Is it ever OK to interrupt?

Salon explores a tricky social question: when is an interruption actually warranted?

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 27, 2019 5:30PM (EDT)


Why do we, as a culture, assume that interrupting is always wrong?

I say this as a man who has been known to interrupt on more than a few occasions. Part of it has to do with being on the autism spectrum; because it is difficult for me to pick up on non-verbal communication, I struggle with ascertaining when a person with whom I am conversing has indicated that they've finished their thought. At the same time, I also believe that there are occasions when interrupting is a valid thing to do. In fact, when making my pro-interruption argument to other people, I've usually cited four occasions when it's appropriate:

1. When a person is gish galloping, or overwhelming others in a conversation with a number of individually weak arguments so that — unless they are interrupted — it will require too much effort for anyone who disagrees with them to offer a thorough rebuttal;

2. When a person is droning on for minute after minute after minute with what he or she has to say, to the point where they dominate a conversation through sheer volume of verbiage;

3. When a person is being abusive and insulting, and therefore should be cut off so that the targets of their bad behavior can be spared;

4. When the interruption is brief and done for the purposes of requesting clarification about what the talker is saying (these interruptions usually only take a few seconds and can prevent larger misunderstandings).

"The two components of politeness are to treat people in the way they’d like to be treated (what I call sympathetic politeness), and to treat them with respect (that is, not to dominate them), what I call deferential politeness," Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature," told Salon by email. "If someone is in the midst of speaking, it means that that’s what they want to do, so interrupting them is impinging on their wishes. It’s also an act of dominance, shutting them up by force of voice. That’s why so many women are enraged by the common male practice of interrupting them, especially in professional settings."

In terms of situations when interrupting would be appropriate, Pinker argued that it could actually be the considerate thing to do "when someone is saying something that they themselves would agree is irrelevant given some knowledge the interrupter has. In that case it could even be considerate — say, giving a fulsome apology for an infraction the interrupter has already forgiven, or sparing him from the bother to explain a difficult point that the interrupter already understands. It can also be called for if the speaker is himself being inconsiderate by monopolizing the floor."

Salon also spoke with Ellen Langer, a social psychologist at Harvard University, about the role that neurological atypicality can play in interrupting.

"Surely if you know, before you're in a conversation, that the other person — be they on the autism scale or from a culture where interrupting is the norm or just as an individual person gets so excited that they often interrupt — then I think that interrupting is not going to pose a problem," Langer told Salon. "The problem comes when the person who is interrupting is seen as not caring about and not respecting the person that's being interrupted. So if I have any reason to think that you're interrupting is not about me but about you in some way, then I'm not going to take offense."

Pinker echoed her thoughts, acknowledging the importance of being aware of autistic ways of interacting socially while adding that people who struggle with interrupting should still strive to learn from their mistakes.

"It’s true that people on the Asperger spectrum may interrupt without wanting to dominate, and that it may be beneficial for neurotypicals to be aware of this and thus be less likely to think the worse of them," Pinker explained. "But if people on the spectrum tend to be inconsiderate, rude, and disrespectful, it’s not unreasonable for them to be asked to learn, even if by conscious effort, to overcome this shortcoming, for their sake as well as that of the people they deal with."

Since many people who are disabled won't be able to directly state that fact — and, on many occasions, may not be aware of it — the compassionate thing to do when being interrupted is to try to assess the state of mind of the interrupter. Is the interruption an attempt at asserting dominance, and thus worthy of condemnation? Did the interrupter seem determined to dismiss the views of the person they interrupted? Are there explanations for the interruption that could be innocuous, such as over-enthusiasm or a disability?

And, perhaps the most awkward question of all: Was the interrupter actually right for interrupting?

If nothing else, society needs to move past the idea that interrupting is always wrong. The act of interruption should be viewed as neutral until the proper context is established for why it happened. Barring such an approach, disabled individuals may wrongly suffer while the people who steamroll others in conversation, gish gallop to avoid accountability for their views and otherwise need to be cut off may continue to make life difficult for the rest of us.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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All Salon Asperger's Syndrome Autism Culture Ellen Langer Interrupting Steven Pinker