Sorry to Cut You Off

In my family, conversations often include overlapping interventions by different speakers. One person will start a sentence before somebody else has finished their sentence. This is a well-known phenomenon in different speech communities and studies in both ethnography of communication and conversation analysis have a lot to say about this. Oftentimes, this strategy is perceived, by those who use it, as active engagement in the discussion and/or as a way to “get the ball rolling” by bringing the interlocutor’s point forward in different directions. To those whose communicative rules discourage overlap, however, this conversational style may sound rude as a way for one person to cut off somebody else. In fact, some people sound so eager to preempt the cycle of turn-taking that it might sound almost aggressive.
In reverse, those of us who enjoy overlapping conversations may feel non-overlapping sequential turn-taking as “stiff” and overly formal, not to mention boring and unchallenging.
Again, all of this is well-known textbook case. Some speech communities in the US are well-known for this. I’m not exactly sure my family is representative of Quebecker attitudes toward communication in this respect as the most extreme examples I’ve been involved often took a style more representative of European French-speakers than Quebecker but most comments I’ve heard about this have come from non-Quebecker and I get the impression overlapping conversations are at least tolerated by most Quebecker.

One reason I’ve been thinking about this is that I’m often self-conscious in conversations with non-Quebeckers about not “holding the floor” for too long and about making sure other people have a chance to speak up. Usually, it works, but it can be hard and I feel relieved when I talk with people who share this conversation style so Ican just “be myself” and ride on the tail of someone else’s intervention knowing that other people will do the same, without any need to apologize. As my wife comes from a community in which overlapping interventions are less favoured than in my family, these occasions don’t present themselves too often.

Another reason I’ve been thinking about this is podcasting. Yes, podcasting has been on my mind lately. In this particular case, it’s the difference between “real” podcasts and podcast versions of radio broadcast in terms of time constraints. And although I don’t really like to do it, I’ll enter rant mode for a little bit. Feel free to react if you read this. 😉
One podcast to which I’ve been paying attention is taken from a live broadcast of an “international” (though US-centric and even very regional) public radio program. Roles are set in advance: professional host, prestigious guests, friendly callers, and precious listeners. As is typical of many production of the so-called “mainstream media” (yes, institutionalised public radio fits as a mainstream medium, at least in production mode), the host is positioned as not only the focal point of the conversation and the representative of the audience but as a kind of omnipotent expert on subjects mentioned on the show. In other words, the host should be (and often is) able to respond to every single intervention made on the show. An authoritative tone helps as do some quotes from classics which listeners are expected to know.
Listeners are put in a position of comfort. They can correspond with the show’s team through different means, including calling the show’s line, at which point they gain a new status. From “anonymous generic listeners out there” (allegedly anywhere the network’s affiliate may broadcast), they become someone, with a first name and a location (city and state). The host will often engage in a very brief small-talk session with a caller, as if to increase familiarity (already implied in the use of the caller’s first name, rarely reciprocated by the use of the host’s first name). Then, the caller is graciously allowed one intervention, expected to be a short comment or question. As can be expected, several callers try to squeeze in this intervention more than a simple comment or question and may even have no specific question or comment for the host and guests. If the intervention does conclude with a comment, the host will graciously thank the caller, reiterate the show’s phone number and go to another call. If the caller asks a specific question, the host then relays that question in streamlined form to one or more of the guests. Once the guests have spoken, the host may, on occasion, ask the caller if the responses were satisfactory. In the negative, the host may say that the issue is very interesting and should be raised later in the show. Standard practice.
Standard practice is also the fact that callers are very rigidly timed out to make way not only for the guests’ interventions but for those “breaks” around which the show seems to be based. A recent example had the host apologize for cutting off the caller at the exact time the caller was mentioning an important issue for that specific show. It was so important, in fact, that the host reused the issue later in the show, trying to get different guests to address it (nobody did). The caller was now just a name and had allegedly hung up. The host, though open to the caller’s intervention, had prevented the interaction to go further.
Obviously, the host is not responsible for the time constraints of broadcast radio. At most, the show is in charge of apologizing for the time constraints. “I’m really sorry to cut you off like that but we need to go to the break. Thanks a lot for calling!” In a context in which overlaps are discouraged, the host bears the burden of the show’s embedded rudeness. Given the importance of politeness in the US, the pressure of appearing rude must make hosting a radio show “tough work.”
Also, callers are the only ones to be cut off. Esteemed guests, frequently praised by the host (who then serves a much different role), are only allowed to make interventions which will fit in the show’s rigid structure. All par for the course? Oh, probably. But “it doesn’t need to be that way.”

A major advantage of podcasts is to be relatively unrestricted in terms of time limits. In this respect, they often resemble open-ended interviews typical of ethnographic research. The “host” of a podcast may get “guests” to talk as much or as little as they want. Granted, radio interview formats are ingrained enough in some people’s habits that it might be difficult to move away from the rigid time-constrained format into the scary unregulated world of open conversations.


Author: enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast.

5 thoughts on “Sorry to Cut You Off”

  1. Scott,

    Thanks for your comments. Seems like people have different reactions to this “high involvement style” with lots of overlap. The “quacking duck” effect you describe is in itself interesting. You might even say that some contexts (among speakers of languages other than English), there’s a certain continuity between cocktail parties, dinner parties, and even academic discussions.

  2. In fact these conversations are usually overly loud and when you step back and listen to them it kind of sounds like a bunch of quacking ducks.

  3. I think this kind of overlapping conversation has its time and its place. Most of the time its obnoxious and rude. I don’t feel very engaged in conversations were I keep getting cut off by people. I feel offended by it. If I’m at a party it’s ok and even fun, but when trying to discuss something serious, I find the people who do the cutting off act as if they already know what you are going to say before you say it.

  4. Well, it does happen in some contexts that those with louder voices will tend to monopolise a conversation. Part of it might also be a matter of perception. As with most matters of cultural differences, “respect” and “politeness” are perceived through our own habits. The point usually made about overlapping conversations is that these are in fact meant to be respectful. For those of us raised in contexts where overlap is valued, waiting for the other person to finish connotes distance and even arrogance. At minimum, disjointed turn-taking implies limited engagement, in such a context.

    As for loud voices, they’re probably a factor in some of the perceived and real imbalance, but they only represent one dimension. There’s a number of women who have louder voices than most men and there’s a number of people with softer voice who easily get people’s attention. Volume and delivery are important parameters but they often depend on other factors.
    IMHO, “overlappers” aren’t too influenced by those dimensions. They may raise their voices to begin an intervention but they mostly use other turn-taking methods such as posture and intensified back-channel. If the participants in a conversation all favour overlap, the gender imbalance could be less perceivable. It might still exist, but not necessarily for reasons of voice or even turn-taking strategies.

  5. There is a gendered difference there as well. The thing that bothers me about “overlapping”, as you call them, conversations, is that people with louder voices (usually men) can too easily monopolise a conversation when there is little respect for whoever is speaking at the time. It makes it very hard for women to be heard when it’s a free-for-all approach. Just my 2 cents.

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