Deborah Tannen ’62 “The Sexism Inherent in All That Interrupting”

Deborah Tannen ’62 is a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of “You Just Don’t Understand” and “The Argument Culture.”

Interruptions are a staple of modern-day political debates, as we saw in the first presidential and the vice-presidential face-offs. Judging by the column inches, screen space and private conversations devoted to these interruptions, it’s clear that many viewers expect candidates to speak only during their allotted time. But that is no longer the norm. In the past, great communicators were great orators, but great communicators today sound conversational, and interrupting is common in conversation. And public discourse is now more about entertainment than enlightenment. For better or worse — better from the perspective of entertainment, worse for enlightenment — the announced formal structure of presidential debates has given way to rule-breaking interruptions. The question now is not whether candidates interrupt, but when and how, the frequency and why they do so.

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