If I might interrupt…

Jason Adam Katzenstein in the New Yorker — from a 1/11/18 posting on my blog, “The triumph of confidence over expertise”

Happening on Friday: a PhD oral dissertation defense by Katherine Hilton: What Does an Interruption Sound Like?, Friday, May 25th

(AMZ: About the subjective experience of interruption in conversation and how you might investigate it.)


Taking turns is fundamental to conversation. When people participate in a conversation, they alternate between moments of speaking and not speaking, and generally, only one person at a time claims the role of speaker. It has long been argued that attempting to avoid moments where two or more people speak at the same time is a universal norm for conversation with both cognitive and social motivations. Despite this, moments of simultaneous, overlapping speech are relatively common in everyday conversation and can occur without diminishing comprehensibility or violating social norms. This has provoked a great deal of research which asks: When is it acceptable for more than one person to speak at the same time, and when is it disruptive? In other words, when does overlapping speech constitute an interruption? I argue that the answer to this question is inherently subjective and influenced by a person’s own conversational style. Moreover, because conversation participants take turns carrying out actions which extend beyond the scope of a single speaking turn — such as telling a story or solving a problem — I argue that speakers can interrupt their interlocutors by disrupting the completion of such an action, even when they do not speak at the same time as their interlocutor.

This dissertation uses a large-scale social perception experiment to analyze how listeners come to the interpretation that an interruption has occurred in conversation. 5000 American English speakers completed a web-based survey in which they listened to one of 192 audio recorded dialogues and then answered questions about the speakers they heard and their own communication preferences. The dialogues derive from a small set of scripted base recordings and vary the presence and duration of overlapping speech, the prosody of speaking turns, and the pragmatic relations between speaking turns. I find that listeners perceived speakers to be more interruptive when they overlapped with their interlocutors for an extended period of time, especially when also using a louder voice and faster speaking rate. However, these perceptions varied depending on the listeners’ own conversational styles and were more heavily influenced by the pragmatic relations between speaking turns than even the degree of overlap between turns. Specifically, speakers who abruptly changed the topic of conversation were perceived to be interrupting even if they did not overlap with their interlocutor. Based on these findings, I argue that, rather than being an objectively measurable property of the speech signal, interruptions are subjective and context-dependent interpretations about who has the right to speak at a particular moment in time about a particular topic.

University oral exam committee: Rob Podesva (advisor), Penny Eckert, John Rickford, Meghan Sumner (all Linguistics).     University oral exam chair: Raymond McDermott (Education)


Some comments from me.

In psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics, there’s a problematic disjunction between the categories you really want to study — those of the felt experience of individuals (categorizations of the things of the world around them and their perceptions of them, categorizations of the people and events in their social universes) — and those that you can easily investigate objectively: physical (rather than functional) properties of the things of the world, acoustic properties of speech (rather than the phonemic categories of speakers of a particular language variety), annual income (rather than social class categories as they are relevant to people’s lives),  scores on introversion / extroversion questionnaires (versus personas projected in specific circumstances).

So with interruptions. One focus of the literature is on interruption defined objectively, via analysis of the speakers’ stretches of speech and silence over time and the acoustic properties of their speech at various points in this course of events, especially in overlaps. (There’s a lot more, but this is a starting point.) No easy task, but it doesn’t answer the questions you’d really want an answer to: how do people interpret these events, what do they feel is happening during them? You can’t get at such questions by just asking people what happened: direct self-reports about mental states and mental acts are notoriously unreliable. But you can try to get at these matters indirectly.

From the abstract (which is all I’ve seen), that’s what this dissertation aims at. My reading of the last sentence in the abstract is that the way conversation unfolds depends, in part, on its being a contestation between speakers over who has the right to speak at various points in the conversation and about what. See J.A.K.’s cartoon above.

(I won’t be able to sit in on the oral. But I admire the abstract.)

[Added 5/26/18, after yesterday’s (successful) defense of the dissertation: Dr. Hilton with her committee and the chair of the exam:

Rickford, Eckert, Hilton, Podesva, Sumner, McDermott ]

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