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Colloquium Interruptus: keeping conversations safe

By Edna Froese


Communication diseases come in many forms. What they have in common is their unfruitfulness. Or just call it failure, if you like. Because we talk to each other in so many languages (verbal, visual, tonal), and interpret what we hear and see according to what we think we already know, entire books cannot exhaust the catalogue of ways our speech might go astray or explain why messages miss their mark.

So for now, let me hold forth on one communication disease — colloquium interruptus (my invented label), which in my experience presents itself in two main forms. Neither of these dialogue destroyers is deliberate, as lying usually is. Speakers infected with colloquium interruptus, unlike lovers who engage in coitus interruptus, operate without conscious decision. Indeed, most seem blissfully unaware of the devastation their speech habits leave behind. And they are habits. Colloquium interruptus is not an occasional misspeaking, at least not for primary practitioners.

The most common manifestation is what we usually think of when we talk of interruption: someone begins speaking before his or her interlocutor has finished the sentence or idea or story, sometimes using as pretext an introductory “that reminds me of” or “speaking of which” — signal phrases that identify a chronic interrupter who has long since mastered the art of dominating conversations through aggressive colonization of verbal space. More frequently, the evil begins through mere eagerness to rebut whatever is being said. Some phrase, some small bit of the story triggers a memory or provokes disagreement, and the interrupter takes over the dialogue, often talking more loudly over the other, much as small children do when determined to be heard.

The less common presentation of colloquium interruptus is more subtle, because it masquerades as attentive listening. Rather than breaking in on the speaker, the interrupter gains control through questions that imply active listening. Quite possibly, the practitioner perceives herself or himself as a good listener. The problem is that the questions resemble a multiple choice exam, and thus fence the initial speaker into the interrupter’s frame of reference.

Let’s imagine two people talking about wintertime leisure activities. Speaker 1: “We’ve joined an international folk dance club,” and before she can explain anything further, Speaker 2 has picked up the conversational ball, which hadn’t been dropped yet:

“So do you learn Irish step dancing or Ukrainian dancing?”

Speaker 1, pushed immediately into specifics, replies, “No, those dances are done in specialized groups. We learn dances from a variety of countries.”

Speaker 2 leaps in again, “Oh, do you get to do Spanish flamenco dancing? That would be so cool.”

“No, that’s too difficult for beginners.”

But Speaker 2 will not relinquish control. Every question includes limited choices, forcing the first speaker to keep changing direction and to begin every reply with “No.” It hardly matters that Speaker 1 is permitted to finish sentences and answer questions. The conversation still feels like a verbal grilling, or even a fencing match. What’s more, the continual necessity of first negating assumptions prevents new information from gaining space in the air between the two people.

Nevertheless, if we take into account the complexity of human communication during which choice and order of words, facial expressions, and unspoken assumptions all become part of the dialogue, it’s clear that something does get through. The chief message of both varieties of colloquium interruptus, unfortunately, is that the interruptees have nothing of value, nor of interest, to say to the interrupters. It is a form of self-aggrandizing control that silences those who might otherwise puncture the illusion of wisdom and competence.

I have over-simplified and exaggerated the problem here, although not much. I have also laid bare my own desire to be accurately understood (according to my lights) by my conversational partners. As John Durham Peters, in Speaking into the Air (a comprehensive and philosophical historical overview of human communication) observes, “Communication is a term that evokes a utopia where nothing is misunderstood, hearts are open, and expressions are uninhibited” (2). Even the first chapters of Peters’ book are sufficient to convince the reader that we are always “speaking into the air” and that our transmissions are inevitably contingent, temporary, and incomplete. And that is before the bearers of colloquium interruptus have infected the conversations.

I have no easy fixes, not even any charming, all-purpose ripostes that will skewer — or cure — offenders. What keeps echoing in my mind, however, whenever I’ve had to spend too much time resisting conversational colonialism, is a statement about listening that I cannot attribute to any source: “there is a difference between listening to speak and listening to hear.” If we are listening to speak, then we are focused too much on our own pending replies, and that carries a high risk of treating our dialogue partners as backboards against which we can bounce our wisdom into the world. If we are listening to hear, then we are more likely to be patient and even more likely to gain a friend as well as information. If we practice that kind of listening, we and our conversation partners will probably still communicate imperfectly, even at our best. On the other hand, we can at least keep our conversational space safe enough that we can, together, seek to discover what we really think and feel.

Froese taught English literature at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon for many years until her retirement. She currently works part time as academic editor while relishing the freedom to read and write for pleasure.