Is It Really Interrupting… Or Is It Cooperative Overlap?

two chat bubbles that are overlapping, a green one on the left and an orange one on the right
Image by Valery Kenski / CC BY

Interrupting. Ahhh… now, there’s a loaded topic.

I shudder involuntarily whenever the subject is broached. Not because I worry about getting interrupted. I don’t.

I have the other sort of baggage — where I worry I’m going to anger someone because I’ve inadvertently interrupted them.

What’s interesting is that I haven’t universally gotten this feedback from everyone I’ve known or anything. Not by a long shot. Instead, it’s been isolated to just a few individuals. But those individuals? Have given me that feedback consistently. That I’m prone to interruption. And that they find it frustrating when I do.

It was actually the source of some pretty heated terrible arguments with my first husband.

Conversational Cues Can Be Ambiguous

I never interrupted on purpose, mind you. Each time I spoke, I interpreted a conversational lull or pause from him as evidence that he was done speaking. But in fact, he was not.

Whenever he’d tell me that I’d interrupted him, I would immediately apologize and encourage him to continue. However, he would typically refuse to do so, telling me that he had either forgotten or saying spitefully that he wouldn’t give me the satisfaction of knowing what he had to say next.

He would then proceed to yell at me or refuse to have any contact with me after that point, sometimes for hours at a time.

It was always confusing to me because I never meant to interrupt. Conversational cues can be ambiguous, and I was doing my best to respond to them. I simply sometimes just misinterpreted his body language.

When Active Listening Is Received as Interruption

And at the very moments I was accused of interrupting him, I was not changing the topic but instead usually trying to build off what he said or to dive deeper into his thoughts, emotions, and opinions.

I wasn’t attempting to change the focus to me. Instead, I was quite engaged in what he was saying and trying to participate and show interest. In a phrase, I was attempting to actively listen.

I found as well that he interrupted me just as much as I interrupted him — if not more — but that I didn’t get upset or even point it out. Instead, I’d make a mental note to return to the topic in question and do that at the next opportunity.

Women Do Not Ever Tell Me I Have an Issue With Interrupting

Interestingly, I’ve noted that this phenomenon seems to literally have only happened with male partners. Never female partners. This is in keeping with research that has consistently found that not only are men responsible for the majority of conversational interruptions, men are much more intolerant of women interrupting them than the other way around.

What Is Cooperative Overlap?

And in fact, I can think of many times when I’m talking with other women that we talked over one another, and it was fun, peaceful, and harmonious.

It turns out that this style of communication actually has a name: Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen calls it “cooperative overlap.” She features it prominently in her book Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk Among Friends.

Here’s how Tannen describes it:

One of the most striking aspects of high involvement style that I found and analyzed in detail was the use of what I called “cooperative overlap”: a listener talking along with a speaker not in order to interrupt but to show enthusiastic listenership and participation.

In cooperative overlap, two friends may very well be talking simultaneously, hashing over ideas in a freeform manner. They are informally overlapping as a way of brainstorming. Cooperative overlap can be sharply contrasted with interrupting because of a simple fact: It is not competitive. Both talkers are working on a similar goal in conversation, problem-solving, bonding, or moving toward shared understanding.

Thinking back as a person who has seriously dated both men and women, this is the way I’ve always communicated in my relationships with other women. This is the default style we’ve engaged with one another in. I’ve found that it led to a sense of intimacy and wellbeing.

So in situations when I’d get close to a man, I would begin to speak with them in a more intimate collaborative way of communicating — only to find that men were angered by this and interpreted it as competitive interruption.

Quite eye opening. What a pickle.

So Is It Interruption or Overlap? Competition or Collaboration?

Here’s how Pamela Saunders, another linguist, differentiates between the two and why/when they seem to occur:

Cooperative overlap occurs when one interlocutor is showing her enthusiastic support and agreement with another. Cooperative overlap occurs when the speakers view silence between turns as impolite or as a sign of a lack of rapport. While an overlap may be construed as cooperative in a conversation between two friends, it may be construed as an interruption when between boss and employee. Overlaps and interrogative have different meanings depending on the speakers’ ethnicity, gender, and relative status differences. For example, when a teacher, a person of higher status, overlaps with her student, a person of lower status, typically the overlap is interpreted as an interruption.

It seems to boil down to each party’s expectation of the relationship and how they see their relative status to the other person. It’s strange, looking back, as the men who accused me of interrupting were self-professed feminists, considered themselves quite egalitarian as far as gender.

However, the way that those beloved men interpreted our conversational overlap as interruption signals to me that they implicitly viewed us as having some kind of status difference (likely one they were unaware of). In plainer terms, that they viewed themselves as my superior.

And most stunningly to me looking back, that they perceived us as being in competition — instead of being on the same team (how I generally view my romantic partners, not as rivals but as teammates and allies).

Not Always Status

In the spirit of fairness, it’s also worth noting that interruption sensitivity is not always tied to competitiveness and a feeling of elevated status relative to the person you’re talking with.

If you’re interested in more information about other reasons, please see this study by Katherine Hilton of Stanford, which talks about voice volume and speech speed as factors.

Still, even that study is clear that the interpretation of what constitutes an interruption in conversation is quite subjective.

Something to keep in mind.


This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.


Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 


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1 Comment

  1. Another thought-provoking post. As a 64-year-old monogamish white male raised by a man who listened (college counselor) and a woman who seemed to very rarely, I appreciate this post in particular. Do you think being a jazz musician has affected your take on verbal conversation? As a percussionist who both reads and improvises, I can often simultaneously hear the musicians around me AND the inner voice or source of ideas, but can’t seem to process even the cooperative-type of overlap in verbal conversation. Women seem better wired for that. I’ve also had feedback that my pauses to find the right word, and a tendency to save my actual point for the second or third sentence, can be frustrating to women—who may then “interrupt” and frustrate me. I like your “making a mental note” to come back to a statement/topic later; wish that were easier for me to do without writing notes. Thanks for your attention ;o)

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