Lucy Kellaway: Let’s all take a cue from the manterrupters

Men should not be made to interrupt less – women should be made to do it more

Arianna Huffington: last week David Bonderman interrupted Huffington, his fellow Uber director, to make a crass joke. He got his facts wrong.  There was nothing for it: the 74-year-old billionaire had to go. Photograph: Ruben Sprich/Reuters

Arianna Huffington: last week David Bonderman interrupted Huffington, his fellow Uber director, to make a crass joke. He got his facts wrong. There was nothing for it: the 74-year-old billionaire had to go. Photograph: Ruben Sprich/Reuters

 

Last week David Bonderman dropped the mother of all clangers. In the middle of a discussion about Uber’s sexist culture, he let slip a crass joke about how women talk too much. He interrupted Arianna Huffington, his fellow Uber director. And he got his facts wrong. Women do not talk more than men.

To choose that moment to make that joke showed no judgment, no self-restraint and no understanding of the mess Uber is in. There was nothing for it: the 74-year-old billionaire realised he had to go.

Yet on one of the things that he has been hounded for – interrupting Ms Huffington – I am on his side. As a dedicated, life-long interrupter, I feel honour-bound to stand up for him and for all interrupters everywhere.

Interrupting gets a poor press. It is thought to be rude. It goes against the mushy idea that everyone at work deserves respect when they are talking. When a man interrupts a woman it is deemed particularly bad. Studies show this happens all the time: men do it to women more than they do men, and women hardly interrupt men at all.

Sore point

This has become such a sore point that every time a well-known man is spotted talking over a woman in public he is likely to get a public thrashing. Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt was taken down for “manterrupting” when he interrupted the only woman on the panel during a live Q&A in 2015. And then last week Democrat senator Kamala Harris was interrupted by various Republican colleagues as she questioned attorney-general Jeff Sessions before the Senate Intelligence Committee, prompting a New York Times article deploring the practice.

The remedy, most people seem to agree, is for men to be made to stop. A couple of months ago, in celebration of International Women’s Day, an app was launched called Woman Interrupted. Any man downloading it is made to repeat three times: “I will not interrupt women any more”, and is then awarded a black mark for every transgression. Yet this is not the answer. If all men are forbidden from interrupting female colleagues they will not start listening to them more assiduously, but will switch off altogether.

A woman – or a man – should always be interrupted if she or he is being boring or if the person doing the interrupting has something more urgent to say. It is conceivable that Ms Huffington was banging on tiresomely when Mr Bonderman barged in, in which case a change of speaker might have been welcome.

Most business conversations and panel discussions are boring quite a lot of the time. When someone starts to talk, the gist of what they are saying often becomes clear during the first sentence or two, after which there seems little harm if someone else chips in with something fresher.

Snappier

Not only does interrupting make things snappier, it keeps everyone on their toes; fear of losing the floor forces you to make your point more briefly.

I sat in on a two-hour meeting last week in which four women and eight men failed to interrupt each other. It was not the better for it. The apparently respectful listening merely proved no one cared much at all.

Men should not be made to interrupt less; women should be made to do it more. Many find this sort of thing hard, but having cracked it myself, I can assure them it is not. When the speaker takes even the slightest pause for breath you simply start talking.

There is a clear need for an app that is not Woman Interrupted but Woman Interrupts. Instead of showing a big cross whenever you are interrupted by a man, it would reward every case of womanterrupting with a fat tick.

Context

On Mr Bonderman’s point – whether women talk more – there is a lot of conflicting evidence, and the answer is that it depends on context.

Anyone who has ever sat in a board meeting or watched the behaviour of people on a panel of experts can tell you that there is a direct correlation between how important someone feels themselves to be and how much they bang on. Thanks to the skewing of corporate life, most of the most self-important still tend to be men.

The solution to this is obvious. When such people start to hold forth, others should make a point of interrupting. Those who do so should never be punished for rudeness. They are performing a public service.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)

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