Conversation Analysis: Interruption by male or female speakers in a conversation - A case study

Seminar Paper 2006 15 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics



1. Introduction

2. Analysis
2.1 Quantitative analysis: Who interrupts more often? Who is more successful?
2.2 Qualitative analysis: Why do the speakers interrupt each other and what are the reactions?
2.2.1 Short overview
2.2.2 Interruption or cooperative overlap?
2.2.3 Justified interruptions
2.2.4 Violent interruptions
2.2.5 Jokes as interruptions

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Gender roles have always been an important issue in analyzing human behavior. In order to understand the interaction between men and women, it is useful to have a closer look at conversations between male and female speakers and to analyze how they communicate with each other. Some questions that of course occur are whether female speakers talk more than male speakers or if male speakers use more vernacular language, just to name a few examples. Obviously, there is a lot of stereotypical thinking in analyzing gender behavior and many people expect to find some clichés certified.

The analysis in this term paper concerns the differences in interrupting by male or female speakers in a conversation. Former conversation analyses tried to demonstrate that in most cases men interrupt women more often than the other way round and that one main reason for this fact is that men always unconsciously try to dominate women and present power. Deborah Tannen examines this claim in her book “You just don’t understand: women and men in conversation” (Tannen 1990). While examining the behavior of male and female speakers in conversation she clearly points out that it is not enough to count interruptions in a conversation and to interpret those as an unconscious gender-typical habit, but that it is necessary to pay attention to the factors that caused an interruption and to look beyond the surface in order to understand the events and the development of a conversation. She emphasizes that

[…] interruption is inescapably a matter of interpretation regarding

individuals’ rights and obligations. To determine whether a speaker

is violating another speaker’s rights, you have to know a lot about both

speakers and the situation. (Tannen 1990: 190)

Besides that she also shows the importance of finding out why the interruption takes place and what the speaker’s aim is: “Is it a reinforcement, a contradiction, or a change in topic? In other words, what is the second speaker trying to do ?” (Tannen 1990: 190). Another important factor in Tannen’s remarks is the determination between “different conversational styles, so a speaker might feel interrupted even if the other did not intend to interrupt.” (Tannen 1990: 190). The different speech styles are also a topic in her other book “Gender and Discourse” (Tannen 1996). In the introduction of the chapter “Interpreting Interruption in Conversation” she argues that many formerly as interruptions analyzed cases were not really interruptions, but what she calls “cooperative overlaps”:

One of the most striking aspects of high involvement style that I found and

analyzed in detail was the use of what I called “cooperative overlap”: a

listener talking along with a speaker not in order to interrupt but to show

enthusiastic listenership and participation. (Tannen 1996: 53)

She describes these activities as part of the “high involvement style”, a special type of speech style which is used for example by New York Jewish speakers. On this basis she juxtaposes interruption and cooperative overlaps in order to prove some stereotypical thinking wrong. She furthermore investigates that many interruptions – operated by man as well as by women – are very often misunderstood and “not necessarily a display of dominance.” (Tannen 1996: 54). Thus she focuses on the observation of the belief “that overlap is always interruption and that interruption perpetrates dominance” (Tannen 1996: 54) and wants to give evidence that there is also the need for an investigation “on ethical grounds” (Tannen 1996: 54).

What Deborah Tannen indicates in her investigations is that a pure quantitative analysis – what she calls “mechanical” (Tannen 1990: 190) – is sometimes not sufficient and that an analyst needs to get deeper into the material to get a capable result.

In this term paper there will be both quantitative and qualitative analyses of a conversation between a man and a woman. An examination on the frequency of interruptions performed by the male or the female speaker and the search for potential reasons will be elaborated. A closer look at the character of interruptions concerning time of occurrence, intention of the speaker and reaction of the other speaker will answer the question whether men really interrupt more often than women and if this is a sign for men’s ambition for dominance and power over women.

2 Analysis

2.1 Quantitative analysis : Who interrupts more often? Who is more successful?

This part of the paper includes a quantitative analysis of an audio tape. On this tape there is a conversation between a man and a woman, probably a couple, who talk about the woman’s interest in life and death. It turns out that both have very different opinions on this topic. We do not get any further information about the speakers or the circumstances of conversation itself.

The counting of interruptions – which means that one speaker starts to speak while the other one has not finished his remarks yet – shows that the male speaker, Darryl, interrupts the female speaker more often than the other way round, as it can be seen in diagram 1:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The left line of the chart shows 39 interruptions performed by Darryl. In contrast, Pamela interrupts Darryl 29 times, as it becomes clear from the right line.

Of course there is also the need to have a closer look at whether these interruptions are violent and done on purpose or just what Deborah Tannen explained as “cooperative overlaps” and serve as support or as a question. This point will be examined in detail in the second part of the analysis, the qualitative look at the conversation. But in the quantitative analysis, we also have to distinguish between different types of interruptions. Some are spontaneous emotional reactions on what was just said or affirmations, repetitions and questions performed due to misunderstanding or in order to support what the other speaker has just said. At this point it is very hard to draw the line between overlaps and interruptions and to distinguish those different types. So it is important to say that of Darryl’s 39 interruptions, four were cases when he repeated things or affirmed Pamela’s speech, and two of Pamela’s interruptions were made because of the same reasons. To me these cases seemed also like kinds of interruptions because they prevented the other speaker from continuing and caused him or her to stop talking.

The first chart shows that the claim that men interrupt women more often is in this case correct, but whether the reason for this fact is Darryl’s ambition to dominate Pamela will be examined later.

Another important thing to consider is whether all of these interruptions end up to be successful. That means if speaker one starts to talk while speaker two is still speaking, the first one does not necessarily get his way, so speaker two continues talking nevertheless and speaker one has to stop. Diagram 2 shows Pamela’ and Darryl’s success in interrupting:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The chart demonstrates that of the 39 times that Darryl – the blue lines - tries to interrupt Pamela, only 31 end up to be successful. Pamela – in this diagram shown in purple - interrupts Darryl 29 times and gets her way 21 times. So concerning the success in interrupting, Darryl’s attempts to interrupt fail as many times as Pamela’s, even though she interrupts him less times in total.

2.2 Qualitative analysis: Why do the speakers interrupt each other and what are the reactions?

2.2.1 Short overview

As mentioned above, Deborah Tannen already explained in her book “You just don’t understand” (Tannen: 1990) that in conversation analysis there is always the need to get deeper into the material and have a closer look beyond the surface in order to figure out the intentions of a speaker and the reasons for interruptions in a conversation. Unfortunately, for this conversation we are given only little information about the speakers and the setting. Because of the way they talk to each other, it seems obvious that they are a couple. We also get to know that they have two children, Deven and Natalie, who are mentioned throughout the conversation, and that one child is of Pamela’s first marriage. The conversation is actually a friendly argument, because Pamela has just read a book about life and death and wants to talk about it, but Darryl is not really interested.



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University of Freiburg
Conversation Analysis Interruption Language Variation Change



Title: Conversation Analysis: Interruption by male or female speakers in a conversation - A case study