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“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.

Harris not only had to negotiate gender stereotypes during the debate but also harmful racial stereotypes that characterize Black women as aggressive.

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.

Cultures of interruption can be hard for many women for three reasons. First, women are more likely than men to be interrupted, as we saw in the Wednesday debate and even on the Supreme Court. Second, women are often not socialized to intrusively interrupt others, making it relatively rarer for women to engage in this behavior. Finally, when women do interrupt and display other explicitly dominant behavior, they are seen as unlikable. Men generally do not face the same consequences for such dominant behavior. 

Harris not only had to negotiate gender stereotypes during the debate but also harmful racial stereotypes that characterize Black women as aggressive. At the same time, studies have shown that Black women and Asian women may have more leeway to engage in dominant behaviors than White women. Harris seemed attuned to negotiating her gender and racial identities during the debate. She responded firmly to regain her ground but did so politely with statements like, “Mr. Vice President, I am speaking.” 

Dismantling cultures of interruption can be done, with positive results for women and for the places that address them. In the debate, Harris tried reminding Pence that he was interrupting, and many women cheered. But it was not enough to stop Pence from interrupting her repeatedly. Changing cultures of interruption involves changing the norms and rules about speaking. 

When American TV producer Glen Mazzara, known for The Walking Dead and The Shield, saw that the women on his writing team were being interrupted more than the men, he instituted a no-interruption rule and modeled it himself. Implementing this rule and holding everyone accountable to it allowed everyone to be heard. 

Masculine defaults such as cultures of interruption can be addressed by all of us in our daily lives. Identifying where they exist is the first step to eliminating them. Norms and practices that reward or standardize behaviors commonly associated with men—such as self-promotion, assertiveness, and risk-taking—should be replaced.

Workplaces have replaced whiteboard interviews that focus on individual contributions with interviews that assess for how people worked on a team. Hospitals have implemented checklists to protect against surgical overconfidence and, as a result, improved their surgical outcomes. Balancing masculine defaults by rewarding and standardizing behaviors commonly associated with women could elevate traditionally “kind” traits and transform how we converse and collaborate. Being relational and cooperative can, and should, be valued. 

As evident by the debates so far, setting rules in advance is not enough. We also need to make sure that breaking those rules is not rewarded as it was on Wednesday. In political debates, solutions could include muting microphones after a certain number of interruptions, or docking candidates time in their closing statement for each time they interrupt. Creating and enforcing equitable debate environments would mean that Harris and other women like her would not have to do the extra work of trying to regain their own space when others tread on it.

Update: Pence’s and Harris’ total speaking times were calculated by CBS News. This article originally left off the source of the tally. This clarification was made on Oct. 6, 2020. See our corrections policy here.

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Laura Vianna is a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington.
Sapna Cheryan is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

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