It’s a running joke in my family how much I hate being interrupted. You might think it’s not something that would come up that often, but my Dad has a bad habit of pointing out a bird in the backyard when someone’s mid-sentence. He doesn’t mean to do it; he just gets really excited about whatever blue jay or whatever has come to visit. But every time, I feel my jaw clench and my eyes shooting death glares.
I think a lot of my frustration stems from how often I’m interrupted during meetings. I definitely remember being interrupted a lot during school (particularly by one loud-mouthed classmate who somehow ended up in nearly every English class I took), but nowhere near the frequency with which it happens now.
I once kept count and found that I was interrupted seven times over the course of an hour-long meeting, occasionally by someone piping in to give the very same idea I was in the process of explaining. And it’s not like it’s limited to a single workplace; it has happened at every job I’ve had, and most (if not all) of my female friends have expressed having the same experience.
I’m never sure how to react. I can feel the death glare coming on, but I don’t really do much beyond that. I mean, what am I going to say?
“Hey, yeah, I wasn’t finished.”
“I know it’s hard to hear over your high opinion of yourself, but I was talking actually.”
“LOOK, I CAN INTERRUPT, TOO!”
I think that some of this also stems from my issues with self esteem. I’m always afraid that what I’m saying is stupid or doesn’t matter, so when someone interrupts me, it just reinforces that fear. Clearly what I was saying wasn’t of value, or they’d have let me finish.
That’s also a big part of why I don’t usually stand up for myself when it happens. If I think what I’m saying is worthless, and they think what I’m saying is worthless, what’s the point?
But there’s also a big piece of this that feels gendered. As girls, we’re often conditioned to be quiet and behave ourselves and not make waves. As we grow into women, these behaviours are further reinforced with the pressures to be “ladylike” and avoid being “bitchy or “difficult”. When the gender roles we’ve learned require men to lead and women to shut up, it’s no wonder that women are constantly being talked over.
Now, I’m not saying that men never get interrupted, but in talking to my friends, it does seem to happen to women more frequently. So much so that at least one man I know was flabbergasted when it happened to him.
A while back, we were in the elevator chatting about something really important, like the merits of Starbucks vs Tim Hortons. The conversation continued as another women (whom we didn’t know) stepped into the elevator. My friend was mid-sentence when the woman suddenly turned to me to compliment my outfit. Then the doors opened, and she stepped out.
My friend stood in stunned silence.
“…Could she not hear me talking?”
“I dunno. Why?”
“She… she just… she interrupted me!”
“Yep,” I shrugged
“But….” He looked bewildered. It took me a second to process why this was such an unusual experience for him.
“Wait, has that never happened to you before?”
“Not really.” After a beat: “Is that what you’re talking about? In meetings? That just happens all the time??”
I’ve noticed since then that my friend is much more aware and doesn’t interrupt me when we’re speaking (he wasn’t a huge offender, but it did happen from time to time). Part of me wants to suggest this as the solution to the problem: just start interrupting men.
But really, I never feel like “an eye-for-an-eye” is the best way to go. Sure, it might help people understand, but wouldn’t helping people develop empathy and respect for others be the best solution? It would solve a multitude of problems, without people having to have been on the receiving end themselves.
In the meantime, I’ll be here, trying to find my voice the next time some dude interrupts me.