Sapna Cheryan and Laura Vianna explore the culture of interruption in this Yes! Article.
“Mr. Vice President, I Am Speaking”: A Culture of Interruption
The official count is out: Vice President Mike Pence interrupted U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris 10 times during Wednesday night’s debate, twice as many times as she interrupted him. The vice presidential debate was deemed “civil.” But civil does not mean it was fair. As long as interruptions are rewarded and seen as standard behavior, as they were in both the vice presidential and the presidential debates, many women will be disadvantaged in politics.
A culture of interruption exists when it is standard for people to intrusively interrupt one another to make their own points. As academic psychologists, we have spent decades studying masculine cultures. In our work, we’ve explored masculine defaults, or aspects of a culture that reward or standardize behaviors that are typically associated with men. And we’ve found that masculine defaults—such as cultures of intrusive interruption—prevent many women (and people of all genders who do not display characteristics that are commonly associated with men) from entering and achieving success in majority-male careers such as politics.
Why do these interruptions matter? At the vice presidential debate, interruption had consequences for the total speaking time each candidate had. Pence had three extra minutes of speaking time over Harris, according to CBS News. His interruptions enabled him to get more of his message across to the American people. He was also able to control his message more and give off the appearance of being tough.
Negative consequences of cultures of interruption extend beyond politics. In a study on faculty job interviews in engineering departments, women were significantly more likely to be interrupted during their presentations about their work. As a result of these interruptions, women were more rushed and did not have the same amount of time to conclude in a compelling way, with possible consequences for their subsequent likelihood of getting hired. Cultures of interruption make it harder for women to be heard and achieve success.
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