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  • Writer's pictureJulie Love

Stop interrupting me!

It's easy to recognize that your language and accent come from your family and culture, but we rarely think about the rhythms of language. In particular, the pauses that we use to indicate whose turn it is to talk. They’re like traffic lights, and just as tricky. (As I learned moving from Philly, where you watch the others’ light and start just before yours turns green, to Boston, where the first few seconds of red are really more a dark yellow…) When someone stops talking, how soon can you speak up without it sounding like you're cutting them off? But if you wait too long -- when does that become an awkward silence?

Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University linguist noticed this when she analyzed a conversation with friends from New York and California. As it turned out, the pause that feels like an awkward silence to a New Yorker is slightly shorter than the amount of time a Californian waits to be sure you're done talking. As a result, the Californians felt like they couldn't get a word in edgewise, while the New Yorkers thought they were boring them.

And then neurology gets involved. In the great bell curve of neurodiversity, there is one end (common among some with ADHD) in which cross talk is so natural it's hardly noticed. At the other end, populated by another flavor of ADHD as well as some on the Autism Spectrum, are those for whom the moment two people speak at once both sound like adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon, and they cannot understand any of it. My daughter and I are in the first group, my husband in the second. When she & I get together and are finally free of Zoom’s tyranny of the microphone, we dive into an active conversation in which we are both talking nonstop while fully listening to and interacting with what the other one is saying. At some point my husband's head explodes and he has to leave the room.

Of course in the middle of the bell curve are all the neurotypical folks who think those who cross talk are rude and those who cannot process overlapping speech are ignoring them.

Even if we have trouble understanding a person who has an accent, we generally recognize what is interfering with communication, and don't take it personally. Unfortunately, it is really hard to do that with neurodiversity. Your brain is wired the way it is wired, and by definition it is nearly impossible to imagine living in a brain that functions in a different way.

So don't try to imagine it. Sometimes you just have to take things on faith. If you know someone who tends to interrupt, recognize that they might not be trying to talk over you or silence you. Ask them, and if they say they were really interested in what you were saying, perhaps even denying having interrupted you, believe them. And if someone keeps missing chunks of what you’re telling them, while insisting they really were paying attention, believe them, too.

And if both types of brains are in the same conversation…. You’ll need help directing traffic, and stated rules or verbal cues won’t do the trick. (If you call out “one at a time!” one side doesn’t realize you mean them, and the other can’t process what you’re saying.) Best get yourself a conch shell. I recommend a stuffed animal – easy and safe to pass or toss around, and less hostile literary baggage. But seriously – you need to shift to a different sensory input. (This is why my husband can manage notes, but not a quick whispered question.) You only talk while holding the teddy bear; you ask to talk by waving for it. Or, yeah, grabbing it. They’re still kids, after all.

Good luck. It’s hard to assume good intentions when it feels like the other person keeps completely smothering what you were saying, or when everyone keeps getting mad at you for interrupting when your brain insists it could hear both sides just fine so you couldn’t have been… But it’s worth the effort.

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