More on post-interrupting

I blogged recently-ish about the thing where people butt in at the exact moment a speaker has finished speaking. They’re not butting in with a reaction to what’s just been said (positive or negative) – they’re saying something completely irrelevant and thereby depriving the original speaker of any reaction from others who might have been listening.

I’ve been thinking about it some more, about the contexts where it’s happened to me or I’ve seen it happen to others. And I’ve come to the conclusion that there are several motivations behind it.

There’s the mistake eraser. They think you’ve just said something inappropriate, or something that might lead to an inappropriate response, but tackling the issue head-on  would make things even more awkward. So they’re going to smoothly come in with a complete change of subject before anyone can react to the original thing. (Sometimes this is an absolute godsend.)

There’s the status reinforcer. They have higher status in the group than you, and they’ve internalised the idea that conversation is a competition for attention, so they want to stop people reacting to what you say. They especially don’t want anyone laughing at your jokes, because you “shouldn’t” be funny. (The status reinforcer probably does a lot of regular interrupting as well, especially when there’s some plausible deniability.)

Obviously, there’s no clear boundary between the mistake eraser and the status reinforcer, because sometimes your “mistake” is to say something inappropriate to your status.

But I think the most common type is the distracted clunker. This person probably isn’t really following the conversation in the first place. They’re distracted, but unsuccessfully trying to hide it. They’re actually trying not to interrupt, because they realise that might seem rude, so they’re  listening out for what sounds like a pause or the end of a sentence before jumping in with whatever’s on their mind. A distracted clunker might be the man on a date who’s so focused on impressing the woman he’s with and getting the date “right” that he forgets to listen to a word she’s saying. Or the over-achieving host who’s obsessing over the food and getting the party “right”.

This person probably isn’t socially inept all the time; but social skills, like most skills, depend on context, and in this context the person is struggling because they’re tense and focused on other things.

Of course, it’s still hurtful and annoying, because of the realisation that you’re not connecting with this person at all. You thought the point of seeing them was to have fun, connect, get to know each other better, but then you realise they’re playing their own secret game with different rules.

But a word in defence of these people: they’re more likely to be trying too hard than not trying hard enough. Yeah, they probably don’t understand that social initiative is work, which is why they don’t seem to be bothering on that front. But they’re nervous and out of their depth, which is why they’re focusing on the stuff they think they can control.

I can’t make her attracted to me, but I can turn up on time and wear my good shirt and come up with a great idea for a place to go next. Hey, she’s talking. She’s smiling as well, so does that mean I’m doing OK? When she finishes I must buy another round.

I can’t make my guests have fun, but I can put a good playlist together and make sure everybody’s wine is topped up. I can’t follow the conversation because I’m too focused on watching my husband putting out the cheeseboard and waiting for him to fuck it up, but interrupting is rude, so I’ll wait for what seems like a gap before I say anything… For God’s sake, he’s putting out the wrong knives. Darling! Not those knives for the cheese. Oh, was that the doorbell again?

I’ve been on both sides of this behaviour. Yes, I’ve been on dates where I’m wondering why the other person asked me out in the first place if they have no interest in me. I’ve been the guest wondering why they don’t just replace me with a giant cuddly toy. But I’ve also been the over-anxious host, date, friend who’s more focused on getting it “right” than enjoying the time with the other person. I’ve been the one jumping in with something irrelevant because I’m trying too hard.

So yeah. We all do it. But if you like someone enough, maybe this behaviour won’t put you off, and you’ll decide you still want to see them again. And maybe next time, or the time after that, everybody will relax enough that real connections and real conversations can happen.

Explore posts in the same categories: conversational tactics

2 Comments on “More on post-interrupting”

  1. Julieanne Says:

    Having just read your original post on this, I think these contexts make sense. I know sometimes I’m so worried about getting things right, especially when I have friends over for dinner, that I probably do this.

    I do think some people are into point scoring and just want the focus on them. Sometimes it might just be because of their personal issues at the time and they are a bit jumpy. But if they do it all the time, then maybe they aren’t such a great friend/date etc.

    • gryphon Says:

      I’d say most people (including you and me) do it occasionally in specific contexts (like the ones described above) and a few people do it a lot.

      I think if someone does it every time you see them, either they’re genuinely bad at picking up social cues, they don’t respect you or they’re just never going to relax properly around you. Whatever the reason, sadly you’re probably not going to build a strong connection with them.

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