Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast, takes questions from its listeners about all aspects of Jewish life, from the religiously profound to the utterly inconsequential. Every week, we discuss one of these questions in “Ask Unorthodox.” If you have a question, please send it to email@example.com.
Sometimes the questions come by mail, sometimes by snail, sometimes by carrier pigeon. This week’s question for the hosts of Unorthodox comes by Facebook, where members of the Unorthodox Facebook group have been interrogating the question, “Is interrupting a male thing—or is it just Jewish?”
It began when one of our podcast’s loyal listeners noted that on a recent episode a male host (the one whose name is not Mark) interrupted a female host (that would be Stephanie). “I know that Stephanie is entirely capable of defending herself,” Loyal Listener wrote, “but I find it inexcusable sexist crap to continuously interrupt when a women is trying to speak.”
But wait, another contributor asked, what about the well-known fact that certain ethnic groups, for example the Jews, are also known for their interrupting—or their “cooperative overlapping,” as the linguist Deborah Tannen calls it? Doesn’t that complicate the matter, especially on a Jewish podcast whose success derives in no small part from putting three Jews around a table and having them interact in specifically Jewish ways? In such a case, one might read the interrupting not as sexist, but as Jewish. (And here, in this time of mourning for the author who created Sophie Portnoy, we might add that in Jewish culture women are not generally seen as afraid to interrupt.)
Our listeners—known affectionately as the J-Crew—had an uninterrupted field day. “I think my favorite part of this week’s show,” Eefgie wrote, “was when Liel interrupted Mark while Mark was talking about the acceptability of interruption in Jewish conversation, just to tell Mark that he (Liel) agreed with him.” A listener claiming to be “Ethan” noted that the original question seemed to imply that it’s worse for a man to interrupt a woman than for a woman to interrupt a woman, and he averred that “holding men and women to different standards, based on their gender, is to be prejudice on the basis of sex—which is the definition of sexism.” The final word came from Unorthodox producer Josh Kross: “As an afterthought, our interrupting should be called Jewsplaining.”
Wait, did we say “final word”? Pshaw! Consider that sociolinguist Carole Edelsky has actually contested the idea that men interrupt more. Here research shows that men are more likely to interrupt a single speaker—like at a board-room presentation—but if multiple people are talking (like at a dinner party), women are more likely to join in with an interruption of their own. So it’s not as cut and dry as “men interrupt more.” They do in some cases, but women interrupt more in others. “I interrupt all of the time,” listener Alissa affirmed. “When I feel like it’s too much for other people, I try to apologize and blame it on a ‘New York regionalism.’” A very shrewd move, Alissa, chalking it up to “New Yorkers,” that classic euphemism for “Jews”!
Except … research shows that New Yorkers in fact do interrupt more than non–New Yorkers. And here we turn again to Tannen, the linguist, who explained in her classic You Just Don’t Understand that we all exist on a continuum of interruptivity, affected by our gender, ethnicity, and region. “Jewish New Yorkers, many New Yorkers who are not Jewish, and many Jews who are not from New York have high-involvement [conversational] styles,” Tannen writes, “and are often perceived as interrupting in conversations with speakers from different backgrounds,” such as Californians.
But wait—Californians expect shorter conversational pauses than Midwesterners and New Englanders, so Minnesotans and Mainers perceive Californians as the big interrupters! “Just as I was considered extremely polite when I lived in New York but was sometimes perceived as rude in California,” Tannen continued, “a polite Californian I know was shocked and hurt to find herself accused of rudeness when she moved to Vermont.”
And it gets better! The hierarchy of interrupters keeps going: Midwesterners are the aggressive interrupters when in conversation with Athabaskan Indians, who take really long pauses between sentences, linguists have found. And “Swedes and Norwegians are perceived as interrupting by the longer-pausing Finns”—but Finns from certain regions take longer pauses than Finns from other regions, whom they in turn perceive as pushy. Kind of like the Jews.
So it’s not quite right to value interrupting as inherently bad. Context is everything. It can be an expression of sexist attitudes, but it can also be ethnic heritage. Interrupting is a trait not only of men, but also of women, in different circumstances, and, yes, of Jews (and Iranians: “It is very much the same among Iranians, too,” listener Shay wrote. “WE INTERRUPT EACH OTHER!”). Put another way: interrupting isn’t just hegemonic, dominant behavior—it’s also authentic, warm, haymish behavior.