What a difficult skill is conversation! And the hardest aspect of it is interruption. How and when does one interrupt? I have been participating in conversations for about fifty years and I still have not managed to figure this out yet.
As children we are taught that it is impolite to interrupt, and so it is, mostly. Yet in many conversations, especially when the pace and intensity increases, it is very hard not to interrupt. If someone pauses after a sequence of words that can serve as a completed sentence, and I start to respond to what they have said, I often find that all of a sudden we are talking over the top of one another, because what I thought was a full stop at the end of their sentence was actually only a comma – a pause for breath – in the middle of it. That can be awkward. Then one of us needs to stop talking and let the other continue, but how do we know which one it should be? It can become like that awkward dance in a corridor when the South-going and North-going person who have almost collided keep on moving simultaneously to the East, then the West, then East again, to try to let the other through, only to find that they both continue to be blocked.
The natural way to try to avoid such conversational difficulties is to wait longer before responding, to make sure that it really was a full stop and not a comma, or perhaps a semi-colon, hyphen or ellipsis. But how long should one wait? One second? Two? Three? If I wait long enough to be sure, I usually find that, yes it was a full stop, and now my friend has started a new sentence, and is perhaps a little disappointed that I offered no reply to their last sentence, which perhaps they felt was particularly insightful and worthy of comment. In fact, you can only ever be sure that a spoken sentence is finished once a new sentence has begun. But then, of course, it is too late. Trying to spot the end of a spoken sentence is like trying to spot the ‘bottom’ of a stock market slide.
This becomes even more difficult when the conversation involves more than two people. In a two-way conversation, one’s friend will often wait quite long for a reply if they expect one. But in a multi-way discussion, somebody will almost certainly plunge in if the pause exceeds a couple of seconds. That’s as it should be, most of the time. But if I consistently over-estimate the appropriate length of pause, I may end up having nothing to say all night, and people may wonder why I am so sullen.
The degree of difficulty rises yet again when the conversation involves some element of challenge. Perhaps the two parties are trying to persuade one another to change their view, or are at least challenging or questioning the opinions offered by the other. I might for instance ask whether my friend agrees with the principle the Labor party was trying to apply in the 2008-9 financial crisis – that rapidly increasing government expenditure (‘fiscal expansion’) would prevent a recession arising from the contraction of private credit. If my friend replies by explaining their view that the fiscal expansion was implemented poorly, citing numerous cases, my question has not been answered, because I am not wondering about the effectiveness of the implementation but rather about whether the expansion should have been attempted at all. Three minutes later my friend may be still waxing eloquent about how poorly he thinks the policy was implemented, without having said anything about the in-principle merits of the policy itself. As they launch into yet another compelling example of poor implementation, should I interrupt, to let them know that I have no opinion on, and have not asked about, the quality of the implementation?
Sometimes I do interrupt in such cases. But it’s a risky strategy. Some people don’t mind being interrupted, but some react ferociously. A meeker approach is to try to hold in my mind the question I originally asked and patiently wait for my friend to finish his diversion before reminding him of what I actually asked. In practice this can be difficult, because unless I look away and try to close my mind to what is being said, I usually find that the flow of rhetoric has driven my previous thoughts completely out of my head and I no longer have any idea of what I wanted to know, or what we were even talking about before the conversation shot off on a tangent.
We see this sort of thing all the time in political interviews, when a journalist asks a probing question and the politician answers a completely different one with great length and passion. In those cases the diversion is deliberate, which is not usually the case in discussion amongst friends. But despite the different motivation, the dilemma is the same – do we interrupt and bring the discussion back on track, or do we silently and patiently wait for the (often unintentional) filibuster to end, to avoid being rude.
Even where there is no dispute, difficulties can arise in long answers, if somebody uses a term we do not understand, and that renders most of what they subsequently say meaningless to us because of its reliance on that term. Is it permissible for me to interrupt a five minute discourse on the iniquities of schwerms, in order to ask what a schwerm is?
If only there were a universally recognised time limit we could apply! It would be great if if Mrs Cartland included in her etiquette guide, advice about the length of time into an answer after which it is acceptable to interrupt to indicate that the answer is off-topic, or incomprehensible. 30 seconds? 60 seconds perhaps? Sadly, there is no such guide, so I am left guessing, and mostly getting it wrong.
There are some conventions we could introduce that would ease the difficulty. One is the ‘hand up’. I would like to be able to raise my hand, like in a schoolroom, when something is said that I don’t understand or that sends the reply off topic. Ideally the friend would, like a patient school teacher, pause and say in a kindly tone ‘yes Andrew, what was it that you wanted to know?’. I have not been able to bring myself to do this though. I fear others might laugh at me.
Another Really Useful Convention would be if we agreed that nobody should ever talk for more than say one minute without seeking permission to continue. A standard form of words such as ‘there’s more to come, but first are there any questions? shall I continue?’ could be adopted to make this work. That would provide an opportunity to query unexplained terms or point out that the answer had veered off topic. We would of course need time-keepers, or perhaps clocks with big push-buttons like they use in chess. Such a convention is unlikely to get off the ground at the suggestion of a nonentity such as me though. I am hoping that George Clooney or Ryan Gosling will pick up the idea and promote it.
Some people are professional interrupters. Political journalists, mentioned above, are an obvious case, but by no means the most interesting. They operate in an atmosphere of conflict, so the interruption seems to fit. A more intriguing example is a radio announcer talking to a caller as the hour for the news bulletin approaches. They need to manage the caller’s comments so that ideally they finish exactly 20 seconds before the hour. Too early and the announcer is left with ‘dead air’. Too late and they have to cut them off. What often happens is that they exhort their caller to ‘be quick, because we only have 30 seconds before the news’, upon which the poor caller then panics and either gets stuck on an ‘er’ or ‘um’, or else descends into a flood of breathless verbal diaorrhea.
Even highly cultured and revered broadcasts, conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect and academic impartiality, suffer from this problem. I enjoy listening to ‘In Our Time’ on BBC Radio 4. Melvyn Bragg discusses abstruse topics in history, science, philosophy and culture with three or four experts from prestigious universities. All very nice, but Bragg – though tremendously erudite – is an incorrigible interrupter. He constantly interrupts his experts, in the nicest possible way, to tell them that they are talking too long or that they are off topic. Sometimes it turns out that they weren’t off topic at all and that Lord Bragg had just misunderstood. This gets increasingly frenetic towards the end of the show, presumably because the dreaded News on the Hour is looming. I understand that his job is a difficult balancing act, and that what he does is necessary but it still sounds strange to hear esteemed experts being cut off and bossed about like that.
It feels as though there is such a thing as an appropriate amount of interrupting, and an appropriate time at which it is acceptable to interrupt. Melvyn Bragg perhaps interrupts too much (although we can forgive him for that because he picks such lovely topics, and usually coaxes his guests to give interesting explanations). Rookie political interviewers probably interrupt too little. As for me, I still feel like I am just guessing in the dark.
I’m still learning this conversation business. The process is very difficult. I think I am getting better, just very, very slowly. Perhaps by the time I’m 80 I will have mastered it.
Bondi Junction, September 2013