Who Interrupts More? The Truth About Manterruptions

Is there really a gender bias in communication? Lisa B. Marshall, aka The Public Speaker, examines the evidence and suggests solutions.


Lisa B. Marshall
6-minute read
Episode #328

The Ideal Solution to Gender Biased Communication

There is a subconscious expectation about how women should behave. 

Obviously, all this talk about male and female communication is just generalization. But for many women, this is their reality. I can tell you the question of how to handle men who interrupt comes up every time I speak to a group of highly competent woman professionals. There is a subconscious expectation about how women should behave. And it's not just a description of appropriate behavior for women: it's a society prescription. When women deviate from that expectation, they’re penalized.

So what’s the solution? Should women be expected to act like men, or men like women? Is it productive to call men sexist or assume men are doing things purposely to put down women? I don’t think these are successful approaches.

I think the best approach is to handle it the way we handle cultural differences: with education.

I often suggest that women create a trusted colleagues group (that includes both women and men) to be sure they are heard. I suggest each member of this group make an explicit agreement that when an important interruption occurs to a member of the group, another member will call attention to the interruption. It might sound like this, "George, I'd like to hear your thoughts, but I don't think Sally was finished. Sally?" or "Marc, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I'd like to hear the rest of Sally's idea first."

From a broader perspective, it's important for professionals who work with diverse cultures to take the time to learn about how that culture communicates best. For instance, people who work with Japanese companies learn that, in the Japanese culture, to say no directly is considered rude. The same awareness could be used in business for the different linguistic styles often found in men and women.

Deborah Tannen, linguist at Georgetown University and author of You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, explains that women tend to see conversation as an opportunity to make a connection, while men see it more as an opportunity to share information or determine status. Our communication patterns are developed in childhood, when girls tend to play in small groups with lots of chatter, while boys tend to focus on physical activities, where one or a few boys are the leaders and tell everyone what to do. I’m sure you remember this pattern from your elementary school days.

So the answer could just be as simple as education. I recently interviewed Kristen Pressner, a VP working in human resources at Roche Diagnostics, a company with over 90,000 employees. It was one of my favorite interviews. I asked her about this problem, and she has found that simply drawing attention to it, in a good-natured or humorous manner, usually solves the problem for her. Awareness makes a difference. (Read my previous article for more practical tips on how to stop someone who constantly interrupts.)

So maybe that’s where we need to start. Let’s keep making people aware of the situation, without pointing fingers or calling names. If we can learn to understand people of different cultures, we can certainly learn to understand how to communicate effectively with the opposite sex.

This is Lisa B. Marshall helping you to lead and influence.  If you'd like to learn more about compelling communication, I invite you to read my bestselling books, Smart Talk and Ace Your Interview and listen to my other podcast, Smart Talk. As always, your success is my business


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.

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