I’m Not Interrupting; I’m Cooperatively Overlapping

By Mordechai Schiller

My friend Rabbi Dovid Sears is a sweet fellow. But he shared a pungent quote with me:
“Want to learn Jewish Meditation? Begin practicing letting the other person finish their sentence” — Jonathan Marx.

OK, that’s more than pungent. Like freshly grated horseradish, it clears your sinuses and your mind. But it’s hard to swallow, and it can bring you to tears.

But what about the conversational crime of breaking and entering while someone else is speaking? Is that a uniquely Jewish trait? I thought it was a New York thing — related to a “New-York-minute” attention span.

So I asked Ben Zimmer, The Wall Street Journal’s language columnist, if he ever wrote about the sociolinguistics of interrupting. Sure enough, he sent me an interview he and Nicole Holliday, assistant professor of linguistics, University of Pennsylvania, had on “Spectacular Vernacular” with Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. They talked about what Tannen called “conversational style,” especially “cooperative overlapping.” The title of the interview was “Interrupting to Show We Care.”

Professor Tannen used the term “conversational style” to mean “all the ways that we … [speak that] can differ by part of country you come from, ethnic background, or regional background.”

She avoids using technical terms in books for general audiences, but somehow even linguistic civilians picked up on the term “conversational style” and it took on a life of its own on social media.

“People seem to be tickled by the technical term,” Tannen said. “It seemed to be something that made them particularly appreciate having something that they do and didn’t realize was ‘a thing’ identified by an academic term.”

(Once something becomes “a thing” it acquires significance. William Safire wrote that doctors “never use the words common cold in front of patients, nor do the sniffling sufferers call what they suffer from a common cold, because the word ‘common’ trivializes the ailment.” Language mavens debate when “a thing” became a thing. Is that a thing for a column?)

When Tannen was working on her dissertation at UC Berkeley, she started by recording conversations. She wanted to look at the conversational styles of each person to see how their use of the features she called “conversational style” affected the conversation. She never set out to look at “New York Jewish” conversational style. It just happened because she focused on a conversation among six people, including herself.

Three, including Tannen, were from New York City and Jewish. Two were from Southern California, and one was from London.

Tannen intended to look at the conversational styles of each individual, but she was only “able to analyze the conversational styles of the three New Yorkers, not of the Californians or the British women, because they had a hard time getting the floor. One of the reasons for that was just how long a pause you expect between turns.”

When two people speak, she explained, “The one who was waiting for the longer pause has a hard time because the one expecting a shorter pause thinks nobody has anything to say and fills that pause. But also, it was this phenomenon of cooperative overlapping that we frequently talked along to show engagement, and it was really a way of encouraging the speaker to continue.”

It’s the New-York-Jewish equivalent of shouting “Right on!” during a sermon.

(There’s also uncooperative overlapping — like the story about the guy who, whenever he talked into his tape recorder, it said, “I know, I know.”)

The problem was that the cooperative overlapping was “misinterpreted by the non-New Yorkers as trying to take the floor.” What the non-Jewish non-New Yorkers didn’t get was the “distinction between cooperative overlapping and interrupting. …

“An interruption is when somebody wants to take the floor that is rightly someone else’s. If you talk along to show encouragement, you’re not taking the floor.”

But it’s not one-sided. Non-New Yorkers tend to stop talking when being “encouraged” by a “cooperative” New Yorker. So the interruption can be “created by the difference in styles, not by something that one person did.”

Tannen concluded with the idea that “it’s so important to know what a conversational style difference is, because it gives you a way to step back before you draw negative conclusions.”

So, it’s both a Jewish thing and a New York thing. (Maybe New York is a Jewish thing. A comedian once observed, “Everybody in New York is Jewish.” But he meant a state of mind, not a nationality.)

The Mishnah (Avos 5:7) says a wise person doesn’t interrupt. The Tiferes Yisrael says that this refers to two people arguing a point. Don’t interrupt, so as not to confuse your friend. This is not the same as genteel civility.

In a feature on Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in The Baltimore Sun, Frank Langfitt wrote:

“Rabbi Sheftel Neuberger cracks the door to the study hall at Ner Israel Rabbinical College and beams as a torrent of conversation that sounds like a Middle Eastern marketplace pours out. Inside, hundreds of students dressed in white shirts, black trousers and yarmulkes are boisterously debating Talmudic texts in English peppered with Hebrew and Aramaic.”

Rabbi Neuberger smiled as Langfitt watched and listened to the roar as the students argued. “You hear the noise? … ‘It doesn’t bother anybody. It’s actually invigorating.’”

Plato might have called it dialectical reasoning — arriving at logical truth through dialogue. We just call it “learning.”

But it’s not only in learning.

In May 2008, former U.S. President George W. Bush spoke at the Knesset, marking Israel’s 60th independence day. Bush said, “It is a rare privilege for the American President to speak to the Knesset. Although the Prime Minister told me there is something even rarer — to have just one person in this chamber speaking at a time.”

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to language@hamodia.com.

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