Someone hearing the conversation or reading the transcript might think it was obvious that a sudden interruption had occurred: someone started talking while another was in the middle of a sentence, and cut. But based on a thorough analysis of the whole conversation, I was able to see that the awkwardness resulted from different assumptions about the overlap.
Cooperative overlap is a particularly active form of what I call “participatory listening”. All listeners need to do something to show that they haven’t mentally verified a conversation. If they don’t, the speaker will have a hard time continuing – as you know if you’ve ever spoken to a screen full of still faces or a room filled with blank stares. The signs of listening can range from a nod of the head to an occasional “mhm” or “uhuh” (or a downpour); to a whispered “I would have done the same thing”; repeat what the speaker has just said; to intervene briefly with a similar story, then to give the floor. Even real interruptions, if mutual, can speed up conversation, inspiring speakers to higher conversation heights. Adrenaline makes the mind sharper and the tongue more eloquent.
Anthropologists and linguists have described the overlapping discussions as enthusiastic participation in diverse cultures across the world: Karl Reisman for Antiguans; Alessandro Duranti for the Samoans; Reiko Hayashi for Japanese; and Frederick Erickson for Italian Americans, for example. And people from many other walks of life, including Poles and Russians, Indians and Pakistanis, Armenians and Greeks, tell me that they recognize the practice in their own communities.
Of course, not all members of a regional or cultural group have the same style. And those who grow up in one environment and then move to another can rust. One of the New Yorkers at the dinner I studied told me he had lived in California for so long that he had to struggle to stay in the conversation. But he is still New Yorker: his wife, born and raised in California, often accuses him of having interrupted her.
It’s when conversation styles collide that problems arise. Those who are not used to cooperative overlaps may end up feeling interrupted, silenced, perhaps even attacked, which clouds their minds and binds their tongue. Californians and the Londoner in my study felt that New Yorkers had “dominated” the conversation. In a way, we did it, but not because we wanted to. From our perspective, the others have chosen not to join us. Cooperative overlap is part of a conversational ethic that views noticeable pauses as awkward silence, to be avoided by keeping pauses short – or nonexistent. Those of us who converse in this way often don’t realize that someone who wants to talk can wait for a break to join us.
Once, while I was talking about this study on a radio show, a listener called me to say that she identified herself: after she and her husband had a big dinner party, he accused her of monopolizing speech and exclude it. “He’s a big boy,” she said. “He can speak like me or like anyone else.” In the background, her husband’s voice explained why he couldn’t: “You need a crowbar to get into these conversations! His metaphor was perfect: if the break you expect between speaking turns doesn’t come, you really can’t find a way to break in.
Not all overlaps are cooperative. It can really be meant to dominate the conversation, steal the floor, or even undermine the speaker. But understanding that talking together can be cooperative can improve our conversations, as we return to socializing and working in person. If you notice that someone has remained silent, you can count to seven before resuming speaking or inviting them to speak. If you’ve waited in vain for a break, you might force yourself to give it a go. And if you feel interrupted, try to keep talking instead of stopping.