This blog entry is a follow-up to the previous blog entry. I am happy to have had some feedback on it, both offline and here in the comments section. It was an issue at work, as you may have guessed, and it all blew over completely a while back.
However, not surprisingly, some people wrote and said how much they hated when people “talked over” each other. I suddenly realized there’s a major misunderstanding here, in fact, a myth propagated by our early schooling (maybe) that has shaped our idea of how a human conversation supposedly happens, and how it really happens.
As a writer, I learned this, but most do not learn the truth about human conversation since most do not learn how to write dialogue, that is, dialogue that one might write in a work of fiction or any other creative written work.
As a child, of course, I thought all you had to do was to put quotation marks around what people said. Maybe you thought the same thing.
Now when I instruct people in public speaking, which I do on occasion, I might recommend that people speak in complete sentences. I might also point out in feedback on a given speech that a particular person made productive use of pauses, and took a breath at the end of a sentence. Thus, the speaker punctuated that sentence with a period. Even better, the speaker may have placed emphasis on the end of that sentence with the use of an accented syllable and a strong word.
Take the sentence, “I have a dream.” See how that four-word sentence ends on the word “dream,” which is the downbeat? Not only that, but the eeee in dream is a long vowel. If MLK said “Nightmare,” it wouldn’t be as strong. “Mare” is unaccented. See? And so on.
However, conversation is not public speaking. Public speaking is monologue with limited audience participation. When we converse, it’s different because the speaking is back and forth.
When people speak, do they speak one at a time? I challenge anyone out there to go listen to humans. Not humans a your local board meeting. Humans at a coffee shop. Children playing. Guys at a bar. Teenagers outside the library. Moms with babies talking about their babies.
I bet you anything they don’t talk one at a time. Do they? NO! They overlap. Not a lot. Some. Listen carefully. In fact, they don’t actually complete many of their sentences. Why? Overlap. One will start, and the other might complete the sentence for her. Or perhaps…add something like.. “Really? You did?” Or…”Hey, yeah, I agree!” Or, “What a jerk, I think he’s an ass, too.”
Is this interrupting? Or is it joyful enthusiasm?
Check out any really good novel or play. Notice how the dialogue is written. I have taught writers how to write realistic-sounding dialogue and I almost always have to tell writers that people do speak over each other. Why? Because humans simply are that way. It is not even considered rude until someone decides to be obnoxious and call it that. Humans converse in an overlapping manner. I see no reason to correct what is culturally already the accepted norm, just because we have false beliefs drilled into our heads about what it should be.
If anyone out there thinks that humans are actually supposed to talk one at a time, guess where we got brainwashed? Likely in school. Elementary school. Way back when. It’s not true! Humans simply do not talk that way.
Let’s think for a minute about the book, Lord of the Flies. Remember that one? Right at the start, Ralph, who somehow ended up the leader, decided…or was it a group decision?….that they needed to be organized. Somehow that translated into this rule that one person talked at a time. This was an enforcement of an unnatural way of human speech during these meetings. Because they were human, they were unable to do this without a tool to help them. Do you recall what that tool was?
I remember. They made a rule that whoever held the conch shell was the one who would speak. If you didn’t have it in your hand, you could not speak.
In a word: Power. You have the shell, you have power.
Now translate this all back to the workplace meeting or the classroom, or perhaps, the therapy group.
The group leader or organizer says: Please, group, you must speak one at a time here. If you do not I will ask you to leave.
Power. Do you hear that in the statement? The leader is demanding unnatural behavior from her subordinates, because speaking with no overlap whatsoever isn’t the way humans speak. (Honestly, folks, what could be more unnatural about Group Therapy? I mean…..) The group leader, or supervisor, has the power to decide if you are too human (or if she doesn’t like the content of what you are saying). On a whim she exercises her power and, in front of the group she admonishes you like a kindergarten teacher about “interrupting” when all you did was to speak normally.
Another tactic of such supervisors is to silence you to the point that you are fed up, and then, near the end of the meeting, finally, turn to you and say, “What was your question?” She knows damn well you’ve forgotten it by now, or hopes you have. She waits two seconds and says, “Okay, you have no questions, let’s end the meeting.” If you protest and tell her one second too late that you have suddenly recalled what that question was…Ooops…you’ve interrupted her. Time for another lecture, and then, meeting’s over.