Thursday, April 23, 2009

Just Let Me Know If I'm Interrupting

When someone puts me on call-waiting while they take another call, I hang up. Not long ago, I did the equivalent of this in person when interrupted in face-to-face conversations at a conference: I walked away.

Of course there are situations in which a conversation is interrupted, perhaps only briefly, and the interruption is completely inoffensive. And then there are the other cases.

In a crowded situation such as a conference or some other kind of meeting, it can be difficult to deal with conversational convergences involving various people who all have things to say or ask at the same time. But there are polite ways to deal with this and there are impolite ways to deal with this.

To this day I remain impressed with the social skills of a Famous Professor with whom I was conversing at a conference more than 2 years ago. As so often happens, another person walked up to us and started a conversation with my companion, as if I didn't exist and as if a conversation were not already in progress. The person with whom I was conversing said "I am talking with FSP right now" and dismissed the hapless social moron so that we could continue our discussion. That is a rare event.

At a meeting this spring, I experienced more typical examples of this type of interaction; in fact, more than once at the same meeting. In one case, Big Professor X walked over to me during a break in a session and said "Oh good, you're here. I've been wanting to ask you something about this research you've been doing on Z." He asked me a question and I started to answer but didn't get more than half a sentence into my answer when a man I didn't know walked over and started talking to Big Professor X. Did X inform the interrupter that he was already in the midst of a conversation? Did he say "Do you know FSP? We were just talking about Z." as a gentle way of bringing the new person into a conversation that was in progress?

No, he did not. He turned to the other guy, listened to his question, and then started to answer. That's when I walked away. He put me on hold to take another call, and I found more important things to do somewhere else. I wasn't annoyed or upset; I just saw no reason to stand there and wait for my turn to speak.

Perhaps he thinks I was rude to walk away before answering his question. Or perhaps he figured it out. Perhaps I will send Big Professor X a copy of FSP's Guide to Academic Etiquette: Special Conference Edition. He did not mean to be rude; he just didn't know what to do. He didn't think. Or maybe he has a short attention span. Or something.

And interrupters should try to learn to Start Seeing Other People when starting a conversation, or at least learn how to figure out when is a good time to jump in. There are some people who can't read social cues for reasons beyond their control, but the fact that being talked over and interrupted is a much more common problem for my women colleagues and me than it is for my male colleagues suggests that there are some issues of perception (or lack of perception, depending on your point of view) that could be improved with a bit of awareness (and a handy etiquette guide).

30 comments:

The Mathematician said...

I think the rule for conferences should be similar to the to the rule for phones. Personally, if I have to put someone on hold, I try to avoid putting them on hold for more than a minute. In the worst case scenario, I never put them on hold for more than 2 minutes. Addressing the immediate issue a questioner presents (especially if such a conversation can be dealt with quickly) is not necessarily rude--given appropriate deference and some reference to the impingement, but starting a complete new conversation is an atrocious breach of conduct.

Anonymous said...

I have the opposite problem. Oftentimes, I can't get a word in at all because the person talking to the person I want to talk to is a chatterbox. So, when I wait my turn, there is so much build up from my waiting around that it's kind of anticlimactic when it's finally my turn.

Greg said...

FSP, you have hit upon another of my pet peeves. I am not a hateful person, but I HATE telephone interruptions. When I am conversing with someone in my office or anywhere else, I never answer the telephone unless I know it is an emergency. That is what voice mail is for. Even when I am helping undergraduate students from my large service class. I don't care who is calling, my attention is given to them. Let's not even talk about cell phones! I carry one to make calls but I rarely answer it. My ringer is usually off. I would never put a caller on hold either for the same reason. They shouldn't have to wait. The interrupter can call back or leave a message. The one on one conference issue is a little more delicate to deal with. I never break a conversation with someone. When I want to break into a conversation I allow those conversing to see that I am interested in joining without verbally interrupting and wait patiently for them to give me the opportunity.

Niket said...

Would it be OK if the third guy were to take your permission to get a short word with Prof. X? Its happened to me at times when I have waited for 10 minutes for the current conversation to finish, when my question needed no more than a two/three-word answer. (This is an honest question.)

amy said...

I'm very guilty of doing this. Whoever is talking at the moment completely pulls my attention, especially if they're assertive in their speaking style, and I'm completely incapable of focusing on more than one thing at a time. So if someone interrupts me while I'm talking to someone else, I shift my focus to the interrupter, and I don't have the wherewithal to stand back, see that I'm doing something wrong, and figure out a way to politely fix the situation. It happens in class, too, and I feel very bad about it. One student will be talking, and some other very bold student will break in, and my attention shifts to the interrupting student. I'll go back to the interrupted student after the interrupting one stops talking, but it still isn't right to let them be interrupted that way.

Now that I think about it, maybe the problem is this: I find it nearly impossible to interrupt someone who is speaking. My parents drilled this into me as a kid. I've even stayed at parties way past the time when I wanted to go home, because the hosts were engaged in conversation and I couldn't bring myself to interrupt them and say good-bye. So if I'm talking to someone, and someone else starts talking, I can't bring myself to interrupt them and say, "I'm sorry, I was talking to this other person." It feels too rude to me. But I realize that it's far more rude to ignore the person who was speaking initially. I gotta fix this.

Curt F. said...

What do you do when people ask her, "I'm getting another call, can you hold on for a few seconds?"

Being put on hold can be irritating, but anyone who tries it on me asks for my permission and usually waits the 0.5 seconds it takes for me to sheepishly say "OK".

Does what you do depend on whether you or your interlocutor initiated the call? I get way more annoyed if someone called me and then puts me on hold.

Or are your interlocutors so rude that they just put you on hold with no warnings or permission-seeking?

Mrs. CH said...

FSP - this is very aggravating, and I applaud you for walking away from him!

Amy - I also find it hard to interrupt a person that is speaking...even if they interrupted me in a conversation. I've become much more aware of this in recent years though, especially after working with kids (they tend to do this a lot!). Sometimes I try to do something (saying "Sorry, I was speaking to X") and sometimes I don't (but give a look toward the first person so they know I'm aware of what's happening).

chelonian said...

That happened to me once in grad school, after a seminar; to his credit, the person I had been talking with (one of the speakers) did try repeatedly to point out that he was talking with me, but the interrupter just refused to acknowledge my existence. I recounted this to my PI later and he told me he knew the guy, that he was a misogynistic jerk who had a problem with women in general, especially young ones. Knowing that helped me get over it in the sense that I was reassured it wasn't my fault (I tend to have a hard time navigating social situations) but the memory of the feeling of humiliation and frustration still stings considerably.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what your sample is or whether it is statistically significant or not. I am a male junior scientist and what you describe has happened to me many many times. From my own experience, I would rather think that this problem is due to structural/hierarchical problems/difficiencies in the social culture of science (and of course of other areas) and not a problem that is primarily faced by women. Now, I do of course agree that there are too few women in 'high-ranking' positions. But you know what -- I once talked at a conference to big Mrs. Professor Y and she did put me on hold while some other person I did not know started a conversation with her. So that's an anecdote with probably little significance -- but isn't that also true for what you are saying? Isn't this more of a problem with hierarchies than anything else?

JSH said...

My phone rule is: "Can I just go tell this other caller that I'll call them back?" and return to first call ASAP. I do let the second call go to voicemail at times; but sometimes it's best to quickly arrange a mutually convenient callback time, or there's a very short information exchange that needs to happen. In any case, first call gets priority, and I make that clear.

Conferences are more difficult, especially when you're in the position of being Lowly Grad Student, this is your one chance to talk to Famous Big Shot, and s/he's *always* talking to or surrounded by people. How do you suggest one handle that, FSP?

Anonymous said...

I remember as a grad student, noticing at conferences that there was a conversation hierarchy. If two people were talking who were unequal in status (say a grad student and a postdoc), and a third person came up who was higher in status, then the two higher status people would begin talking. This could repeat until you had two famous professors talking, perhaps.

So now that I'm a prof, I always try to break against this conversation hierarchy, and prevent interruptions even from famous professors no matter who I'm talking with.

MGS said...

Once when I was talking with my advisor about my project I was interrupted mid-sentence by my advisor calling to someone he knew walking by in the hallway. I needed to have that meeting with him, so I sat there feeling invisible while he spoke with this other person. I certainly didn't feel comfortable meeting with him after that.

At an interview (well, it was more like a pre-interview, for grad school) I was sitting in a professor's office chatting with him about the program and someone came in, didn't see me, and chatted with him for a bit. I was stuck in a corner behind the door. What could I do?

I know from now on to try to sit in places where people can see me better, but in neither of those situations could I continue the meetings later.

John V said...

Part of the reason we're scientists is that we're more interested in following the most central thread, rather than trying to figure out the most tactful way to conduct polite conversation.

FSP's rude scientist jumping into a new conversation AND FSP's going off without waiting for the rude guy to recover from his inattention to me indicate a typical interactions of scientists. In fact, both communicated their opinion of further discussion rather bluntly, and apparently without prejudice, if I take FSP's "I wasn't annoyed or upset" at face value.

To me, some interruptions warrant ending a conversation immediately, some gracefully ending it, some should be ignored. With caller ID, texting, etc., it is possible to give 5 seconds to each potential interruption to judge, and anyone taking offense at my glancing at my phone when it buzzes, even when I am teaching, is too self-absorbed to pander. [I'm supposed to respond when serious earthquakes strike.]

yolio said...

Uph. I was hoping this problem would get better when I became more established and better known. But I guess not.

yolio said...

When I am put in the position of the one whose attention is being tugged at, I always respond by introducing the people to each other. As in, "Nice to see you person2, this is person1, she does xyz and was just telling me about abc. So person1, how does b work anyway?"

This seems like such basic social skills, but honestly I have seen it done only rarely in science.

Ms.PhD said...

LOL! I hate this too! And then I get told I need to improve my networking skills. F--k! Why should I even want to TRY to speak to these people at all?

Although I have the impression that sometimes someone is such a bigshot that several people just want so badly to be near them, and then they end up interrupting... I also get the impression that sometimes their colleagues think they are "rescuing" the person from having to talk to anyone, or they're interrupting just to say something quick like, "I'm taking off, let's talk later" and then they inadvertently end up diverting the main conversation away.

This is a huge problem, though. I often find myself attempting to introduce myself and then having to stand politely and awkwardly by while the person talks to someone else who interrupted. I don't see this happening to the taller, male postdocs.

Kevin said...

There are different conversational styles that are incompatible, and someone following one style will often seem rude to someone following another---the problem is often symmetric.

Some people believe that a conversation is a monologue, in which they get to finish their entire life story before anyone else can say anything. Others see it as a dialog, in which two people exchange sentences, but no one else is allowed to speak. Others see it as a group discussion, with one person having the floor at a time, and some sort of protocol for deciding who speaks next. Others see it as contest, with the winner being the one with the largest words out minus words in.
Still others see it as a mixer, with the goal being to exchange a word or two with as many acquaintances as possible. Still others are counting coup, trying to get as many minutes as possible with famous people.

These different styles often collide at conferences, with a monologer trying to tie down a mixer, when a dialoguer interrupts.
No one is happy with the outcome, and everyone thinks the others have been rude.

Personally, my style is to avoid interrupting people, but also to avoid having exclusive conversations---if someone comes by with something, I take the interrupt then return to the conversation. The relative status of the initial person and the interrupter is irrelevant to me---I can be having a conversation with a dean and take an interrupt to sign a form for an undergrad as easily as the other way around.

I do think that FSP handled the interrupt at the conference reasonably. If someone asks you a question, but doesn't stick around to hear the answer, then you're not obligated to wait for them. If they care, they'll look for you again, probably with an apology about getting interrupted.

Jenn said...

Yuck. I get grumpy when this happens around my department--usually I'm talking to a visiting speaker and a faculty member will come over and take over the conversation, leaving me without so much as a glance from the visitor. I always figured it was because I'm a grad student (though it still annoyed me!).

zoelouise said...

Thirty-one conversations were taped in public places … data were composed of eleven mixed-gender conversations, ten male-only and ten female-only conversations. …Overlaps were defined as an act of anticipating the end of a sentence spoken by an interlocutor while articulating it with a topic-related response. An interruption, on the other hand, was considered as a violation of turn-taking rules whereby topical disarticulation is flagrant. Results showed that all the overlaps were caused by male speakers and that 96% of the interruptions resulted from men interrupting women. Interestingly, men rarely interrupted each other, primarily using interruptions when speaking to women. …As a result of male interruptions, the same study indicated that women tended to be more silent than men. Silence periods in single-gender pairs averaged 1.35 seconds, while they averaged 3.21 seconds in mixed-gender groups. …Females have been observed to fall silent after male interruptions... while males primarily used silence preceding minimal responses such as yeah, indicating… a lack of interest in the interlocutor's topic.... West (1984) has shown that male interruptions apply even when females have a higher social status.

(Edited to make it not so long!)

Link: http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=286

Narya said...

I knew a professor in grad school who, when speaking to anyone, was always on the lookout for someone who was More Important. After he walked away in the middle of a conversation with me oh, three times, maybe?, I stopped even making pleasant conversation with him. He was an idiot as well as an ass.

undine said...

"When someone puts me on call-waiting while they take another call, I hang up." Absolutely. I don't even have call waiting enabled so I won't be guilty of this and always hang up if someone says this.

The conference version is more complicated, but I admire what you did in walking away.

Anonymous said...

I hate perpetuating the stereotype of the socially awkward scientist and/or grad student, but, I'm kind of awkward.

There have been situations where I really want to speak to someone (often at a conference) and they're having a conversation. I usually make eye contact and wave or something and then hang out until he/she is done talking. Sometimes this takes a while and I feel weird just standing there. Is it uncouth to wait around?

amy said...

Fascinating discussion here. Kevin's categorization of conversation aims is perfect. And thanks for the data, Zoelouise! I'm so glad to know it's not just my imagination. I have noticed some people are really good at overlaps, and they can keep a discussion going for a long time with no pauses. I always wait for a pause before I speak, so I have a really hard time in groups. Each person neatly overlaps the one before, and I sit there waiting for a pause so I can say something. It's very frustrating. But what really ticks me off is when the more vocal people turn to me later and say, "My, you're very quiet."

DrDoyenne said...

I have also turned and walked away when my discussion has been interrupted--usually I'll say something like, "I see you two have more important things to discuss--I'll catch you later." That sometimes jars the interrupter (unless a total jerk) into apologizing.

People who are constantly looking around while I'm talking to them (another pet peeve) also get a similar comment: "I see you've got something else on your mind. I'll talk to you later."

Pet peeve #3: People (often male) who ask you a question and then when you start to answer, interrupt with what they think your answer is going to be--putting words in your mouth.

This happened to me just last week when I was introduced to my potential future boss. He was only doing this to me (not the males in attendance). By the time I finished with him, he was apologizing profusely and later continued apologizing to my male assistant who had been present.

Note to students and untenured faculty: Dangerous, don't try this at home.

Anonymous said...

In my experience this being put on hold thing happens not just to women more frequently than men, but to short people more frequently than tall people. I'm a short woman....so I compensate by simply being LOUDER when I talk so I'm harder to ignore. Sometimes it works.

my other pet peeve is people who ask you a question but don't let you finish your answer before they are interrupting you again either to change topic or to object to what you said even before hearing everything.

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

I often have (male) students interrupt me when I am speaking with female students. I will quite pointedly note that I am in the middle of a conversation, and then drag it out as much as possible, ignoring the student.

Of course, some of my colleagues interrupt me CONSTANTLY, as they always think they know what I am going to say, and will interrupt any conversation that I am having (such as a session with my grad students) to ask me things that are important for them...

John V said...

Reading these comments, I'm starting to think some women may dislike interruptions more for the perceived social disrespect than because interruptions can hijack a conversation.

I often interrupt people I'm conversing with (or even seminar speakers) because I (and presumably others as well) don't see a link in the chain of logic, or wonder how general is a statement. In conversation, interruptions are often necessary to forestall re-hearing the same exposition repeatedly. Even interrupting to state that a topic is of little interest and changing it is necessary sometimes.

I'm glad when people do the same to me. It is dismaying when I occasionally recall that I just said the same thing two or three times, and the listener was too polite to mention it. Or if they just pretended to care about the basketball team, or my daughter's adventures.

So some of the conventions proposed in this thread legislate against fruitful conversation.

Zoelouise's post brings up good points, although one could equally blame bad listening by men or ineffectual interruptions by women.

Anonymous said...

JohnV: Reading these comments, I'm starting to think some women may dislike interruptions more for the perceived social disrespect than because interruptions can hijack a conversation.gee, you think?? ...seriously, I doubt any of the women here would be so offended had the interruptions had been fruitful to their original discussion.

John V said...

I doubt any of the women here would be so offended had the interruptions had been fruitful to their original discussion.I don't think the sole nor even the primary issue in some tactics is communication. These tactics espoused above explicitly truncate or prevent conversations:

1. Always hanging up when switched to call waiting.
2. Never answering the phone unless it is a known emergency.

These tactics are intended to emphatically express that the style of conversation is not acceptable, no matter the fruits it might offer.

Rereading, I guess #2 came from a Greg, and #1 I suspect FSP offered to stir up dialog, so I should admit gender-associating my response was premature if not flat-out unjustified and statistically antediluvian.

Anonymous said...

I'm a female scientist, and I've had this happen to me as well. I've also seen it happen to men. I think it's more an issue of assertiveness than anything else, and maybe women are taught (and prefer) to be more polite whereas men are taught (and prefer) to be more assertive.

Sometimes I have to interrupt people at conferences. Rule #1 of conferences, especially large ones, is that if you run into somebody it's best to take advantage of that moment because you may not run into them again until the next meeting. So what I do is interrupt the conversation (and I admit, this is easier to do when the conversation involves younger scientists or people I already know, it's much tougher with really famous people) and say "I'm sorry for interrupting, but I'm wondering if you'll be around later/wanted to talk about X sometime this week?" This will determine if I should stick around and wait for the conversation to come to me, or if we should work out a meeting by email.

My favorite interruption story, though, is a funny one that happened to me in grad school. I'd finally cornered Famous Scientist X at a conference, in a little nook where there weren't too many other people. He knew I'd been trying to catch him and went out of his way to talk with me. After a minute or two, another (male, European) scientist walked up and interrupted us. Famous Scientist X tries to explain that he's speaking with me about a project we're working on, and the European Scientist looks at me, looks at X, and says to him "But you're with a beautiful woman! Why are you talking about work?" Famous Scientist X does exactly the right thing (he plays dumb) and repeats that he and I were trying to talk about a project we're working on. European Scientist chats for another few rounds and then eventually went away, and Famous Scientist X and I went back to talking about our work. The poor European guy thought he was flattering me, I suppose. This was about 10 years ago and nobody has done it to me since.

One thing that really helps is by being known. People are less likely to see you as the thin, cute, blonde woman if they also think of you as the person who specializes in topic Z and appears to dominate her subfield.