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"If it's rude to interrupt, how do you politely interrupt someone who (rudely) interrupts/talks over you?"

McKinley Valentine — 4 min read
"If it's rude to interrupt, how do you politely interrupt someone who (rudely) interrupts/talks over you?"
Photo by Michael Dziedzic / Unsplash

This is a good question! It's part of a bigger question of, "when someone breaks the social contract, how do you operate in the new, broken environment?"

Firstly, there are different kinds of interrupters:

1. People who are extremely interested and excited about what you have to say, and are interrupting because they want to engage and aren't good at impulse control.

2. People who are not interested in what you're saying, and are talking over you either as a dominance move or because they didn't really notice they were doing it and don't care.

And kind of in-between, people who are interrupting you because they stopped paying attention and drifted off and then started talking about their own thing without realising you were still talking. They're not intentionally being rude but I'm gonna group then under 2 because it's still rude, even if the intention isn't as bad.

Basically, it's important to know that some people who interrupt you are genuinely interested in what you're saying, and it's only because of their high interest level that they interrupt. I think you should be nice to these people. You don't have to let them talk over you, but just, don't read anything negative into it. People like this are usually pretty aware that they do it, and are either happy enough to be reminded (you're helping them get better at something they would like to get better at - the social skill of not interrupting), or embarrassed that they've made a faux pas, but either way it shouldn't be a big deal just to say "hang on, let me finish my bit".

You will probably get something like "oh gosh I'm so sorry, please continue". Or I guess if they don't handle embarrassment well, they might get defensive. But, I don't know, you're not doing anything wrong, and they can process their defensive reaction on their own time, I reckon. Just move the conversation along, like you would if they had lipstick on their teeth and you'd pointed it out and they got embarrassed.

After you've finished, if you want to be gracious, you can then turn to them actively and ask what their thing was that they wanted to say.

The second group, ah look, you're kind of out of luck here!

By which I mean: they have already broken the social agreement of politeness, and so there's no way to get back to it without doing something rude yourself. Just accept that rudeness has become necessary, and it's not your fault.

A strategy (not always conscious) of bullies is to break the agreements of politeness and rely on everyone else continuing to uphold those agreements, giving them free licence to operate. It's similar to creepers who creep just within the bounds of plausible deniability, so that if you were to make a fuss about it, you would seem like the one being weird.

So your options are "allow bullies to operate freely" or "be a bit rude". I recommend the second, although you will have to make your own decisions about when that's safe for you (i.e. if it's your boss and you really need the job, it's your family and you have nowhere else to stay, etc etc). That is, you have to interrupt and say "sorry, I wasn't finished" and then keep saying your thing.

What I STRONGLY recommend and support is doing this for other people. It's very hard to interrupt for yourself, and so if you see someone else being talked over, a difficult but very important thing you can do is interrupt and say "Sorry, [Person Name] was still talking - what were you saying, Person Name?". At the very least, wait till the interruptor has finished, don't respond to them, turn back to the original speaker and say "What were you saying about [Topic], [Person Name]?"

This is especially important because women and people of colour get interrupted way more than white dudes (generally even by quite nice white dudes who don't realise they're doing it - it's just culturally ingrained). A couple of years ago, on a TV panel, a female guest was torn apart on twitter for being rude and repeatedly interrupting one of the other (male) guests. When someone did an analysis after the fact, they found she interrupted no more than any of the other guests, and overall spoke half as many total words as the male guest. But interruptions by the male guest went unnoticed, while hers really stood out to viewers. (Link here, but it's depressing).

So, I don't think it's risk-free to counter-interrupt. If you're from a usually-talked-over group, and you interrupt a usually-interrupts group, there is a non-zero chance people will notice your rudeness and not the other person's.

And if you counter-interrupt an entitled narcissist type, there is a good chance they will throw a fucking fit. I speak from experience!

I still think you should do it, if and when you can, and especially on behalf of other people.

Until our cultural norms are 100% in line with fairness and justice, being fair and just will sometimes involve breaking cultural norms. It's basic logical inevitability. And breaking cultural norms feels uncomfortable and often makes people mad at you. So, the cost of being fair and just is sometimes people get mad at you. I hope, at least, knowing there was no possible way you could have avoided it will make you feel better when you have to do it.

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #74 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!

Unsolicited AdviceEQ & Interpersonal


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