Respect is a powerful force. What is considered societally aware and respectful, however, may not be the same in every culture – even our own.
I recently spent a few hours in my childhood home rapping with my mother and father. I found myself fascinated by observing them interact with each other (and by the additional dynamic created by my presence). More specifically, their conversation styles were riveting in the moment. The three of us connected and discussed topics like optimizing travel (walking, biking, Uber and buses relative to personal cars) among other things. My dad discussed his piano students; my mom and I dug into coaching and teaching, and what characteristics make up a “good student.” The three of us were engulfed in the conversation, seemingly collectively engaged.
As I soaked up the conversation, I noticed something about the style that stood out. They both seemed especially anxious to share thoughts. My mom in particular was sharp and equipped to read and react as well; she’s always been a skilled listener. For that reason, I felt like she’d absorb and carefully consider a somewhat challenging query.
“Curious,” I said, “Do you guys realize how much you interrupt each other?” My mom answered immediately, affirmatively and confidently, “yes.”
My mom identifies as a “New York Jew” and that may have some bearing on this concept. From a study published in PNAS:
In the anthropological literature there are frequent claims that cultures differ radically in the timing of conversational turn-taking, and thus that the findings for English are culture-specific. Nordic cultures, for example, are said to relish long delays between one turn and the next. As the report goes, “Two brothers of Häme (Finland) were on their way to work in the morning. One says, ‘It is here that I lost my knife’. Coming back home in the evening, the other asks, ‘Your knife, did you say?”’ (11). Or receiving visitors in the North of Sweden: “We would offer coffee. After several minutes of silence the offer would be accepted. We would tentatively ask a question. More silence, then a ‘yes’ or a ‘no”’ (12). Compare this preference for silence between turns with the reported “fast rate of turn-taking” and “preference for simultaneous speech” in New York Jewish conversation (13) or the “anarchic” conversation of an Antiguan village, in which there is said to be “no regular requirement for 2 or more voices not to be going on at the same time
My mom cited the work of Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown, to support her point that this interrupting and competitive style of conversation is cultural.
Tanner played audio clips of the Thanksgiving dinner for audience members, explaining that New York Jewish conversational style could be described as a “high involvement style,” characterized by interruption and short pauses between speakers. Tannen noted that each person took different length pauses in conversation, which can lead to frustration and make communication difficult.
“How do we decide, as adults in conversation, when the other person is done and when to begin?” Tannen asked. “Any time there is a slight difference in the amount of pause that’s expected … the person that’s waiting to speak is getting frustrated.”
We’ve all experienced the frustration of someone stepping on the ends of our sentences or attempting to complete our stories for us. Equally, we’ve all been in the position of listening to someone drone on endlessly and feeling the compulsion to chime in with our own thoughts and experiences. It can feel excruciating to wait for our conversational partner to finish. It’s our social conditioning that kicks in and prompts us to launch our verbal clip or to wait just a bit longer.
That same social conditioning colors what we’ll view as respect and what lands as rude. Raymonde Carroll’s Cultural Misunderstandings outlines this concept:
Americans often expressed surprise in my presence at the fact that French people, “who claim to be very big on manners,” are themselves so “rude”: “they interrupt you all the time in conversation,” “they finish your sentences for you,” “they ask you questions and never listen to the answer,” and so on. French people, on the other hand, often complain that American conversations are “boring,” that Americans respond to the slightest question with a “lecture,” that they “go all the way back to Adam and Eve,” and that they “know nothing about the art of conversation.
Armed with this information, I saw my parents’ style of communication much differently. Awareness of cultural and style differences helped me to perceive the dynamic as a unique one they’ve refined over the years rather than interpreting it through a lens of respect (or lack thereof) and subsequently enabled me to appreciate our differences.