In conversation, do you have a tendency to jump in before the other person is done speaking? You might be an interrupter — or you could be what linguists call a “cooperative overlapper.”
Like interrupting, cooperative overlapping can be perceived as rude or dismissive in certain settings or among certain people, but the intent behind the behaviour is anything but. According to Georgetown University professor of linguistics and author Deborah Tannen, who first introduced the term, cooperative overlapping occurs when the listener starts talking along with the speaker, not to cut them off but rather to validate or show they’re engaged in what the other person is saying.
“I coined the term to distinguish this type of talking-along, which encourages a speaker to keep going, from interruption, where a listener starts to speak while another is speaking in order to take the floor,” she told HuffPost. (She also uses terms like “enthusiastic listenership” and “participatory listenership” to illustrate this concept.)
A recent viral TikTok from @gaydhdgoddess — a Jewish ADHD writer and educator, according to her bio — has sparked a discussion online about cooperative overlapping and how communication styles vary across groups and cultures. In the video, she calls herself an “interrupt-y person,” but says this never posed much of an issue until she left the East Coast. After doing some research, she discovered that her tendency to interject before the other person is done speaking was actually part of a culturally Jewish style of conversation, common in the Northeast.
“You’re overlapping just at the end of what somebody is saying — you’re not trying to cut them off because you don’t care what they have to say,” @gaydhdgoddess explained in the video. “You already got the gist and you’re building up on it. To us, in good conversation, there aren’t any pauses. If there’s a pause, I think somebody doesn’t want to be speaking to me anymore, unless they’re very visibly thinking or chewing or something. But to other people, other cultures, that is not the case.”
Sarah Bunin Benor, professor of contemporary Jewish studies and linguistics at Hebrew Union College, said that cooperative overlapping is often associated with, but not limited to, New York Jews.
“Non-Jewish New Yorkers and Jews outside of New York also do it,” she said.
In a 2008 survey Benor conducted about American Jewish speech patterns, she asked participants, “Have you ever been told that you interrupt too much or that your speech style is too aggressive?” Jews were more likely than non-Jews to answer “many times or “sometimes” (47% versus 36%).
Though Tannen hasn’t done formal research to find out which cultures engage in cooperative overlapping, people from various backgrounds have told her they recognise it from their own upbringing, including those of Eastern European, Mediterranean, Indian, South American, African and Arab cultures, to name a few. “Within each country, of course, there are many cultures, and not all have the same style,” she noted.
Among people who share the same communication style, cooperative overlapping often has the positive effect of “greasing rather than gumming up the conversational wheels,” Tannen previously wrote. However, among those who do not, it tends to have the opposite effect. It can fluster the speaker, disrupt the flow of the conversation and may be viewed as a sign of disrespect.
“They often assume that anyone who begins to talk while they are speaking is trying to take the floor,” Tannen said. “Often they will stop and feel interrupted.”
Once you’re aware that you are a cooperative overlapper, how can you better communicate with someone who isn’t? If you notice that the speaker isn’t responding well to your chiming in — e.g., they stop talking or seem uncomfortable — try expressing your engagement in non-verbal ways instead, like nodding, Tannen suggested.
If you do jump in, acknowledge it. Then encourage the other person to continue talking.
“For example, if someone stops, [you] might say, ‘Please go on. I wasn’t trying to interrupt,’” Tannen said. “If it is someone you have an ongoing relationship with, you could discuss it another time, perhaps referring to the TikTok or Twitter comment that went viral ― or to an article of mine.”
If you’re not a cooperative overlapper but you are conversing with someone who is, you may want to ask them to hold off on jumping in so you don’t lose your train of thought. It will take some practice, but try to push yourself to keep talking if you have more to say, even when your instinct is to stop, Tannen said. (Note that this might be challenging for some neuro-diverse individuals, people with less assertive personality types or in situations where there’s a power imbalance between the speaker and the listener.)
Context matters, too, of course. It’s easier to talk honestly about and work through these differences in communication styles with a close friend than with a boss, professor or mother-in-law, for example. And what might seem like an overlap in one scenario can be interpreted as an interruption in another.
Regardless of the situation, learning to recognise and understand differences in conversational style due to ethnicity, culture, class, gender or other factors can be beneficial, Tannen said.
“[It] gives you more control over how you are coming across to others, makes it more likely you’ll accurately judge others, and makes it possible to have better relations with those whose styles differ from yours,” she said.