Study: Women who interrupt conversation seen as less intelligent by men

When you interject your awesome point in a meeting, will your colleagues consider you assertive or rude? The answer may, unfortunately, depend on your gender, according to new research from Stanford’s Katherine Hilton, a doctoral candidate in linguistics.

When you interject your awesome point in a meeting, will your colleagues consider you assertive or rude? The answer may, unfortunately, depend on your gender, according to new research from Stanford’s Katherine Hilton, a doctoral candidate in linguistics.

Hilton found that we all have different definitions of what’s an interruption, but overall, men are more likely to view women who interrupt a conversation as rude and less intelligent, than men who do the same.

Research: women who interrupt are viewed by men as dumber

To test our varying definitions of interruptions, Hilton had 5,000 U.S. English speakers listen to scripted audio clips and judge the speaker’s intent.

In one clip, the interrupter took the conversation off the rails and changed the subject while loudly raising their voice. Although the scripts were kept identical for every version of the clip, men had different reactions when the loud interruption came from a woman. When women loudly interrupted, men thought she sounded ruder, less friendly and less intelligent than if the interrupter was a man. Women judging the conversations showed no significant bias towards either male or female interrupters.

“Finding this gender bias wasn’t as surprising as the extent of it and the fact that it altered perceptions of a female speaker’s intelligence, which we don’t think of as related to interruptions,” Hilton said.

Your conversation style makes a difference too

Outside of scripted conversations, why do some of us feel the impulse to interrupt? In the office, it could be a way to signal your power. “Interruptions can be used to display or gain dominance,” Adrienne Hancock, a linguist who has studied how women get interrupted more by men, told the New York Times. One study found that an office’s interruption rate correlated to the person’s seniority. The more senior you were, the more you interrupted.

The difference between a friendly assertion and a rude interruption may also come down to personal preferences. As you listen to a group discussion, there will be talkers who cannot let a minute pass without interjecting a comment and quiet listeners who need to think their words over before speaking. The listeners are the ones who would prefer it if we all spoke one at a time, thanks. Hilton calls the talkers “high-intensity speakers” and the listeners “low-intensity speakers.”

When the high-intensity group watched a clip of simultaneous speakers expressing agreement with one another, they did not consider the overlapping talk an interruption. In fact, they found these speakers to be engaged and friendlier than the speakers in other clips who paused more. Meanwhile, the low-intensity group had the opposite reaction and found any simultaneous talk to be a rude interruption.

“Listeners’ own conversational styles influence whether they interpret simultaneous, overlapping talk as interruptive or cooperative. We all have different opinions about how a good conversation is supposed to go.” Hilton said.

Monica Torres|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at mtorres@theladders.com.