If you're a woman, you'll probably recognize this scenario: You're in a heated discussion with another person or a group. Driven by your strong feelings about whatever subject you're talking about, you interject a point or strenuously defend your position.
"Calm down. Stop yelling and interrupting," someone tells you, only to turn and listen respectfully to a man speaking just as loudly and insistently.
What counts as yelling and rudely interrupting, it seems, can feel like it depends on your gender, not the decibels of your voice or your actual conversational style. Are you imagining this annoyance? Nope, says a new study by Stanford linguist Katherine Hilton. There is apparently a gender gap in what counts as an interruption.
The interruption gap.
We tend to think of interrupting as an objective phenomenon -- you either cut someone off midsentence or you didn't. But science actually paints a more complicated picture. People have different conversation styles and expectations, and an interjection that might seem like a rude interruption in certain contexts instead comes across as passionate and engaged in others. What counts as an interruption is a matter of interpretation, in other words, and women are interpreted differently than men.
By playing clips of carefully scripted conversations to 5,000 Americans, Hilton was able to investigate people's perceptions of different speakers. Sometimes those reading the scripts were male. Sometimes they were female. Did the gender of the speaker make a difference to listeners' assessments of whether the speaker was rude or just excited, even though the scripts were exactly the same?
It did. Hilton "found a gender disparity among survey participants," reports Stanford News. "Male listeners were more likely to view women who interrupted another speaker in the audio clips as ruder, less friendly, and less intelligent than men who interrupted."
The scale of the difference, and the fact that women who interjected were judged as dumber, surprised Hilton. "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," she commented.
Another example of the double bind facing women.
The fact that it's easier to get labeled rude if you're female probably won't come as a huge shock to many women. Nor is it much of a surprise to anyone familiar with the many studies showing women face similar double standards in how they are perceived at work.
When it comes to gaps in pay and professional advancement, women are often told their behavior is at least partly to blame. Speak up. Lean in. Negotiate harder, they are advised. Yet many women sense that following these prescriptions isn't so simple. Yes, arguing for more money or recognition might get you ahead, but it might also get you labeled disagreeable and blacklisted from future projects. Science shows their fears are well founded.
Repeated studies prove that while men who stick up for themselves are thought of as tough, competent, and not particularly unlikable. Women who do the exact same thing are judged as hard to work with and, frankly, bitchy. This latest Stanford study is another bit of evidence along these lines. It's just easier to be seen as rude if you're a woman.
What to do about it.
What should we all do about this annoying double standard? If you're a woman, being aware of the issue can help you calibrate for your audience (even though it's exhausting and unfair to have to do so). Sheryl Sandberg has also advised that if you're going to get passionate at work, frame your passion as driven by concern for others, which fits in more easily with societal notions of women as caregivers. Alternatively, this trick women in the Obama White House used to help one another be heard and valued might be worth a try.
If you're a man, knowing -- in the immortal words of G.I. Joe -- is half the battle. Now that you're aware of this bias, take the next step and actually try to adjust your thinking to counteract it. Next time your knee-jerk reaction is to find a passionately engaged woman rude or overbearing, ask yourself: Would I feel the same about a man speaking the exact same way? This study shows the honest answer will often be no.