You are in a meeting, you are on top of your subject, you have perfectly prepared your delivery and you intervene to bring your expertise and contribute to the collective reflection. And then, a male colleague cuts you off! You bounce back and try again, and then wham, he cuts in again . . . and there you are, cut and recut.
You are not paranoid, but still, you have a doubt: is he interrupting this much because I’m a woman? This could well be true. . . And this phenomenon even has a name: ‘manterrupting’.
Let’s focus on this notion which has acquired a special place in recent discussions on equality between women and men.
One evening at the MTV Video Music Awards. . .
Contraction of ‘man’ and ‘interrupting’, ‘manterrupting’ is defined as the act by a man of interrupting a woman whilst she is speaking, without it being necessarily relevant, and sometimes to talk about something completely different.
The term was coined in 2015 by the Time columnist Jessica Bennett to describe the attitude of the singer Kanye West bursting on to the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards, just as the singer Taylor Swift began her acceptance speech for the award she had just received. Snatching the microphone, he takes over the stage and leaves her speechless! General outcry followed this interference in a woman’s vocal expression, alongside the realisation that this was far from being an isolated case.
A few days earlier, Sheryl Sandberg and Professor Adam Grant had just published an article in the New York Times ‘Why Women Stay Quiet at Work’ describing the same phenomenon in the corporate world. In the wake of this article, many contributors revealed that it is also common in the media (see the video below), in politics, as well as many other sectors.
Manterrupting, mansplaining, bropropriating. . .
The appearance of the term ‘manterrupting’ is accompanied, in many articles, by revisiting the notion of ‘mansplaining’. This concept, coined by the writer Rebecca Solnit in 2008, describes the situation in which a man interrupts a woman to explain what she already knows and sometimes with the exact same meaning that she was just in the middle of explaining. Often considered by women as a sign of condescension, this behaviour, which although is not necessarily the result of bad intentions, is particularly frustrating!
There is also another nuance in the same register: bropropriating. Here we are referring to men who take a woman’s idea and take the credit for it. Again, this is not usually malicious, but more the result of unconscious biases: ‘the idea that a man’s comment or opinion bear more weight than a woman’s’, says the management expert Arin N. Reeves.
A subject on the academic curriculum for (at least) 40 years
In 1975: Men are 47 times more ‘interrupter’ than women
In 1975, The University of Santa Barbara published a study, based on 31 conversations between men and women which revealed that men had been 47 times more likely than women to interrupt. And that it was first and foremost the women who paid the price.
A ‘battle of the sexes’ for the right to speak?
In 1981, the psychologist Geoff Beatie wrote a great article published in the Linguistics review confirming a situation of ‘competition’ of the sexes in conversations: new issues of power resulting from the rise of women in public spaces are transposed in ordinary conversational spaces.
A school of thought concerning the expression of ideas is emerging and reveals the existence of a kind of insulated glass ceiling. This ‘ceiling’ soundproofs women’s speech and depreciates their power of influence in discussion spaces.
Interrupt yes, but to say what?
During the following decade, the linguist Janet Holmes goes on to explain the differences between women and men in the context of interruptions of speech: she highlights that whilst men are predominantly the ‘decider interrupters’ who intervene to disprove, confirm, disqualify or validate the remarks of others, women behave more as ‘complementary interrupters’ who provide additional information and/or binder elements (encouragement, support, compliments, thanks) in the conversation.
A meta-analyse in 1998, conducted by psychology professors Kristin J. Anderson and Campbell Leaper relating to three decades of research confirmed a massive phenomenon and gender differences in the reasons for unexpected and unwarranted interventions.
Self-censorship of women: lack of self-confidence or insufficient legitimacy?
In 2002, the work of a researcher in behavioural sciences Marianne Schmid Mast indicates the existence of the social function of speaking: individuals with a high status in society speak more often and for longer. She hypothesises that the speaking differences between women and men result from the differences in their status in society.
In other words, the self-censorship of women relates more to a sense of less legitimacy to speak in an insufficiently inclusive context than a lack of confidence in oneself.
An issue that begins to integrate corporate diversity policies
Observed long ago by the scientific world, often denounced by the activist world, ‘manterrupting’ is also making its name in the business world. Indeed, the increasing maturity of equality policies has resulted in an increasingly precise understanding of the barriers to the affirmation of women in the professional field. Today, we are aware that a lack of diversity finds its roots in complex mechanisms and many unconscious, though deeply embedded, behavioural traits.
It is these barriers, invisible to the naked eye, that we must address if we want to attract, retain and advance women as much as men. Not to mention the fact that allowing ‘speech pilferers’ to act with impunity (albeit not intentionally), is to take the risk of depriving themselves of interesting ideas and/or to see distorted, if not outright erroneous ideas retained for the sole reason that they have been forwarded by a more talkative, noisier and in appearance legitimate interlocutor.
How to fight manterrupting?
As always in terms of diversity, awareness is the key. Step out of denial! A simple exercise will help understand the full measure of ‘manterrupting’. For example, during a meeting designate someone to count the interruptions and share the results at the end of the meeting. You can also do this test at home, watching TV or listening to the radio.
Beef up listening and empathy!
Any impertinent interruption of others exposes not only the interrupter but also the entire audience, to a loss of knowledge and meaning. To guard against this let us all improve the quality of our listening skills.
Let’s learn how to really hear the words of others as well as recognising the nonverbal signs that are fully part of all conversations. Whether we are in a speaking or listening position, let us keep in mind the other’s point of view, on one side acknowledge the need to express oneself and on the other, that of real attentiveness. A good technique for ‘listening’ conversations is to practise the ‘3-second method’: leave 3 seconds of silence before reacting. Less than 3 seconds is still pilfering, more is a sign of lack of co-operation.
The role of the ‘choir leader’
The fight against ‘interrupting’ is also the role of the leader. A genuine ‘choir leader’ must ensure that all voices are heard.
For example, Glen Mazzara, Producer (including the series The Walking Dead): even though he had gender diversity and parity in his team of screenwriters, he was confronted by the women in the team about their difficulties in expressing their ideas. In short, they were victims of ‘manterrupting’. Only becoming aware after the fact, Mazzara recognised his passive complicity as he had let the men interrupt and had often given more credit to their opinions. He then decided to introduce a ‘no interrupting’ rule in all of his meetings: everyone has sufficient time to pitch their ideas, after which the critical debate begins before a joint decision is made to move on to the next topic.
Working on posture and affirming the right to speak
In a ‘manterrupting’ situation, it is not forbidden to show assertiveness. In fact, it is recommended. When someone cuts you off, you are perfectly entitled to protest. Politely but firmly: please let me finish and you can have your say afterwards.
If the problem recurs, why not approach the issue as a team effort, in a co-constructive spirit, setting out the rules of conversation. Everyone has a turn, it’s just organisation!
Play the solidarity card
And if, like Obama’s female staff, we started to use the amplification strategy?
Explanation: the women in the President’s office adopted the very good habit of systematically repeating a suggestion put forward by one of the female staff members until the subject was on the agenda of discussion, thus focusing the attention of the group on the suggestion. A very effective technique that Obama admitted created a new dynamic of exchange within his team.
Elina Vandenbroucke et Marie Donzel, pour le webmagazine Eve. Sur une suggestion d’Anne Thevenet-Abitbol.