Now that we’ve released four episodes of Scholars At Play, I wanted to write about something that I’ve noticed while editing the most recent episode: instances where all four of us spoke at the same time, or instances of “overlapping talk.” My attention was drawn to them for a very practical, technical reason: they are often moments where the audio is very loud and needs the most editing work, but as I kept encountering them I realized that they are also interesting in a social-dynamic sense, as well. While we’ve developed a loose system of visually signaling to each other when we’d like to speak next, the conversation still often builds up to or is interrupted by a joke or point that we all agree with, and in those moments we will all give a little comment, chuckle, or sound of agreement (here’s an example from Episode 4.) And while these moments tend to interrupt the speaker’s sentence, as far as I can tell, they tend not to interrupt the flow of the conversation or throw the speaker too far off. So what do we make of these moments of “overlap,” and how do they differ from interruptions?
Fortunately, there’s been some research done on this. In an article about English literature seminars, Ann Addington analyzes how the structure of seminars influences the kinds of conversations that occur in them. In a review of literature on the idea of overlapping speech, Addington cites sources that suggest that in classrooms with a teacher-centered, authoritative focus, moments of overlapping speech tend to be understood as interruptions, accidents in which two people didn’t intend to speak at the same time. But in classrooms where the conversation is more exploratory and less teacher-focused, overlapping speech is cooperative and part of a group process of constructing meaning (Addington, 217.) Addington uses Deborah Tannen’s term “cooperative overlapping” from Tannen’s book “Gender and Discourse” to describe this phenomenon, and in this book Tannen describes the difference between overlapping and interruption in a fascinating way. Contrary to the “interruption-as-domination” paradigm, Tannen argues that cooperative overlapping can be ” supportive rather than obstructive, evidence not of domination but of participation, not power, but the paradoxically related dimension, solidarity” (Tannen, 62.) Of course, Tannen’s argument is not that interruption is never used to assert power, but rather that we should question our idea of conversations as events in which people only ever (should) speak sequentially, one after the other.
As a man who was trained in a philosophy program to interrupt or be left out of the conversation, I’ve had to un-learn some conversational habits that are definitely rooted in gendered power structures. And while we’ve only ever had men as hosts on Scholars At Play (something we are working to change in the future), it was still fascinating to me to realize that not all moments of overlapping speech constitute interruptions, that those moments of overlap are actually valuable and important to conversation, and that the nature of those overlaps can be highly dependent upon the setting in which the conversation occurs. And for me, this is one of the best things about doing both this podcast and work on video games: because not a lot of people are doing these things, there is less of an assumption that any one person is an expert or authority, meaning that conversations can remain in that tentative, exploratory space.
Addington, Ann H. “Talking about Literature in University Book Club and Seminar Settings.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 36, no. 2, 2001, pp. 212–248., www.jstor.org/stable/40171537.
Tannen, Deborah. Gender and Discourse. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.