Caroline Moss is an author and host of the podcast “Gee Thanks, Just Bought It,” which helps people find the products they need to make life easier, better and more productive. Now with this column, “Asking for a Friend,” she’s helping people with the advice they need to make life easier, better and more productive. To submit a question, click here.
As of late, it seems certain social graces are being forgotten. I’m talking to a friend and someone starts talking to her like I’m not there. Someone asks me a question and interrupts so often I can’t answer the question. Or the totally annoying: Someone insisting on joining the conversation by talking over everyone and answering questions without being asked.
How do I put my foot down without being rude myself?
Mind My Manners
Hello Mind My Manners,
I can certainly see why this would bother you. No one likes a rude person, but I bet rude people have been around a lot longer than “as of late” (unfortunately). You may just be noticing it penetrating your social circle now!
I am personally guilty of talking too much. I tend to talk over someone right at the end of their story or thought, either to affirm what they’re saying or to add to it. It might sound rude (and I am positive that it is to some people), but I also know it is rooted in culture. I was born and raised in Westchester, New York. Both of my parents were raised in New York. But it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I learned about something called “cooperative overlap” — and yes, I learned about it from a TikTok video. The New York Times actually published a story on cooperative overlap in September and affirmed my suspicions; it’s very common in New Yorkers.
The author writes, “As a linguist who studies the mechanics of conversation, I’ve observed and documented that beginning to talk while another is talking can be a way of showing enthusiastic engagement with what the speaker is saying. Far from silencing them, it can be encouragement to keep going.”
Say you’re telling me a story about something that happened at the beauty counter in Sephora. It’s a great story and I am listening. To show you I am listening, I keep giving you verbal cues.
“So she pulls out the lipstick and it’s—” you say, and I might cut you off.
“Do not tell me it was the same one you specifically said not to use!” I might burst out.
You might feel that my interruption was rude. After all, I just cut you off and talked over you. But from my perspective? I have learned —through the communication style I was taught by observation — that my enthusiastic outburst is the ultimate way to show you that I am paying very close attention to what you’re saying.
On the flip side, if I were telling you the same story, I might put a pause after, “pulled out the lipstick” and hope you would jump in and help me finish the sentence. That would make me feel you were listening to me and paying attention. In lots of situations, I feel uncomfortable when whoever I am conversing with just smiles and nods as I talk. It makes me wonder if they’ve tuned me out.
The point is, you might have been taught that smiling and nodding and keeping your mouth shut is polite. I might have been taught that engaging through talking, or cooperative overlap, is polite. We have been taught that each of those things communicates that we are listening and engaged in what the other person is saying. Yet we both may find each other’s communication styles rude. Neither are right; neither are wrong.
I think my standard advice would fall into the “advocate for yourself” category. Creating boundaries around how people treat you is an important, if not a terribly comfortable part of being a member of society. You could take your friend aside when it’s just the two of you and explain how it makes you feel when she interrupts you or if she automatically refocuses on someone else who starts talking while you’re already engaged in a conversation.
But honestly? That advice is a little too easy. If we were all comfortable advocating for ourselves at every turn, this column wouldn’t exist. We wouldn’t have any problems. We’d just be walking around as perfect communicators, respecting each other and ourselves and all of our boundaries. That's not the case. So I would encourage you to do two things: pick your battles and have some perspective.
After someone left me a message about how I interrupt people too often on my own podcast, I chose to share a few pieces about cooperative overlap. So many people were either telling me that they related to this — that this was how they communicated too — or sharing that it explains the communication style of someone they know personally.
Have I ever RUDELY interrupted someone? Absolutely. Haven’t we all? I am sure that some of the behavior you’re clocking from others is just straight up rude in any context. But there are so many instances where communication and manners comes down to cultural factors of how we were raised, by whom and where. And digging deeper into that can be eye opening both in understanding ourselves and others.
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