What I Learned About Interruption from Talk Radio


I grew up listening to a lot of talk radio, thanks to a childhood spent in the car driving from this soccer tournament in rural Connecticut to that one in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, all while listening to Mike and the Mad Dog, or Dr. Laura, or Opie and Anthony. I didn’t think it would do me much good, all this talk radio. And a lot of it probably did active harm. I’m still unlearning racist, classist, sexist jokes and phrases that have embedded themselves into my brain after hours of these shows. But there is one arena in which this kind of radio made me supremely prepared: talking to men. Or, more precisely, not letting men talk over me.

On June 3rd, writer and philosopher Jim Holt was moderating a panel at the World Science Festival called “Pondering the Imponderables: The Biggest Questions of Cosmology.” Holt is not a cosmologist. He is a philosopher and writer. This is not to say that philosophers or writers or really anybody other than a cosmologist can’t moderate panels on cosmology, but I point this out for a reason that will soon become clear. One of the panelists was a woman named Veronika Hubeny, a theoretical physicist. She was the only woman on the panel. Holt asked Hubeny a question about string theory. And then, without letting Hubeny answer his question, Holt began to hold forth on string theory.

The exchange was caught on camera, so you can watch it here. Hubeny is clearly trying to answer Holt’s question, but he simply won’t stop talking to let her. At one point, a woman in the audience named Marilee Talkington, actually shouted “LET HER SPEAK” to stop Holt from interrupting (you can read her entire account of the panel here). After a pause that I’m sure felt like ages to Talkington, the audience burst into applause. Hubeny then finally got to speak. 

I’m not here to adjudicate this exchange, and I’m sure if you want to read heated debates about it you can find those using your trusty search engine of choice. Or the YouTube comments, if you enjoy true pain. 

But this, this thing where a man simply doesn’t let you get a word in edgewise, this doesn’t happen to me much. Sure, I’ve had my fair share of mansplainers (my favorite being a clone of Solnit’s book-explainer, the man who explained my own podcast to me). But I don’t generally have trouble getting a word in. And I think it’s because I learned how to handle men who talk over me by listening to all that talk radio. 

So here are my tips for anybody who might find themselves in a situation like Hubeny, where someone simply isn’t letting you get a word in, as learned from many, many hours of talk radio. 

Let’s start with some general rules. First, when you are dealing with a chronic over-talker, do not try to be subtle. This is not a situation in which you should “go high.” Politeness does not work here, nor does trying to “take the high road.” You will wait forever for them to notice that they are doing this. You will die or fall asleep or the universe will end in a white-hot explosion before they will stop and think “hm I have been talking a lot I wonder if I’m talking over this person.” 

Second, there are no pauses in talk radio, no long moments of thinking, no silences while you try to formulate a thoughtful response. Think of this conversation like a rock climbing wall. Each breath and micro-pause is a foothold. Your interlocutor will grab every single one and climb to the top, and you will be left at the bottom staring up at his backside. And it is not a nice view, let me assure you. 

Let me be clear: No pauses means literally no pauses. Start your sentence just before your partner has ended theirs. Do not wait for them to actually end their sentence. Do not let them pause and think “am I truly done?” Because the answer is always no. 

Now let’s talk about what to do when you realize you’re dealing with an over-talker. We’ll start with the less subtle approaches. Probably the most common way that talk radio men deal with other men talking over them, is to play Verbal Chicken. This is a game in which each man simply continues to talk until one of them stops. This can go on for an excruciatingly long time, and usually involves the two getting louder and louder until they are both shouting their points at the same time. But eventually, someone does stop. And the other person wins.

Then there’s the direct address. At least once an hour, on a sports call-in talk show, someone says “are you going to let me finish?” Or “can I make my point?” Or some variation of this question. And while it might seem aggressive, I can assure you that a chronic over-talker has heard it before. Holt himself laughed at the audience interruption and said, “I always get heckled.” In talk radio land, nobody gets bent out of shape about it. It also, fair warning, doesn’t always work. But it can buy a few seconds of talking time. 

There are also more advanced moves. One of my favorites is the Question Sneak Attack. While your monologuer is talking, say over them “Jim (or whatever their name is), can I ask you something?” This often makes them stop, or at least wrap up their thought. Because there’s nothing better for an over-talker than you asking them a question. This makes it seem like they are not simply holding forth at length, but instead answering your questions. When they do stop, you don’t, in fact, ask a question. Instead, you make your point. Every time someone successfully executes off the Question Sneak Attack on the radio I high five myself, or whoever is around me. It is probably my favorite move. 

A less advanced, but very effective move is the Name Drop. When you find yourself unable to get a word in edgewise simply start saying the speakers name. Like this, “Jim, Jim, Jim, Jim.” This is incredibly effective because it is usually a short and easy set of syllables to get in that makes it very clear that you’re being talked over. And because you’re using the talker’s name it is very clear that you are addressing them specifically. Eventually, they will have to stop and say “yes?” At which point you can politely point out that they have been speaking over you this whole time and you did not buy tickets to this one man show and could he please show you the exit. 

If none of this works, try the Laughter Emergency Break. Start laughing audibly when you get frustrated and while they talk over you. Not a little chuckle, a full laugh so that they can hear you. It is incredibly distracting to them, because they have no idea what is funny, and can fluster them enough to throw them off their train. 

I’m not going to say that women can use the same techniques as men without any consequences. I have been called rude, brash, prickly, harsh, abrasive and the whole rest of the words that are synonyms for “assertive woman.” But I do get to speak. And I hope you do too. 

Image by Star Mama

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7 thoughts on “What I Learned About Interruption from Talk Radio

  1. I can’t remember where I read/learned it, but when I’m talking to someone I do a “one-one-thousand” in my head before I start talking when they’ve stopped. Sometimes they start talking again, sometimes they don’t, but I want to make sure they’re not just cuing up their next thought and are actually done talking before I do.

  2. Do these techniques work with women as well? We might do well with a follow-up that addresses womensplainers and women over-talkers, groups that might require more sophisticated tactics.

  3. I am a man who is often interrupted in conversations. I just say nothing after the interruption, waiting for the interrupter (man or woman) to finish and say, “Oh, I’m sorry…you were saying…” It never happens.
    My best friend is a woman who never interrupts me, nor I her. A year ago, she said one day, “I know we’re becoming friends because sometimes we just sit here saying nothing. “

  4. “There are no pauses in talk radio, no long moments of thinking, no silences while you try to formulate a thoughtful response. Think of this conversation like a rock climbing wall. ”

    This makes me doubt that the author has done much rock climbing. Whilst some climbing is ‘fluid’ and continuous, there’s a lot that requires “moments of thinking”.

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