Boys Learn to Interrupt. Girls Learn to Shut Up.

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
Aug. 14 2014 1:41 PM

Boys Learn to Interrupt. Girls Learn to Shut Up.

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He who speaks up slides first.

Flickr: USCPSC

A few weeks ago, I wrote in Slate about a study I conducted showing that men in tech interrupt more than women and women are interrupted constantly, but in corporate settings, women in executive levels are the biggest interrupters of all. Readers responded with both affirmation and questions. What happens in less formal, non-tech settings? What about different kinds of interruptions, since clarifying questions really aren't the same as total conversational hijacks? Above all, when are these patterns first learned? I wanted to begin to unpack that last question.

There are many times that being mom to a chatty 4-year-old comes in handy. For instance, if you enjoy smoothing over inappropriate remarks made to strangers in public restrooms, this is a good role for you. If you're partial to full dramatic reenactments of Frozen, there is nothing better. And if you want to do an observational study on the interruption behaviors of 4-year-old girls and boys, you're pretty much set.

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The setup: I started out with the idea that preschoolers interrupt constantly. I had this idea because I am constantly interrupting my daughter to tell her not to interrupt. So from the beginning, I wanted an environment that was realistic, but controlled. I know from volunteering in my daughter's classroom that it's a bit like the Wild West, and I knew I wasn't going to be able to capture all the interruptions from among a set of 20 kids and two teachers with any accuracy, so I decided to focus on playdate interactions for a few reasons. First, playdates have a smaller number of kids to observe at one time. Second, my daughter is now at the age where she'll happily play with other kids with only minimal engagement from me, but she's young enough that she still thinks I'm sufficiently cool to hang out in the same room. The setup meant that I could observe kids interacting while mostly being a fly on the wall. Finally, we have a lot of playdates with both girls and boys. I wasn't going to suffer from lack of data.

The reality: I observed 10 hours of playdate time over an eight-week period, and each playdate had anywhere from two to four kids. I focused on interactions between kids rather than between kids and adults. Adults did engage with kids sometimes, but I only counted child interruptions during times of continuous play that lasted at least five minutes without adult interruption; any adult engagement with the kids reset the clock. Four hours of playdate time just included girls, and six hours included at least one boy in the mix. The eight girls and seven boys included in these playdates ranged in age from 3.5- to 6.5-years-old. Some children were in more than one playdate.

I wanted to understand whether boys and girls on playdates show any of the same patterns as men and women in corporate tech meetings. I also wanted to see how girls' behavior differed in single-sex and coed environments, if at all.

Thanks to all my playdate co-hosting parents who tolerated me freakishly logging interruptions rather than hanging out with you, and thanks especially to the parents who let me observe playdates that my kid didn't participate in. I owe you one.

Here's what I found.

When boys and girls play together, boys interrupt more. A lot more.

Over 10 hours of playdates I logged 472 interruptions total. That's an average of one interruption every minute and 16 seconds, which is more than twice as often as we saw in the corporate tech study. Not surprising, since a kids' playdate is a lot less structured than a formal corporate meeting. For two hours of observation time, I had another parent logging independently, and we were within two interruptions of each other in what we captured. Still, just as in the adult study, it is possible that I missed some.

Six hours of playdate time included boys as part of the group, for a total of 291 of the total 472 interruptions logged across all 10 hours. Groups containing boys show an overall interruption rate of 48.5 interruptions per hour, and groups without boys show an overall rate of 45.25 interruptions per hour, so pretty similar. Groups of four kids had more interruptions than groups of two kids regardless of gender.

But check out the interruption rates of boys and girls respectively during those six hours of coed playdates: Of the 48.5 interruptions per hour across the group, here's how many are contributed by boys and girls respectively:

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In coed groups, boys interrupt almost three times as often as girls do.

Kieran Snyder

The more boys there are in the group, the less often girls in the group interrupt.

The six hours of coed playdate time ranged in size from two to four kids. There were four types of coed groups: Group 1 had one boy and two girls for two hours of total time; Group 2 had one boy and one girl for 1.5 hours of total time; Group 3 had two boys and one girl for one hour of total time; and Group 4 had three boys and one girl for 1.5 hours of total time.

I'd like to take credit for planning the groups this way, but the truth is that I took what I was able to get in terms of playdates available for eavesdropping. The higher the concentration of boys in the group, the more the girls stop interrupting:

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The more boys in the group, the less often the girls interrupt.

Kieran Snyder

As the proportion of boys in the group increases, boys interrupt more and girls interrupt less. The data suggests that the reverse may also be true, but it takes more girls overall to bring the interruption rate to parity. And we'd need some even more girl-skewed playgroups to confirm.

When girls play together without boys, they interrupt more. A lot more.

Remember that the overall interruption rate is similar regardless of whether or not boys are part of the group. That means that when boys aren't around, girls pick up the slack in their own interruption rate. That's just basic math. But to make things even clearer, let's look specifically at the three girls who participated in both boy/girl and all-girl playdates. Look at how the same exact girls' interruption patterns change depending whether or not boys are in the group:

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When boys aren't around, the same girls interrupt a lot more.

Kieran Snyder

Add boys to the group, and the girls stop interrupting. Take the boys out of the group, and the girls start.

The data here is only directional, and as with the adults in tech study, needs further investigation. But it begins to show why proponents of all-girl schools have long claimed that girl-only environments help girls develop greater assertiveness and confidence than they do in coed settings. Graduates of women's colleges are 1.5 times more likely to major in science, technology, engineering and math than women in coed schools.

This, in combination with the tech study, makes me rethink all the times I've told my confident and chatty daughter that it's not polite to interrupt. What am I teaching her?

Kieran Snyder holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania and has spent the last decade leading teams of software designers and engineers. She is a mom, an occasional writer, and she blogs about language, women in technology, kids, and careers at Jenga One Week at a Time.