Why do men interrupt women?

Wyatt Edward Gates
Jul 16, 2018 · 9 min read
Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

It’s a basic courtesy to allow someone you’re speaking with to speak in turn, but men habitually deny this to women. They deny it to each other, as well, but it does far more damage when it’s denied to women. Part of why men interrupt is an acquired conversational approach that leads them to constantly interrupt everyone they speak to as a matter of reflex. To be crystal clear: men are taught and socialized to behave this way, there is nothing inherent to men that leads them to behave like this. Another part is their inability to be even a tiny bit vulnerable. Last — but certainly not least — is sexism: men just don’t care about women, aren’t curious about them, and casually ignore them. By exploring these conversational methods and their underlying motivating attitudes it’s possible for men to better prevent themselves from hurting women by interrupting and excluding them in conversation.

As a younger and less-aware men I would sometimes notice women staying silent in group conversations involving both men and women. Because I was an idiot still full-to-bursting with acquired misogyny I assumed women either just didn’t have much to say, or were rudely refusing to take part in the conversation because they felt like they were too cool for us guys. Eventually, though, I started socializing more with groups of mostly women which, among so many important things, let me watch how women speak to one another in conversation. Comparing that to groups of guys I saw major differences, which I’ve named for my own purposes of identifying and dealing with them as ‘full-beat’ and ‘zero-beat’ conversation for the modes typical to women and men, respectively.

Full-beat conversation is a conversation style typical to women that proceeds in question-driven phases that allows every participant to weigh in on the topic without being interrupted. Participants ask direct questions of one another to move the conversation along. If someone appears to be excluded, they will be invited in by a direct question. A new topic is generally not introduced until everyone has had a chance to speak about it. Participants are careful to respect those they’re speaking with and not dominate the conversation. This style is named after the full beat of time between statements, which allows for participants to reflect and respond without needing to force their way in to the conversation. That silence is vital to the inclusiveness of full-beat conversation.

Zero-beat conversation, on the other hand, is a breathless style of conversation typical to mean wherein no one asks any questions, no one waits for anyone else to speak, and in order to have a turn to speak you must interrupt someone else. Participants are constantly getting cut-off, challenged, confronted, and now allowed to finish their points. It’s usually a bunch of men speaking at each other without any interrogative language whatsoever. The topic can change at any point without warning regardless of who has or hasn’t been able to comment on it. It has all the grace of a group of Tazmanian Devils feasting violently on a dead animal. No effort is made to include others that aren’t speaking. It’s zero-beat because there’s zero silence allowed between speakers.

I’m going to come right out and say that full-beat conversation is how mature adults ought to relate to one another and that we should all work on maintaining that mode of conversation.

This doesn’t mean that every single man speaks exclusively in zero-beat, nor that women never interrupt, but these are strong and consistent patterns I’ve noticed over years of observation.

This difference in style leads to problems wherever men and women as speaking unless the men involved are consciously aware of how they’re behaving. Even a single man involved in a group conversation with women will end up stomping all other the women he’s speaking with because he’ll think nothing of interrupting whenever he has a thought and will speak until he runs out of things to say, which could take a very long time. Women, out of courtesy and habit, will avoid interrupting him and so he’ll be free to dominate the conversation. A single idiot man can monopolize an entire room with his thoughtless conversational habits.

When one or a few women end up in conversation with mostly men, the women will patiently and courteously wait for their turn to speak. They never get that turn. The guys just keep talking and talking without any breaks. The men never ask questions, so there’s no invitation to speak. They may or may not even have the presence to look at the women standing there silently, which either deepens the women’s feeling of being totally ignored, or makes them feel like they are being purposely excluded from conversation. Social rejection of any type is wounding down to the very core of a person, so feeling rejected by multiple men for no apparent reason is terribly painful. If a woman does try to jump in, she’ll get stomped on immediately and probably won’t ever succeed in finishing a sentence, let alone complete a full thought. There’s often just no way for women to take part in these kinds of zero-beat mobs without either feeling insulted or just plain feeling mean for having to interrupt people who are trying to speak, since that’s such an unkind thing to do, especially for women

Men don’t seem to be aware of what they’re doing, and insofar as they have some awareness they don’t seem to care since women aren’t generally respected as equals by men. This general lack of true respect couples with zero-beat conversation, since it’s an ongoing competition for the right to speak where the more respect you have the more time you’re given without interruption. A man with clout might be allowed to go on at length, but the moment a woman begins to speak she’ll get mobbed by multiple men until she gives up entirely. This leads to uncaring and unaware men verbally bullying women basically every time they speak with or among one another. This hurts women. Men don’t notice or care.

There are few reasons for these conversational styles differing so greatly across gender lines. Since men are afraid to be vulnerable at all, even in tiny ways, they don’t want to risk showing that they care about and value the thoughts of those they’re speaking with. If you never ask someone a direct question you never have to communicate anything about how much you care for them, nor admit that the content of their speech could have an effect on you. In other words, you avoid exposing yourself in any small way to them.

It might seem odd to think of asking a question as giving someone some measure of power over us, but asking a question is a way of opening ourselves up to someone else and the effects of their thoughts and feelings, which is a small act of granting power to the person answering the question. More importantly, it’s a small act of building trust and relating to someone, but men tend to think of all social interactions in impersonal and transactional terms, so they react to the power implications of it. To ask someone directly is to say that you respect and value their opinion, which is also to say that their opinion could have an effect on you and your feelings. Men are so sensitive to this and so vigilant in avoiding vulnerability — both real and apparent — that they avoid asking questions in order to never expose themselves to anyone in that way.

In a conversation where no questions are asked or answered there are only a bunch of men making speeches at each other. If you observe men talking, they’ll just say things and expect the other man to say something back. This impersonal approach means there’s not even the full acknowledgement of a conversation; men aren’t explicitly relating to one another, nor are they focusing on one another. They’re just men who happen to be speaking and who happen to be close enough to hear one another, so no one could possibly accuse them of caring for the other. They maintain their individualism and isolation even when speaking.

It’s no wonder, then, that men struggle to make and maintain deep relationships when the very method of their communication denies any kind of relationship. When there’s no interest in relating to one another all that’s left is an opportunity to be impressive, to entertain, and to evaluate others as potentially useful allies in all the other impersonal and transactional modes of male social existence. It also keeps men feeling isolated and deeply alone. I don’t think men realize how deep their dedication to loneliness is, how they’re socialized to keep others away sentence by sentence.

The greater harm, however, is done by men who belittle women by interrupting and ignoring them in conversation. Men who want to be good guys need to recognize first that they have this habit. They need to become aware of it as it is happening and take note of when they interrupt and the effect it has on the women around them. They also need to get to the root of why they do what they do and confront the ill intentions and selfish attitudes that motivate them. Finally, they have to put the work into correcting their attitudes so they can correct their behavior.

It’s not enough for a man to just try to not interrupt, since without seeing and correcting his motivations he’ll just revert back to his habits without thinking about it. To effect lasting change he needs to adopt a more respectful attitude towards all others in conversation, especially women. He needs to speak humbly and cultivate a genuine interest in them as people and so therefore their thoughts and feelings. From a position of humble caring he’ll find it’s effortless to be better about asking questions, listening and reflecting on the answers, and including everyone in the conversation. It is vital that men recognize that their way of speaking to women is not just a bad habit, it’s a direct result of their unfair and negative attitudes towards women, and to a lesser extent all others around them.

When a man moves beyond his juvenile mode of transactional conversation and to the more mature mode of relational converstation he’s no longer simply trying to impress or charm or manipulate. He’s instead focused on sharing a moment with others and building a relationship with them. Moving from the lonely relationship-stunting zero-beat conversation to the more humane full-beat mode means doing that important inner work of setting his ego aside and being vulnerable enough to care about others. To care about someone, to really value and respect them, means he will be unavoidably vulnerable to what they think and feel; they will have more power to change him, which requires some measure of trust. It also takes some courage and the confidence that he can let others in and still remain safe and whole. He needs to stop hiding in the cave of self and join with his community

Once that inner work is done it’s possible for men to stop stomping all over women in conversation. It takes practice, but over time habits can change if there is a pressing reason to change them. Men can learn to comfortably participate in full-beat conversation without constantly reverting to old behaviors based on old attitudes. This will make those men of quality more able to relate to women and avoid being like so many other men who alienate and bully women on a daily basis. This transformation takes time and effort and a large measure of humility, but it’s worth it to be a man who can be among with without offending every single woman in the room repeatedly just by the way he speaks with them.

In order to really be a good guy, you should not only not interrupt women, but you should be aware of how other men are treating women in conversation. Use your power of interruption for good in order to bring the conversation back to a woman who has been cut off. If you see women staying silent, break into the conversation and ask them direct questions, then stomp on any men who try to interrupt. Make sure whoever is in the conversation gets a turn to speak even if you have to annoy some men to do it. Many men simply do not want to wait for their turn to talk, but that doesn’t give them any right to bully others, so don’t let them. Be a man willing to lead by example and show other men what it looks like to treat others with respect.

Mastering these new habits can go a long way to making a man more likable, easier to speak with, and more attractive to the women around him. More importantly, it causes less harm to the women around him. It is a critical component of becoming a better man.

Wyatt Edward Gates

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Small, simple, and sincere.