Conversational Overlap: When Interrupting a Conversation Can Be a Good Thing

Conversational Overlap: When Interrupting a Conversation Can Be a Good Thing

Are you often accused of interrupting conversations? Find yourself in verbal tangles where your enthusiasm for dialogue is mistaken for dominance? If so, you might be a practitioner of the intricate art of “cooperative overlap”. Deborah Tannen, a renowned sociolinguist, introduced the concept of cooperative overlap in her seminal work, Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk Among Friends (1984). In the book Tannen delves into how overlapping dialogues, where speakers interject, may not be always disruptive but  may enhance the flow of conversation and even keep the dialogue lively and engaging.

In the study of conversation analysis, a fascinating differentiation exists between ‘cooperative overlap’ and ‘interruptive overlap’. Cooperative overlapping is a dynamic component of conversation where speakers interject while someone else is talking, not to interrupt but to express agreement or add to the discourse enthusiastically.

“Cooperative overlapping is a particularly active form of what I call “participatory listenership.” All listeners must do something to show they haven’t mentally checked out of a conversation. If they don’t, the speaker will have trouble continuing — as you know if you’ve ever talked to a screen full of motionless faces, or a roomful of blank stares. Signs of listening can range from nodding or an occasional “mhm” or “uhuh” (or a shower of them); to a murmured “I would’ve done the same thing”; to repeating what the speaker just said; to interjecting briefly with a similar story, then yielding the floor back. Even true interruptions, if they’re mutual, can rev up the conversation, inspiring speakers to greater conversational heights. The adrenaline makes the mind grow sharper and the tongue more eloquent.”

The practice of overlapping is not confined to any single culture but is a vibrant part of conversation styles worldwide. Anthropologists and linguists have identified enthusiastic participatory behaviors across different societies. For instance, Karl Reisman noted it among Antiguans, Alessandro Duranti observed it in Samoan interactions, Reiko Hayashi in Japanese dialogues, and Frederick Erickson in conversations among Italian Americans. This widespread recognition suggests that such overlapping is a natural element of human communication, reflecting a universal desire to connect and engage deeply with others.

Not all cultural groups perceive conversation the same way, and what is considered polite or constructive in one context may be viewed as rude or overbearing in another. For instance, Tannen shares insights from a dinner conversation involving friends from New York City, California, and London. While the New Yorkers freely engaged in overlapping, their style led to misunderstandings with those unaccustomed to such interactions:

“I saw that we New Yorkers often talked over others. When we did this with another New Yorker, the speaker kept going, undeterred or even more animated. But if we did the same thing with a non-New Yorker, the speaker stopped,” Tannen explains. This mismatch can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed or silenced, particularly for those from cultures where taking turns and noticeable pauses are conversational norms.

Tannen said:

“It’s when conversational styles clash that problems arise. Those who aren’t used to cooperative overlapping can end up feeling interrupted, silenced, maybe even attacked — which clouds their minds and ties their tongues. The Californians and the Londoner in my study felt that the New Yorkers had “dominated” the conversation. In a way, we did, but not because we meant to. From our perspective, the others chose not to join in. Cooperative overlapping is part of a conversational ethic that regards perceptible pauses as awkward silence, to be avoided by keeping pauses short — or nonexistent. Those of us who converse this way often don’t realize that someone who wants to speak might be waiting for a pause to join in.

Once, when I was talking about this study on a radio talk show, a listener called to say she identified: After she and her husband had hosted a great dinner party, he would accuse her of hogging the floor and shutting him out. “He’s a big boy,” she said. “He can speak up just like me or anyone else.” In the background, her husband’s voice explained why he couldn’t: “You need a crowbar to get into those conversations!” His metaphor was perfect: If the pause you expect between speaking turns doesn’t come, you really can’t figure out a way to break in.”

Tannen suggests that an awareness of different conversational ethics is crucial for fostering better interactions: “Cooperative overlapping is part of a conversational ethic that regards perceptible pauses as awkward silence, to be avoided by keeping pauses short — or nonexistent.”

Recognizing and adapting to these conversational styles can enhance personal and professional interactions. By understanding the role of cooperative overlapping in different cultures and embracing it where appropriate, individuals can navigate social exchanges more gracefully. As Tannen puts it, inviting participation through overlap is not just about talking; it’s about making everyone at the table feel heard and connected. This understanding can transform potential conflicts into opportunities for deeper engagement, making our conversations not only more inclusive but also more enriching.

Conversational Overlap: When Interrupting a Conversation Can Be a Good Thing
Conversational Overlap: When Interrupting a Conversation Can Be a Good Thing
Conversational Overlap: When Interrupting a Conversation Can Be a Good Thing
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Conversational Overlap: When Interrupting a Conversation Can Be a Good Thing
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Conversational Overlap: When Interrupting a Conversation Can Be a Good Thing
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Are you the type who's often accused of interrupting conversations? Do you find yourself in verbal tangles where your enthusiasm for dialogue is mistaken for dominance? If so, you might be a practitioner of the intricate art of cooperative overlap—a conversational style explored by the eminent sociolinguist, Deborah Tannen