Interruption or Interjection?
By Steve Portigal at 9:22 am, Friday October 19 2012

Deborah Tannen writes in the New York Times about interruptions. She’s riffing on this week’s presidential debate but I thought this part was relevant to interviewing:

You might think it’s obvious that an interruption is when a second person starts talking before another has stopped. But how long a pause means “I’m done” rather than “I’m catching my breath”? This, too, varies by region and culture – and the difference can lead to unintended interruptions. In 1978, I tape-recorded a Thanksgiving dinner conversation involving two Christians raised in California, three Jews of Eastern European ancestry from New York and a British woman. At times the Californians felt interrupted when their Jewish friends mistook a pause for breath as a turn-relinquishing one. At other times, exclamations like “Wow!” or “That’s impossible!” which were intended to encourage the conversation, stopped it instead. An interruption takes two – one to start, the other to stop. The New Yorkers in my study assumed that a speaker who wasn’t finished wouldn’t stop just because someone else started. If she does, then she creates the interruption.

In my book I look at interruptions and turn-taking in interviews. If someone is going on and on and we need to redirect them, how to do so elegantly? If we are having trouble not talking over someone, what are the sources of those missed pauses and cues? Tannen’s exploration of interruption is useful fodder for thinking about this.

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2 Responses to “Interruption or Interjection?”

    Interesting. For me, the example Deborah Tannen gives of interrupting uncle for the salt is the most disruptive of all. I feel it signifies that you in fact, were not paying attention, but instead “waiting to talk”… waiting for the opportunity to make your request. I (usually) find if I’m interrupted, it feels more like an interested, lively, excited response to what I’m saying – a welcome part of the conversation. My interpretation is generally that, if someone “interrupts” me it’s a reflection of how excited they are about what I’ve said or the topic in general, not disappointed or upset that I wasn’t able to continue talking.

    Comment by Beth 10.26.12 @ 3:13 pm


    Interesting. For me, the example Deborah Tannen gives of interrupting uncle for the salt is the most disruptive of all. I feel it signifies that you in fact, were not paying attention, but instead “waiting to talk”… waiting for the opportunity to make your request. I (usually) find if I’m interrupted, it feels more like an interested, lively, excited response to what I’m saying – a welcome part of the conversation. My interpretation is generally that, if someone “interrupts” me it’s a reflection of how excited they are about what I’ve said or the topic in general, not disappointed or upset that I wasn’t able to continue talking.

    Comment by Beth 10.26.12 @ 3:13 pm


      Nice example. Perhaps we could combine Deborah Tannen and improv and make some game where you might desperately need salt and also desperately want to focus on the uncle’s story (if you think that both are even possible at the same time) and your interruption has to solve the problem of getting you the salt and conveying your request as an addition, not a distraction, to the story.

      “Yes, that’s like the gesture of salt shakers! Let me show you!”

      Okay, this still needs work :)

      Comment by Steve Portigal 10.26.12 @ 4:07 pm


      Nice example. Perhaps we could combine Deborah Tannen and improv and make some game where you might desperately need salt and also desperately want to focus on the uncle’s story (if you think that both are even possible at the same time) and your interruption has to solve the problem of getting you the salt and conveying your request as an addition, not a distraction, to the story.

      “Yes, that’s like the gesture of salt shakers! Let me show you!”

      Okay, this still needs work :)

      Comment by Steve Portigal 10.26.12 @ 4:07 pm