“Mr. Vice-President, I’m speaking,” said Kamala Harris, now Vice-President of the US, when Mike Pence interrupted her during the Vice-Presidential debate in October 2020. The video of Harris taking back the floor went viral, and Harris received applause from women worldwide who are tired of being interrupted.
Does our gender determine how likely we are to interrupt others? And does it make us more likely to be interrupted? A lot of research has studied these questions – unfortunately, all conceptualising gender as a binary factor, thus only looking at differences in interruption behaviour between men and women. When we simply count the number of interruptions made in conversations, men show to interrupt more often than women – but the difference is minor. The effect of gender becomes more significant, however, if we have a closer look at the type of interruptions made by women and men.
Interruptions can be intrusive or affiliative. The former type functions to take over the conversation in order to assert dominance. It is an antagonistic kind of disruption, as Pence’s attempts to break into Harris’s speech. Affiliative interruptions, by contrast, show support for and agreement with what the speaker is saying. Anything from “I know what you mean!” to “Interesting, I didn’t know!” counts as an affiliative interruption. A supportive “hmm hmm” would also fall in this category. Affiliative interruptions account for most of the interruptions made by women, whilst men tend to make more intrusive interruptions. Kids as young as 8 years old already display similar tendencies.
When counting who gets interrupted more often, no clear gender differences have been found. So, women are just as likely to be interrupted as men. Why, then, did Harris’s self-assertion strike a chord with so many women? Perhaps because women tend to be “punished” for interrupting in conversations more often than men. Regardless of gender, all interrupters are generally seen as more assertive, confrontational and disrespectful than those being interrupted. Yet, only when women interrupt men this assertiveness is labelled indecent. By breaking into the conversation, a woman challenges the quiet, abiding behaviour that’s expected from her and reverses the expected power relation in the conversation. So, because her interruption threatens the gendered moral order, it’s seen as not only confrontational but also as inappropriate. Therefore, men get away with interrupting more easily – “But not this time,” is what Harris must have thought.
Gender dynamics in speech and language can be hard to recognise and difficult to overcome. If you feel uncomfortable, side-lined or muted in a conversation, ask yourself what’s causing these feelings. Is someone interrupting you? Then you know what to say next time: “Mr. Vice-President, I’m speaking”.