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Monday, June 14, 2010

We interrupt this moment to bring you another interruption.

In the last several years or so I've been making extra effort to battle my inner hermit and actually get out and socialize more often.  For the past while, my primary source of socialization has been with other home schoolers.  More recently I've gone out of my way to get involved more directly with various groups, and to actively participate in things.  For someone who would quite happily stay at home with my kids, my books and my crafting tools, this is a challenge.

Eldest, bless her heart, has been keeping me company on many occasions.  This has not always led to positive experiences for her.

One of the things we've frequently come across is an amazing lack of social manners.  More specifically, frequent interruptions and seeming inability to listen to others, even when they do get a chance to talk.  This has not been limited to any particular group dynamic.  It's endemic to pretty much any gathering of people, small or large.

What typically happens is a person begins discussion of a topic.  This catches the attention of one of the listeners, who promptly interrupts and begins describing their experience with the topic.  In some cases, I've seen people interrupt with a completely different subject.  Sometimes the first person stops talking due to the interruption.  Sometimes not.  Then a third person jumps in with their thoughts on the subject, interrupting the others.  Before you know it, there are three or four people, all talking at once, each trying to be heard above the others, and no one is really listening to anyone else.

Now, as children, most of us have been taught not to interrupt when someone is speaking.  I certainly was, and passed that on to my own children.  I've certainly seen parents admonishing their children on that very point, which makes it even more curious to me when I see them then turn around and do what they just finished telling their kids not to do.

As I child, I perhaps learned this lesson too well.  As I got older, I frequently found myself outside of conversations, being in social groups, but not part of them, simply because I never got the chance to speak.  Or, more accurately, no one stopped talking long enough for me to inject my own voice into the conversation.  Often, when there finally was a lull for me to speak up in, someone else would simply start talking, interrupting me completely.  Being the polite person I was taught to be, I would stop and let them speak their piece, waiting for the next moment to speak myself.  Chances were pretty good that, by the time the moment finally arrived, I either no longer remembered what I meant to say, or the conversation had moved on to a completely different topic, making what I had to say irrelevant.

Over the years, I began to realize that the only way I'd be able to say anything was to not stop talking when someone interrupted me.  Often the person trying to interrupt would stop and let me finish, then jump in when I was done.  A surprising number of times, however, the interrupter would simply ignore the fact that I hadn't stop talking, and just keep on talking themselves.

A number of years ago I read the book, Personality Plus.  The book talks about the four basic personality types, and the pluses and negatives they have.  One personality type, the Sanguine, is the social butterfly and people person.  These are the folks that walk up to strangers at a party and talk to them as if they've known them all their lives.  They are open and friendly and love being the centre of attention, which works out rather well since they often attract people to themselves by the sheer vibrancy of their personalities.  On the down side, they tend to dominate conversations, under the impression that everyone around them is riveted to their words, and they're often guilty of "embellishing" stories.  The author made a challenge to these talkative types.  The next time a Sanguine was in a social group, regaling the others with a story, and something interrupted their speech, they were not to continue the story when the interruption ended unless one of the listeners specifically asked them to continue.  This challenge was a way for the Sanguine to see if those around them really were interested in what they were saying, or if they were just being polite (or unable to get a word in edgewise themselves).  If no one asked them to continue, it meant they really didn't want to hear the story.

Now, I don't have a Sanguine bone in my body.  It's taken a great deal of effort to develop the conversational skills Sanguines seem born to.  Still, I decided to give it a try.  Whenever I next found myself talking with a group of people and got interrupted, I would stop and wait to see if anyone wanted to hear the rest of what I was saying.

No one ever did.  At least not until I had kids.  They, and eventually my husband, are pretty much the only people that regularly ask me to continue with what I'd been saying before the interruption. Being an observer of people, it occurred to me that one of the reasons was that whatever the interruption was, it was distracting enough that people didn't remember to ask.  With some interruptions, I actually forget what I'd been saying myself!  Other times, I noted that the interruption led to a complete change in conversation, so that going back to what a person was saying no longer made any sense.

Most of the time, though, it seemed to me that people just weren't interested in listening, and far too many were interested only in hearing themselves talk, welcoming the interruption (or doing the interrupting) as a way for themselves to take over the conversation.

When I was a kid, the constant interruptions by the people around me, preventing me from taking part in any conversations, was pretty painful and left me feeling very isolated and alone.  As a result, I spent many years on the sidelines, never really trying to take part in conversations, convinced that no one cared about me, my thoughts or my feelings on any given topic.  I had been taught that one showed care and respect by not interrupting and listening to people when they spoke.  That no one did this to me had to mean that they neither cared for, nor respected, me.

As I grew older and studied people more intently, I eventually realized it usually wasn't personal.  People tend towards self interest and self absorption.  It wasn't that they were deliberately shunning me; chances are they weren't even thinking of me.  They were thinking of themselves and what they wanted to say, and often didn't even seem to notice that they were cutting me off.  It may have been extremely rude, but they typically didn't even notice that they were doing it.

The results of my little experiment from the book did change things for me.  Now if someone is talking and something happens to interrupt them, I try to make a point of bringing things back to them and asking them to continue.  Because, you know what?  I really do want to hear what they're saying!

While everyone is guilty of interrupting at some point (and sometimes it's necessary), I feel it shows considerable lack of respect.  So does dominating a conversation, preventing others from taking part.  To me, it's just plain polite to listen to the person speaking - and I mean actually listening, not vaguely paying attention while thinking up your own response.  I admit that part is a struggle for me.  A person might say something that catches my attention, causing a sort of chain reaction of thoughts on it, and suddenly I realize that I've completely missed the rest of what the person has been saying.  This is particularly difficult do avoid when my auditory processing issues come into play.  If a room is noisy, or if there are various visual distractions, and I suddenly stop being able to hear a person's words, I have to really stand vigilant over my own thoughts, or I will disappear into my own mind, completely tuning out the other person.  It would be completely rude, and I try to avoid it.

Having said that, my habit of actually waiting for others to finish what they're saying before responding myself usually ends up with me not talking at all.  I might start out trying to take part in a conversation, but after a while, I just sit and listen.  There's no point in adding my own voice to the three or four already trying to shout each other down.

The problem with this sort of thing is that, when things get to that point, there's no longer a conversation.  There's no give and take of ideas.  The participants aren't really caring what the others have to say, because they're already working out what they want to say - and saying it.

I'm not trying to say that conversations should be just a bunch of people sitting around in a circle, taking turns talking.  A lively conversation is filled with plenty of back-and-forthing.  Especially when those partaking in it are on the same wavelength.  What Eldest and I have been increasingly seeing is groups of people who are basically all having conversations with themselves at the same time.  It seems the only way to take part in such a conversation - if one could even call it "taking part" - is to interrupt the interrupters!  Since I thoroughly dislike doing that, it usually means I end up not being part of the conversation.

Since the reason I'm there in the first place is to expand my social activities, ending up just sitting there, not interacting with the others in the group, seems to rather defeat the purpose of being there at all.

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