Is it permissible to interrupt someone? According to an article by Kira Bindrim in 2017 in the online magazine, Quartz, “There are times when it’s okay to interrupt someone. If they have food on their face? If their dress is tucked into their tights. If a tsunami is coming up behind them. And there are times when it really isn’t okay, like during a business meeting, or when conversing with a colleague. I know,” she concludes, “because I’ve learned about those ‘not okay’ cases the hard way.”
I can relate. Growing up in a boisterous Jewish family, interrupting was the only way to get a word in edgewise. I thought that this was natural and normal. Boy was I in for a rude surprise when I went off to college and then eventually rabbinical school. People thought that I was rude! Imagine that! Somehow, they didn’t understand my enthusiastic and eager conversational style as my way of demonstrating engagement in the conversation. They just thought I wasn’t listening and wasn’t respectful, and they certainly didn’t appreciate the interruption. People thought I was rude!
So, which is it? Is interrupting a sign of a inconsiderate person, or and excited participant? Turns out that the answer is not so simple. According to linguist Deborah Tannen (Jewish News of Northern California – May 12, 2000), she calls this, “high involvement cooperative overlapping,” a characteristic of Jewish conversational style. It actually is, she says, “a way of showing interest and appreciation.” This pattern of conversation is found, “among many Jews from New York and its environs, especially those of Eastern European origin, (and it) differs in significant ways from that of most non-Jewish Americans from the South, Midwest and West.”
Other patterns Tannen detects are, “a fast rate of speech, the avoidance of inter-turn pauses and faster turn taking among speakers, “pitch shifts, changes in loudness, exaggerated voice quality, and accent,” as well as a preference for personal topics, unhesitating introduction of new topics and persistence in reintroducing a topic if others don’t immediately pick up on it.
To those who are not accustomed to this type of speaking style, some of us may come across as rude and disinterested and dominating the conversation. Among ourselves, we find simultaneous talking unremarkable and a sign of rapport and interest. The question, Tannen concludes, is, are we “simply speaking at the same time or actually failing to listen. . . (and) stealing the conversation back.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10), we read vivid descriptions of the beautiful garments worn by the high priest. There is a breast plate adorned with 12 gems, one of each tribe, reminding the priest to keep the people close to his heart. The priest is anointed on the thumb, the ear, and the big toe – he is to do for the Israelites, he is to be with them, and, most relevant to our discussion, he is to listen to them.
The Talmud raises the question- what if the priest’s body was inside the Tabernacle but his head was outside? May he perform his priestly duties? The rabbis answer that he may not. His head needs to be in the game. If your head is elsewhere, you are not considered to be a full participant. I believe that what is true for the presiding priest is true for us in conversation. It is important to be fully present, and we express that attention by listening without interruption.
So yes, we each need to stop interrupting and listen a little more. May we truly “hear” each other in love and peace.