By: Leslie Shore
From the kindergarten classroom to the corporate boardroom, men and women are socialized to communicate differently. Unfortunately, instead of taking advantage of this inherent diversity in a way that might facilitate camaraderie and creativity in the workplace, we often find colleagues at odds with one another because of their different inter-personal communication styles. The most problematic issue that arises from this discrepancy is the disproportionate number of times that men interrupt women.
According to world-renowned gender communication expert Deborah Tannen, men speak to determine and achieve power and status. Women talk to determine and achieve connection. Given that in American society speaking is considered the power position, it is no wonder that men interrupt to take the floor more often. In using conversation to enhance connection, women are much less likely to interrupt, as it is seen as disrespectful.
Numerous studies support the claim of women in the workforce who argue that men interrupt them far more often than the reverse. A study titled “Sex Roles, Interruptions and Silences in Conversations” by Don Zimmerman and Candace West, sociologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that “…there are definite and patterned ways in which the power and dominance enjoyed by men in other contexts are exercised in their conversational interaction with women.” In this study, the authors analyzed 31 two-party conversations that they had tape recorded in public places such as cafes, drug stores, and university campuses. Of the 31 conversations, 10 were between two men, 10 between two women, and 11 between and man and a woman. In the two same-sex groups combined, the authors found seven instances of interruption. In the male/female group, however, they found 48 interruptions, 46 of which were instances of a man interrupting a woman.
It was shown in a 2014 study at George Washington University that when men were talking with women, they interrupted 33 percent more often than when they were talking with men. The men interrupted their female conversational partners 2.1 times during a three minute conversation. That number dropped to 1.8 when they spoke to other men. The women in the study rarely interrupted their male counterparts—an average of once in a three minute dialogue.
Can anything change this dynamic? It is doubtful that men or women will change their way of being altogether. However, there are a few things both men and women can do to overcome this unconscious bias in the workplace.