/overlapped speech, which are observable phenomenon: someone needs to feel that they were interrupted in order for there to have been an interruption, and the interactional patterns of overlapping speech and ceding the floor are in fact ones that differ by culture, region, and yes, gender.

    Questions about the Kieran's data and observations:
    –do the women who overlap with one another interpret these overlaps a part of a positive relationship with one another? E.g. being helpful, and showing solidarity in a male-dominated setting? ("We women speak with one voice")

    –what about observation of contexts where the speakers do not know each other very well, and have years of strategies (or resentment) that in part define their interaction patterns?

    –if women "back down" from an overlap, and consider themselves to have been interrupted, is it fair to interpret this as all people concerned (the men and women who interrupt, and the women who have been interrupted) de-valuing women's speech?

  9. Rubrick said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 4:39 pm

    Something I would love to see explored is how much of women's "interruptability" is a function of volume and/or pitch. I myself am an interrupter far more often than I'd like, and I do catch myself talking over female speakers more often than male — and, even more pronouncedly, not yielding to female speakers who are trying to say something as readily as I do to male speakers. My (highly-suspect) intuition about this is that, particularly in the latter, case, this is because the woman's voice simply isn't "cutting through" the conversation forcefully enough. Loud people definitely make better interrupters, and are themselves harder to interrupt.

    I'd be quite curious what a study of conversation in a hand-picked group consisting of loud women and soft-spoken men would reveal.

  10. Mark Liberman said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 4:39 pm

    In the cited 2007 study, we were surprised to find that Japanese conversations had the highest level of (non-backchannel) interruptions — more than Arabic, English, German, Mandarin, and Spanish conversations. This seemed to contradict the stereotype of Japanese as especially polite. On looking into the matter further, we observed that there are two rather different sorts of turn-taking overlaps: a competitive overlap, where the overlapper aims to supplant the speaker, and a cooperative or constructive overlap, where the overlapper "talks along with the speaker … to show enthusiastic listenership and participation".

    All of the nationalities/languages showed a mixture of competitive and cooperative overlaps (and of course some ambiguous ones). In looking at the gender patternings of overlapping speech, this aspect needs to be considered as well.

  11. Daniel Barkalow said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 5:11 pm

    It would be interesting (although harder to collect the data for) to consider non-interruption speaking turn changes. At a minimum, it would be useful to look at the amount of time spent speaking by different people. For example, if someone is presenting something, they are often interrupted and rarely interrupt anyone, on account of being passed the speaking turn by default and never passing the speaking turn to the audience; in that situation, it would be more representative to consider how often each person is interrupted over the time that person is speaking, as opposed to over the whole meeting.

    I expect you'd get the same results, but it would be good to exclude various alternative interpretations of this data (e.g., "men are much worse at getting the speaking turn without interrupting").

  12. Paul Garrett said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 5:32 pm

    As an interested amateur regarding such issues: in a male-dominated field, academic mathematics, I also observe that status can be _acquired_ by adroit interruption. In particular, apart from the recreational aspects, I'd anticipate that lower-status individuals would find reason to pursue opportunities to interrupt "vulnerable" opponents, to score status. In that context, one could speculate that women in male-dominated fields might perceive pressure/motivation to "over-achieve" in some of these dubious activities, to "prove themselves", thus conceivably accounting for the apparent occurrences of women interrupting each other anomalously often in a male-dominated situation. Picking on outsiders, even by outsiders, or perhaps _especially_ by outsiders, is not an unknown riff.

  13. Will said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 6:07 pm

    The Economist *just* blogged about the same topic: http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2014/07/conversation-and-sexes

  14. tpr said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 6:25 pm

    It will presumably depend on the formal roles of the participants in the discussion too, which isn't really about status. It's essentially part of the job description for someone chairing a meeting that they will sometimes have to interrupt to keep the discussion on track. Other asymmetrical roles like what you'd find between interview and interviewee might also lead to differences, and I doubt that the background rate of males versus females in each of these roles will be the same in a random sample.

  15. Jacob said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 6:48 pm

    "This is interesting because it suggests that there are only so many interruptions that a conversation will tolerate before it’s not a conversation anymore."

    Kevin Nealon managed to do this for two and a half minutes on end:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NCFOPF8T4WM

  16. SamC said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 9:29 am

    Status definitely needs to be taken into account. I worked in marketing for a tech firm, & nobody would interrupt the person in the room with the most seniority. My boss's boss was… very verbose, & he would go on forever because nobody would ever cut him off. But among colleagues where we all had about the same seniority level, there was much more back & forth & interruptions.
    I also think the culture of this specific company could be at play – were a majority of the meetings in one department? It could be that the higher-ups in that department encourage or foster different communication styles than higher-ups in a different organization or part of the organization. A boss who doesn't interrupt his or her reports probably leads to those reports cutting down on their interruptions when they're around the boss.

  17. George Amis said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 12:43 pm

    A cross-cultural observation: some years ago, a colleague of mine, an anthropologist, played me a tape recording of a conversation he had had in Arabic with some of the Bedouin he was studying. They never interrupted each other, or him. He interrupted them quite frequently. He had evidently never noticed that he was doing so.

  18. chris said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 5:43 pm

    I worked in marketing for a tech firm, & nobody would interrupt the person in the room with the most seniority.

    Some people perceive being interrupted as an aggressive, even hostile act (whether or not it is intended that way by the interrupter); a person with more seniority has the ability to retaliate if they choose to. If the potential interrupter doesn't know whether or not they would, they might be deterred.

    Speakers might likewise be deterred from interrupting if they've been socialized to avoid committing potentially aggressive acts in public… many readers will not have to look far to find a culture where one gender is much more likely than the other to have been trained in exactly this way.

    If closer friends/family have a higher tendency to interrupt one another, this could be explained by their being able to trust that it is safe to do so without starting a serious conflict. (E.g. would small children be more willing to interrupt their parents than less-familiar adults? Would parents react more strictly to a child interrupting a stranger than interrupting a family member?)

  19. ohwilleke said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 7:35 pm

    I suspect that gender is absolutely a major factor.

    For example, I am a lawyer who worked for about three years in a small law firm where I was the only male working there (there two female attorneys and one female staffer and sometimes an additional part-time female bookkeeper). That firm dissolved when were we acquired by a larger law firm for a while. I have currently worked about three years small law firm with two other male lawyers, a male law clerk, one part-time male staffer and one female office manager.

    In the female dominated firm, I was routinely (at least every two or three days, on average) chided for interrupting. In the male dominated firm, I can't think of a single time in three years that I've ever been told that I interrupted inappropriately. Yet, I am subjectively, fairly certain that the frequency with which I interrupt other people who are speaking and the circumstances in which I do so, are almost identical.

    I've noticed similar pattern in male dominated v. female dominated political meetings.

    My conclusion is that there are different sex specific norms about when interruptions are appropriate and I wouldn't be at all surprised if the gender of the person speaking was a part of that. The observation that I would add is that high authority women see being interrupted as a threat to their authority, while high authority men either ignore attempts to interrupt them or see interruptions as ordinary parts of a vigorous discussion that do not threaten their self-perception of authority. They simply feel free to dish out what they receive.

  20. ohwilleke said,

    July 15, 2014 @ 7:45 pm

    In musing just a bit more on the subject, I would suspect that socio-economic class and regional culture play an important factor.

    My intuition would be that high SES individuals and very low SES individuals interrupt a lot, while low middle class/working class individuals have socialized not to do so.

    Similarly, I would expect that Northerners are relatively tolerant of interruptions, while culture of honor Southerners and Appalachians are not (something that might extent to the Bedouin example as well).

  21. ERose said,

    July 18, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

    @ohwilleke – It's interesting to note that my anecdotal "evidence" is that I am chided for interrupting my male colleagues more than my male colleagues are chided for interrupting my male colleagues. That suggests that men (or at least the men in my sample set) view interruptions by other men with more equanimity than interruptions by women.

    I would be interested to see data studying status implications since I imagine you could use a conclusion about the ways interruptions do or do not follow status to monitor the ways people are assigning one another status within a social interaction. Especially interesting to see whether the status assignments within a meeting or other specific conversation match those of the company – ie: does one employee's interruptions of someone who has a comparable status within the company indicate he views that person as lower status regardless of position?

  22. Diana J. Arya said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 10:57 am

    A very interesting exchange here! I want to bring back some of Biljana's thoughts:

    "I recall work by Deborah Tannen where she argued that interruptions are an interpretive category, as opposed to cross-talk/overlapped speech, which are observable phenomenon: someone needs to feel that they were interrupted in order for there to have been an interruption, . . . "

    Do we have a clear definition of interruption? The all-knowing, powerful Google defines interruption as stopping the continuous progress of an activity or process. But the deeply dove-tailed conversation of two girlfriends who grew up in Dublin would not be interrupting, according to this definition, because progress is continuing.

    Another gem from Biljana's comment:
    "–if women "back down" from an overlap, and consider themselves to have been interrupted, is it fair to interpret this as all people concerned (the men and women who interrupt, and the women who have been interrupted) de-valuing women's speech?"

    Associating interruptions as a form of de-valuing speech necessitates that interruptions are acts of devaluing . . . I agree with Biljana that interpretations are problematic.

    I suggest a different research question, with a different construct. Instead of focusing on interruption, perhaps we could clear up our focus on "redirection," thus allowing the discourse scientist the ability to study the macro propositions in speech and determine when an interlocutor enters a conversation and changes (or shifts) the focus . . . then look to see who is able to successfully redirect a conversation. Then the question would be:
    What is the relationship between gender and the ability to redirect a conversation?

    A mere sliver of the original question/hypothesis, but a solid beginning. The dovetail acts of Irish girlfriends would be another fun investigation, along with the explorations of barroom chats over football.

    Yes, I am looking for an excuse to visit Ireland. :-)

  23. DBSea said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 4:49 pm

    Touching on Ohwilleke's point, it would be interesting to examine American regional influence as well. Seattle has a reputation for a uniquely "cold" type of communication style often called the Seattle Freeze. When you add a bunch of East coast transplants into the workplace mix at Amazon, you can end up with a situation ripe for a clash of communication styles. One person's tolerance for a high-overlap speaking style may be perceived very differently by a Seattle native.

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