It'd be easier to have a conversation if I could get a word in edgeways
February 13, 2012 9:40 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way to deal with people who talk over you?

I don't mean people who are trying to be antagonistic or confrontational, and bludgeoning you with words as part of that effort. I'm talking about people who mean well, but just aren't great at the give-and-take of normal conversation - specifically, the part where other people get a turn at speaking too.

There are a couple of people I know, personally and professionally, who have a habit of doing this. When they're talking, they're like radios set to 'broadcast' rather than 'receive', and any attempts to respond, reply, or interrupt in any way are just bulldozed over (sometimes totally obliviously, sometimes by them upping the volume/speed of their own voice until you're quiet again). The end result is an uninterruptable monologue - "I was thinking about that underwater basketweaving programme you suggested, but then I remembered, what about all the sharks? I mean, sharks could bite, right? And maybe shoals of passing cod could interrupt the basketweaving patterns, or they could disturb our breathing equipment, so that's an issue on top of the safety thing, so maybe we shouldn't. BUT THEN I suppose that the water would keep the basketweaving materials supple, yeah, it'd definitely keep them a lot more flexible than they are on land, definitely, and that's got to be more important than safety concerns, so let's just ignore the sharks and go ahead with it. Except wait I forgot: urchin allergies!" - while you're stuck going "But -" and "Well, there's -" and "Hey, can I -", and trying in vain to explain that Operation Basketsnorkel has already been cancelled.

It drives me crazy, not least because I grew up in a family where talking over someone else was considered the height of rudeness. Which I suspect is part of the problem, because I feel so uncomfortable with the idea of talking back over the talky person until they shush, and maybe that's what they're actually expecting me to do. Or maybe it's not? I have no idea, really. I'm not even sure these people know they're doing it.

And so I turn to you, AskMe: what's a good friendly-but-effective way to deal with this?
posted by Catseye to Society & Culture (36 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure how friendly it is, but I would withdraw from the conversation, stop providing visual or auditory cues that I was engaged, and stop talking immediately if I was saying something that got interrupted. At the very least this type of response may attenuate your own discomfort, since you'll have your own extinguishing behavior to focus on.
posted by OmieWise at 9:43 AM on February 13, 2012

If you want to be friends with such a person, then you just wait until they're done. They can't go forever.
posted by TheRedArmy at 9:45 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Friendly-but-effective: keep talking even when they try to bulldoze over you. If they don't stop, the two of you will just both be talking simultaneously, which will feel weird, but it will teach them to stop talking over you.

Not-so-friendly-and-effective: "would you please stop talking over me?"
posted by jayder at 9:46 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Over the years I'm seeing myself being less and less involved with people like this. Perhaps I find my own time too precious, and just have developed a habit of opting out.
However, this enables me to be absolutely relaxed these days if I nevertheless happen to have to endure a nonstop-chatter for a while. I sort of experience it as a free-form wacko-observation field trip thingy. I mean, we also watch movies where we let the other people do all the talking.
(Malevolently obnoxious people are obviously excluded from "relaxed". You are allowed to turn your back occasionally).
posted by Namlit at 9:49 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Wave your hand in a friendly way, and say something like "eh eh eh, wait, I wasn't done!" Or bring it up directly - I'd do it in the moment rather than later simply because it's just a bad social habit. Say to them in a warm tone of voice, "I really like talking about this with you, but let me get a word in edgewise!" or similar. Do it while smiling. Many of these people (and I border on being one myself) know that they are not good at give and take in conversation, and want to be better. I actually have a friend who got a lot better about this after folks started telling him - he's still an exuberant talker with a lot of ideas but it's much more of a two-way street now.
posted by Frowner at 9:52 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would second the effective - "would you please stop talking over me?", or just approach them at a different time and have a conversation specifically to address the talking over issue.

But the example you use sounds more like that person is thinking through a problem, and maybe is not looking for your insight or advice on the {basketweaving} problem, but needs a sounding board. I do that all the time, honestly, and I am a pretty good listener when its my turn.

Final thought: people that talk too much have, I'm sure, been told they talk too much previously, and so they won't mind if you point it out - in fact, that may be the friendliest thing you could do.
posted by RajahKing at 9:53 AM on February 13, 2012

I get this all the damned time, and I either go talk to someone else or I let the person know that they're being rude and also irritating the hell out of me. I do this in various ways, depending on my mood. Sometimes I'll just let the person rabbit on and on until they stop, as they eventually must. Then I'll say "Oh... have you finished? Can I have a turn now?" This can be delivered with a smile if you want to soften it but I generally don't.

Another tack I sometimes try is to raise my hand like a schoolkid and, if necessary, say "Excuse me, can I say something here?" Again, the smile is optional. If they're being particularly bad I'll just say "HEY! Let someone else have a chance, for Christ's sake." I'm afraid I'm the sort of person who doesn't muck about with this sort of thing. These people are socially graceless, and I have no compunction about letting them know that. They won't learn otherwise.
posted by Decani at 9:55 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Use your body language to interrupt and redirect.

Them: "I was thinking about that underwater basketweaving programme you suggested, but then I remembered, what about all the sharks? I mean, sharks could bite, right?"

You: (Hold up your hand in the universal "stop" sign) "Wait, hold up right there. You were thinking about the program? What interested you about it?"

It will seem rude as hell the first time you do this. But the idea is that you eventually stop doing it, as you train the other person to give you a space to talk. Done right, they won't even remember it.

If you don't like the hand, try other less obvious things, like just standing up.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:55 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Can you try humor?

Raise your hand, as if to make a comment in class.

"If I may interrupt your broadcast..."

"Could you give me a sign when you're ready to take a breath?"

"Okay, my turn!"
posted by wryly at 9:57 AM on February 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

In my experience - and it sounds like we have a similar view on conversation - people who talk too much don't mind being interrupted themselves. It's like they belong to a different conversational culture. Whereas I don't like being interrupted (not, I hope, because I am full of myself, but because I think of conversation as a back-and-forth), other people expect it. Think of it as comparable to the Ask vs Guess cultures someone typologized.

So, I'd say, if you can, just interrupt them - they don't mind, they almost expect it. But, if you can't or won't do that, then it is almost impossible to be friends with such people since the mutual rewards and friendship building through conversation (there is a reason they call it social intercourse) is impossible.

The idea put forward above that you just clam up or don't give the appropriate social cues is, in my experience, unlikely to work. They aren't looking for or responding to the same social cues. Conversation is martial arts for these people - they expect to get hit, and passivity just means, hit harder.
posted by Rumple at 10:01 AM on February 13, 2012 [9 favorites]

I find holding up a hand and saying "Sorry, but..." accompanied by leaning forward a little and trying to make eye contact works ok. I'm kind of a talker-over, mostly because I tend to think aloud and need some time to work through my train of thought verbally, and I just want to get it all out. I'm so caught up that I need a couple of body language/verbal cues to snap me out of it. On the other hand, I'm aware that I have a problem with this- a more oblivious person might need a more abrupt approach, especially if they reaaaally think their words are more important than yours.
posted by MadamM at 10:10 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

They have probably never learned how to engage in meaningful conversations. Or maybe they have unconsciously learned a destructive communication pattern because they are insecure or because they were never given enough space as kids. There are different ways to raise their level or awareness, ranging from the mildly rude to toxic levels of rudeness that would require getting a HAZMAT team involved.

If you value your relationship with these people, you need to direct their attention to this issue ("Heh, now you are talking too fast/much again") and explain why this is a problem ("I can't keep up / I've forgotten something important I wanted to say / you are not listening to me").

Delivery is incredibly important so that you don't come off as an insensitive jerk. Smile, laugh and generally show that you're half-kidding (even if you're not), that it isn't a huge deal (even if it is). No one wants to have their character flaws pointed out, so try to be as gentle and kind as you can.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 10:10 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would like to second Rumple-I think I may belong to the class of people that do this, and think it's largely cultural-and definitely second that the person may not want to be rude at all, and may be somewhat frustrated themselves. It is very, very similar to Ask v Guess.

I am very used to loud, lively conversations, where interruptions are constant-where there are no real pauses in conversation, and the speech itself is very, very fast. You realize someone else has something to say when they "Break in", and then you let the conversation go for a while until you have something that you really want to say about what they're saying. You also judge the intensity of their interest by how engaged they are, and how willing to jump in they are.

Because you are trying to maintain the conversation, multiple conversational shifts may be signs of them trying to get you engaged in the conversation.

So the conversation may be really going like this in their head:
"I was thinking about that underwater basketweaving programme you suggested, but then I remembered, what about all the sharks? I mean, sharks could bite, right?
"Hmm. There's been no interruption thus far. Maybe she's not interested in shark bites. Let me move on."
And maybe shoals of passing cod could interrupt the basketweaving patterns, or they could disturb our breathing equipment, so that's an issue on top of the safety thing, so maybe we shouldn't.
"Still nothing! Ah well, maybe not fish. Let me move on...."

In that culture, the person who is talking may /also/ be tired of talking the most. They may even feel as though they are "carrying" the conversation for you. This is not rudeness so much as it is a mismatch of cultural expectations.

What I suspect happens is that you are extremely polite, and so when you start talking, you may start at a low volume. These people may be expecting you to jump in "swinging", as it were-to start in with a loud, excited conversation.

As to how to fix this? I think sometime when you're not already talking, you should start talking about exactly this: about the way cultures sometimes mismatch, and explain, "When I was a kid, people talked like THIS, but I know other people sometimes grew up talking like THIS! How zany!" and see how that goes.
posted by corb at 10:14 AM on February 13, 2012 [21 favorites]

This might not be the same pattern you're seeing - but thought I would add it in case it lets you adopt a different perspective on some of this so it doesn't drive you so nuts:

I found this Deborah Tannen article about New York City speech patterns to be really useful. She's a sociolinguist and a New Yorker, and her analysis showed that New Yorkers had a pattern of interrupting and talking over other speakers, which other speakers found offputting; Tannen describes the friendly intentions behind the interrupting behavior in a really nice way. If your people are working from this pattern, they might be expecting you to jump back in and talk over them in return.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:16 AM on February 13, 2012 [16 favorites]

I do this all the time because I'm an exciteable geek--for me, it's the verbal equivalent of trying to pass someone going the opposite way, and you both move aside in the same direction, and argh we both just did that AGAIN. In other words, I often miss that microsecond you-can-butt-in-now cue, or mis-estimate it in some way, and bump into you. Sorry. (I happened to do it a bunch over the weekend, and was just thinking about this.)

I don't get offended if you put up a hand and finish your sentence or talk over me; I actually prefer that to when people who were originally talking stop and say "no, you go ahead," because that interrupts the conversational flow even more than my having made a slight misjudgement. On the other hand, if the urchin allergies are the whole point of where I'm going with my ramble, and I'm the one talking, I like to finish my thought or else I'll lose it.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:39 AM on February 13, 2012

I'm very direct with a friend like this. He knows he does it, knows it's rude, but doesn't know he's doing it while he's doing it. So I just tell him to give me a chance to speak. And he does, with an apology. Without this approach I would just seethe and eventually hate him. But this way we can stay friends.
posted by jenmakes at 10:49 AM on February 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Some people see conversation more as a constant give and take instead of a ping-pong game, where clipping over the ends of the other's sentences is key to keeping the conversation going. Just be more assertive with them, they won't find it offensive if you interrupt them because it's how it's supposed to work.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 10:58 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I do this, and I'm an idiot.

I tell my friends to tell me to shut up. Really. They have to completely interrupt me and then tell me I'm talking over them. Then I know to watch myself. I'm not offended at all, in fact I prefer being told to shut up to losing the friendship.

I also have to be told a lot. I forget.
posted by TooFewShoes at 11:06 AM on February 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

I have been on both ends of this, and if I were guilty of over-talking I would be very embarrassed and also really glad to have someone step in and let me know.

In my case, I come from a family where we are pretty quiet and take turns speaking, often earnestly, about our passions. My spouse comes from a more boisterous family who have spirited, sometimes confrontational debates and talk over each other. It can be very intimidating. I used to feel like he didn't respect me when he talked over me. But you know, he used to feel like I didn't speak up enough. I think the key is to just accept that there are different dynamics at work here.

I've actually come to like both of the dynamics for different reasons: I've learned a lot about all kinds of diverse subjects from my parents and siblings, and I've learned how to appreciate other's arguments, as well as how to argue more effectively and support my own positions, through my spouse's family dynamics.

I would maybe suggest that you not assume, as others mentioned, that they're intending to be rude when these folks over-talk. Sometimes it's just a case of coming from a background where you HAVE to speak up to be heard. And sometimes it's just a case of not 'reading the room' correctly.

Either way, I think most over-talkers would like to be set straight if they're coming across as overbearing. If you can't make yourself speak up because it is just too much against your nature, try waving your hand, touching the speaker on the shoulder (if you are comfortable with that and it's appropriate), or making some kind of obvious gesture to get the speaker's attention.
posted by misha at 11:19 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not everyone who interrupts has ADD/ADHD, but interrupting & finishing other people's sentences is very common with ADD/ADHD adults, and unfortunately something I'm very prone to. And it sucks about ADHD that I will act like a jerk without realizing it, meanwhile giving people the impression that I'm being actively malicious or don't care about what they're saying, which isn't true at all! Most of the time I'm like "I have a million trains of thought going through my head and what you said made me think of something new, or a totally unrelated thought train just went somewhere unexpected, and I'm so excited I have to blurt it out RIGHT NOW before I forget it!"

Luckily, I have kept friends who haven't shunned or murdered me yet. I try to get better at checking in with myself, "Does the person look interested in what I'm saying? Are they avoiding eye contact? When did someone else last talk?" Or when I fail at least going "Sorry, I interrupted you, what were you saying about subject?" And my friends have conversation  carte blanche to go "Wait! *holds up hand* I'm talking, let me finish!" Or especially when we're having serious discussion about personal issues,  we play I Talk You Talk, where Person #1 gets to say everything they want to say about subject, and when they're finished Person #2 gets to say everything they want in response, and so on. And oh, it is painful, it causes me paaaaain, and I am usually scribbling conversation notes to myself on a post-it note.  Because I am randomly distractable  anyway and so become convinced if I don't say this deadly important thing right now I am going to lose it forever, my brain will SEEP OUT MY EEEEARS, or it will only come back to me three days later when you get a call at 10PM with me going "I remembered that thing I was going to say!!" Because I am paying more attention to "must! contribute! to conversation! like social human!" and less attention to the social human conversation having moved on looong ago.

So, um. What do you do about this behavior? Call it out, as diplomatically or as bluntly as your relationship with the person calls for. If the person doesn't have attention issues and just likes to hear themselves talk / thinks they're more important, then they're a jerk and you're standing up for yourself. If the person has ADD or just isn't thinking about what they're saying being rude, you provide a helpful "OH CRAP I'M DOING IT AGAIN" checkpoint.

See how long and rambly this reply is? This is what happens when you let the person talk on and on uninterrupted. Do not do this.
posted by nicebookrack at 11:20 AM on February 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am in the "probably talks to much" camp as well and I can tell you that part of it comes from a real dislike of uncomfortable pauses and I think "acceptable" pause length is probably cultural/experiential. So you're waiting for a longer pause than the people who are speaking is comfortable with and then they keep going because they don't know you have something to say or they're just being really exuberant and don't notice.

Speaking as one of those people, we can catch on to other people's patterns with a little help though and I find those kind of direct cues very helpful. Things that might work are, interrupting and saying "let me interject here" or "let me say something here" or something similar. Or even something really direct like "I feel like I'm not getting a chance to talk because you're so excited about the topic, can we build a few pauses in the conversation?"

That said, there are people who are just jerks and when they finally do stop to let someone else in, they just continue their original thought after that person stops talking. Those people even I hate talking to and generally keep contact with them at a minimum.
posted by Kimberly at 11:25 AM on February 13, 2012

It drives me crazy, not least because I grew up in a family where talking over someone else was considered the height of rudeness. Which I suspect is part of the problem, because I feel so uncomfortable with the idea of talking back over the talky person until they shush, and maybe that's what they're actually expecting me to do.

I have a friend who is always complaining about other people dominating the conversation--people interrupting her, people talking over her, people not letting her finish her stories or not letting her break in. When I'm with her in a social setting, I always feel her palpable discomfort.

I'm honestly not aware of this stuff any other time, except for when around two distant relatives/family friends who are pretty much just plain crazy. I'm going to assume that you're not talking about the just plain crazies (because honestly, you're not going to change those people).

Part of it might be geographical--she's from the midwest, but lives in the east. She seems to have this expectation that one party will tell a long story, stop, offer a chance for the other party to contribute, listen patiently. And she takes a loooooooong time to tell her stories, with a ponderous storytelling style that's often very roundabout. People get impatient. They try to finish their stories for her, because they can see where they're going.

Where I'm from--NY/NJ area-you just dive in. It's not the end of the world in a social situation if you never get to finish your story. It's more about keeping up with the general ebb and flow of conversation. It's not topic, pause, topic, pause, but rather an ever-changing flow of topics, with people jumping in whenever they have a thought. If you're noticing this with multiple people, I suspect it might figure into it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:26 AM on February 13, 2012

P.S. the whole monologue about the sharks sounds exactly like something I could say, speech patterns and all, I'm not kidding
posted by nicebookrack at 11:27 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am guilty of this, but I'm not a blowhard, just someone with an overlapping conversational style. I try to watch myself with people I don't know well, but with close friends, I don't care if they tell me to hold on, let them finish their sentence, don't interrupt, etc.. In NYC, I'm hardly alone, but in Minneapolis, I try to be on my best behavior. Link is to Deborah Tannen.
Talking, stopping, waiting for the next person seems stilted to me, but I understand I'm not the norm. I am a good listener, however.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:49 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is a symptom of my ADHD. I am aware it's a problem but I have a very hard time recognizing when I am actively doing it. Generally You just need to interupt me and say" I wasn't finished yet", and get on with your point: don't pause for me to respond because I'll likely launch into some crazy tangent.
posted by HMSSM at 12:00 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I make a "T" with my hands in a time-out gesture. The people who over-talk already know they do this so I don't feel rude when I give the time-out gesture.
posted by deborah at 12:09 PM on February 13, 2012

I talk over people all the time, and work with people that talk over me. Just interrupt them, they're used to it.
posted by empath at 12:14 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

As for what works to interrupt them -- touching the shoulder is a good one... or just saying 'hold on a second', or even snapping or whistling.. which is probably a little rude, but people that tend to go off on tangents like that probably wouldn't even notice that you're being rude..
posted by empath at 12:19 PM on February 13, 2012

With people I already know, or coworkers, I just keep talking or repeat myself and look at them pointedly. Or I do the "hold on..." or I say the person's name with emphasis if they've interrupted me.

I have to do this with my mom all the time. I'll get a couple sentences out and then she gets this look like "ooh ooh ok let me get in my thought now" - drives me nuts. There comes a point when I just end the conversation because it's really annoying.

If someone like a supervisor at work did this I would just let them talk.
posted by fromageball at 1:04 PM on February 13, 2012

The classiest way I've seen someone handle being interrupted was to turn to the interruptee, raise a finger and say, "Just one sec," turn back to the group, then finish speaking.
posted by blahtsk at 2:47 PM on February 13, 2012

Oof, I totally have an overlapping conversational style. I'm so excited about the topic that I just talk over people. My family does this, too -- you need to bust right in if you're going to get a chance to speak. We're not all doing it because we think it's rude, to some of us it just seems natural.

I think Cool Papa Bell's method of re-directing works great. It lets me know that I'm running off at the mouth because you're having to re-focus me on the topic at hand. However, by framing it as "I'm interrupting you because I want to know your thoughts on this topic", it still makes me feel like a valued conversational partner.

In sum: I think it's ok to just talk over the person and say "Quick question, what do you like about underwater basket weaving?" And keep interrupting with "Quick question, something something our original topic?" It's reminding everyone that they should value and listen to others opinions.

To all of my conversational partners: I apologize for really being an ass sometimes.
posted by lillygog at 4:26 PM on February 13, 2012

Oh god, I dated that person for FOUR years. He was, literally, a broadcaster which I think only worsened the already-bad habit.

Eventually I just grew used to it and kind of enjoyed zoning out at times when he was on a monologue. Before we lived together, I had even on occasion set the phone down, went to use the bathroom, and came back on the line without him even noticing the lack of audience.

So, my suggestion is to use it as an opportunity to learn from whatever parts of the "discussion" are useful, and zone out for the rest. You do always learn more from listening than talking, and if this isn't a lifelong romantic involvement it's quite tolerable.

(Though it makes it *really* difficult when you start seeing someone with normal conversational patterns -- they seem positively mute by comparison.)
posted by Pomo at 5:11 PM on February 13, 2012

I think corb has it. My partner comes from a family like this (East coasters) -- his parents will call him together, and it's almost impossible to understand them. They just both talk at the same time. As someone who lived in the South a lot, I find this incomprehensible, both literally (I can't understand their words!) and otherwise (why would you talk that way?). I deal with it mostly by just letting them talk, but I am an introvert and I'm fine being perceived as quiet.
posted by linettasky at 5:33 PM on February 13, 2012

We are the same! I am all but incapable of interrupting, and I get interrupted often. Some things that work for me are:

-Giving the time-out signal (making a T with my hands)
-Raising my hand
-Talking to people about it, and explaining that I would appreciate it if they tried not to interrupt me. This works well in work situations; it's not so great for a night out with friends. :)

Good luck!
posted by epj at 6:19 PM on February 13, 2012

If you want to be friends with such a person, then you just wait until they're done. They can't go forever.

Oh yes they can *sighs*.
posted by Amy NM at 4:57 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have to deal with this all the time, but I view it another way - from your description of the conversation, it reads to me as if you're trying to interrupt them, and are frustrated that they're not allowing you to do that. Just wait until they finish talking. Yes, it can be aggravating, but it's not worth stressing over.

And if they go on forever and you don't get to make some of your points - so what? It's a conversation, not a duel. If you value their friendship, just accept it; if you don't value their friendship, stop talking to them.

That's for personal relationships. If this is a conversation regarding work, then use some of the techniques suggested above to make sure you're able to contribute your thoughts. Being pushy and aggressive gets you promoted faster than being polite.

But again, it sounds to me like you are just frustrated at not being allowed to interrupt. Be patient and wait your turn, even if it's taking longer to get to your turn than you might like.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:42 AM on February 14, 2012

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