The Benefits of Interrupting

Our society spends a lot of time in a culture where we speak to each other silently. The difference between verbal and nonverbal communication has long been researched, but many studies still focus on face-to-face conversation. In the silent communication of IM, email, and texting, nonverbal cues are simply not present.

Some compelling arguments have even fought for texting as an emergent dialect. Take this quote from an amazing Ted Talk given by John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University.

The way I’m thinking of texting these days is that what we’re seeing is a whole new way of writing that young people are developing, which they’re using alongside their ordinary writing skills, and that means that they’re able to do two things. Increasing evidence is that being bilingual is cognitively beneficial. That’s also true of being bidialectal. -John McWhorter

With the rise of a “bidialectal” generation mired in instant communication, one emerging pattern is that we interrupt each other much more frequently. Take this conversation I recently had with a coworker:


As you can see by the time stamps, we were firing off information to each other very quickly. As a result, we were both able to interject a thought without derailing the other person or “talking over” them. The digital realm provides a safe space for interruption, but if the same conversation happened in person, both of us would have been perceived as rude.

Because of the unique nature of digital communication, the act of interrupting helped to facilitate the conversation. In silent communication, ideas can grow between two or more people very quickly and no one feels diminished. At any point, both can look through the chat history to catch up with what the other said. This written history makes the act of interrupting additive rather than dismissive. In person, the same act of interrupting is considered to be a selfish act, not a communal one.

We are beginning to see the effects of digital conversation patterns bleeding over into face-to-face communication, and the results are frustrating across the board. When it comes to interrupting as a conversational tool, there have been some weird side effects. From so called “youtube parties” to the perception of millennials as being selfish, even down to the general feeling of social interactions being less worth it over time – it is clear that our “bidialectal” nature has certain ramifications.

People with a high fluency in the digital dialect have social connections that are not built around the necessary in person concept of conversational pauses. Without really knowing why, people have started compensating for this by reserving their place in face-to-face communication by using verbal pauses. The words “uh” “uhm” and “like” are evolving to be a deterrent of unwanted interruption for the under 30 crowd.

Mark Bauerlein, author of the book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) writes:

We live in a culture where young people—outfitted with iPhone and laptop and devoting hours every evening from age 10 onward to messaging of one kind and another—are ever less likely to develop the “silent fluency” that comes from face-to-face interaction. It is a skill that we all must learn, in actual social settings, from people (often older) who are adept in the idiom. As text-centered messaging increases, such occasions diminish. The digital natives improve their adroitness at the keyboard, but when it comes to their capacity to “read” the behavior of others, they are all thumbs. – Mark Bauerlein

As per usual, Bauerlein is both correct and incorrect, a skill I believe also accompanies “people (often older) who are adept in the idiom.” But seriously, read his book, especially if you are one of the “untrustworthy” under 30.

In traditional arguments such as Bauerlein’s, silent language is nonverbal communication. I posit that silent language is simply written text, which is ever evolving to develop new ways of expressing the same nuances that we rely on in person.

In recognizing this evolution of interruption as a beneficial conversational pattern in silent communication, we must also recognize that the skill should remain in the area where it is most useful: the digital realm. In person, we should endeavor to find the moments of silence in conversation and feel comfortable within them. This isn’t a collaborative IM session linkstorm, it is a nuanced, challenging, relationship building interaction, and that means that we have to be our own moderator.

If you like what you read, feel free to share. Basic Rules: Be civil. We are all people and deserve respect. That’s a hard and fast rule, by the way, it is not optional. Other than that, anything goes.

Interested in many things, but nothing captivates more than technology, entrepreneurship, futurism, and humanity's quest to problem-solve.