Interrupters: Linguist says it’s the Jewish way

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The next time someone accuses you of interrupting, you might want to explain that you are not being rude: You’re actually engaging in “high-involvement cooperative overlapping.”

Cooperative overlapping — talking as another person continues to speak — is typical of Jewish conversational style, according to linguist Deborah Tannen, and can be a way of showing interest and appreciation.

Tannen had a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 nodding and laughing with recognition as she delineated typically Jewish patterns of conversation during a recent lecture on Jewish conversational style at Georgetown University.

Tannen, 54, is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown and author of many scholarly and popular works, including the best-selling “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation” and “That’s Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships.”

Jewish conversational style is not a precise term. Not all Jews exhibit its characteristic features and not all people who exhibit them are Jewish, according to Tannen. But the pattern of conversation found among many Jews from New York and its environs, especially those of Eastern European origin, differs in significant ways from that of most non-Jewish Americans from the South, Midwest and West.

In an interview prior to her talk, Tannen discussed her analysis of Jewish-style conversation. Along with cooperative overlap, she said Jewish-style conversational patterns include a “fast rate of speech, the avoidance of inter-turn pauses and faster turn-taking among speakers.”

In a conversation among Jews, participants find the simultaneous talk and quick turn-taking unremarkable; they interpret silences and pauses as evidence of lack of rapport and/or interest.

But those not accustomed to that style, according to Tannen, may see such active listening behaviors as rudeness, verbal hogging and lack of interest in the speaker. The very characteristics that promote good conversation among the in-group can create discomfort or hostility among mixed groups.

Beyond that, people make judgments about the personality of individuals based on conversational style. According to Tannen, negative stereotypes of New York Jews as pushy may be the result of clashing linguistic patterns rather than character flaws.

Different conversational styles of couples, where one person is Jewish and the other is not, may contribute to the initial attraction, Tannen said. Someone quieter may seem mysterious and wise, while somebody more talkative can seem articulate and smart. But over time, the differences in style, particularly in close relationships, can be difficult. “You think you had good intentions, and they think you had bad ones,” she said.

Other features of Jewish conversational style include a preference for personal topics, abrupt shifts of topics, unhesitating introduction of new topics and persistence in reintroducing a topic if others don’t immediately pick up on it.

Jews also tend to tell more stories in their conversations, often in rounds; dramatize the point of a story instead of putting it into words; and focus on the emotional experience of it.

People whose regional and ethnic background promotes a different way of conversing may not “get the point” of these rounds of story-sharing with no real plot, she said. They also may find the expectation of personal revelation unnervingly intrusive.

Tannen believes the sound of Jewish-style talk — pitch shifts, changes in loudness, exaggerated voice quality and accent — can signal concern and empathy as well as reinforcing a shared ethnic background among Jews. Or they may put off people more used to a restrained, less expressive way of speaking.

As participants milled around or were leaving following the talk, clusters of people analyzed their own talk.

“There were four of us chatting together and we started laughing,” said Julie Epstein, the coordinator for Jewish graduate student programming at Georgetown. “We suddenly saw just how much we were using Jewish conversational style.”