Why interruption is key to good conversation

The students in a mechanical engineering class I took last semester were separated by 300 miles. Three kids from Yale and three from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) came together to re-imagine what patient identification should look like in the 21st century.

The two groups met in the flesh only twice throughout the whole semester: once at the beginning and once in the middle. The rest of our interactions happened entirely over video chat. In the beginning, we thought that this video-only approach wouldn’t cause any problems. But we were quickly proved wrong.

Calls that were scheduled to start at 3:30 didn’t get going until twenty minutes later. On some days, the audio would lag behind. On others, the video would be pixelated. The screen was often fuzzy, and as a result, so was the conversation.

Back to the future

Video calls are like jetpacks; both are technologies that appeared in almost all 20th century visions of the future. From Star Trek to The Jetsons, no portrayal of the 2000s was complete without a video call. AT&T even had a series of advertisements in the 1990s called “You Will”, which showed people making video calls from telephone booths. To talk face-to-face with a person halfway across the world was almost as good as magic.

Things have not turned out so rosily for video conferencing. Though many phones are equipped with a front-facing camera, most of us resort to text messages or phone calls—a reality that science-fiction writers of the previous century would surely have found disappointing.

Some think the problem with video calls is that you can’t really make eye contact with the other person. Others are easily distracted by the image of their face that usually appears in a corner. While both of these are likely culprits, I don’t think either of them are truly to blame for the often unnatural feel of a video call.

The problem with video conferences is that the callers can’t smoothly interrupt one another.

Conversational collision

Let’s imagine a video call between myself and Amanda, one of the students from MICA. I interrupt Amanda on this call, but she doesn’t know that she’s been interrupted until a few seconds after it’s happened. I then cut my interjection short once I realize that Amanda doesn’t yet know she’s been interrupted. After a few seconds, Amanda finally realizes she’s been interrupted, and now neither one of us are talking. Amanda says, “You go ahead.” I say, “No, you.” And the whole conversation grinds to a halt.

The half-second video delay makes interruptions far more costly in terms of time and energy than they are in a normal conversation. Either both of us wait to talk or we both start talking at the same time. This happened almost every week during our video conferences with MICA.

In order to prevent this sort of conversational collision, people learn to stop interrupting one another. They take turns speaking as if the conversation were a board game. In this way, each conversational “turn” becomes more like a performative speech than a casual exchange. There’s no real-time feedback. It feels like you’re talking to an audience rather than an individual.

Mental trampolines

What’s great about offline conversation is that two people can quickly trampoline off of each other’s thoughts. They can interrupt one another, respond to each other, and chime in as soon as they think of something. It would be awkward and unnatural if there were a multi-second pause after each person’s conversational turn.

In fact, this sort of pause is what characterizes bad acting. Plays and movies feel overly scripted when actors take turns that are clean-cut and neatly defined. Bad actors tend to go back-and-forth, one at a time, with little or no overlap between their lines. What seems natural to us is a lively give and take between people who aren’t afraid to talk over each other on occasion.

As kids, we’re taught that interrupting someone else while they’re speaking is a big no-no. This is supposedly a conversational sin unlike any other. We certainly shouldn’t be butting in on one another’s sentences all the time, but there’s definitely room for a bit of healthy interruption. It’s ultimately what makes conversation feel alive.