Interrupting Is Different for Men and Women, Even on a Debate Stage

For scholars in the field of manterruption, mansplaining and intrusive interruption, the 30 or so impolite violations of etiquette during this week’s Democratic debates will no doubt turn into a classroom lecture, or maybe even a scientific paper.

If the terms aren’t exactly familiar, a simplified explanation: They refer to the tendency of men to dominate group conversation, often by interrupting.

With an unprecedented number of women on the presidential debate stage on two consecutive nights this week, the men butted in more than the women, who largely waited their turn.

It seemed to provide yet another example of a gender dynamic regularly observed in studies, according to Adam M. Grant, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in organizational psychology.

Because of gender stereotypes, people often respond positively to assertiveness in men but negatively to the same behavior in women. “This means male candidates are free to interrupt, while female candidates face a double bind: stay silent and fail to be heard, or speak up and get judged as too aggressive,” Dr. Grant explained.

In the first debate, Dr. Grant noted, several of the male candidates, and moderators, did interject, while the women were less likely to jump into the fray. He suggested that the front-runner on Wednesday night’s stage, Senator Elizabeth Warren, might have been wary of stirring up a repeat of past “unfair complaints about hectoring and lecturing” directed against her.

It wasn’t that the women were totally demure Wednesday night. Ms. Warren delivered some sharp criticism of giant corporations and inequality. Senator Amy Klobuchar got off a zinger, responding to a boast by Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington about his administration’s work on reproductive rights with the retort: “I just want to say, there’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.” And Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a veteran, inveighed against Representative Tim Ryan’s position on fighting the Taliban.

Tali Mendelberg, a professor of politics at Princeton, said it was her impression that “men did interrupt and seize the floor more often than the women did,” adding that the free-for-all debate format “tends to disadvantage women competing with men.”

“Just because these are high-level officials doesn’t mean they’re not subject to some gender dynamics,” she said.

On Thursday, the roles shifted a bit — with Senators Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand interjecting and directing the conversation at points. But the debate had only just ended when at least one pundit began raising questions about whether one of the women or another had been too “shrill,” even while acknowledging it was a sexist barb.

Some viewers regarded the interruptions as off-putting, judging from some of the Twitter traffic. But the intrusions were almost minor when compared to the 2016 presidential debate, when Donald J. Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton 40 times, by one estimate.

Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, barely registering in polls among the crowded field, came off as the most aggressive Wednesday night. Some viewers, including the former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, called him rude.

“What about the War Powers Act?” Mr. de Blasio interjected, without being asked by the moderator, following a foreign policy answer by former Representative Beto O’Rourke. He later called out, “Hey, wait, wait,” when Mr. O’Rourke was discussing whether to replace private insurance, then added, “How can you defend a system that’s not working?”

Later, when Senator Cory Booker was asked a question, the former housing secretary Julian Castro interjected, “If I might briefly …”

Mr. Castro and Mr. O’Rourke got into a back-and-forth over immigration policy, prompting Mr. Castro to twice interject, “That’s not true.” In another exchange, one of the moderators, Lester Holt, told Mr. O’Rourke that his time was up three times as he continued to talk.

In the end, Mr. Booker and Mr. O’Rourke ended up with more talking time during the debate than any of the other candidates, with Ms. Warren coming in third.

Meanwhile, it was an interruption by a woman that prompted the only official blowback from a campaign following the first debate.

Mr. Ryan’s campaign sent an email to the news media complaining about how Ms. Gabbard challenged his statements on Afghanistan and the Taliban.

“While making a point as to why America can’t cede its international leadership and retreat from around the world, Tim was interrupted by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard,” the statement said, complaining about her “lecturing” him.

Dr. Grant of the Wharton School suggests a technological solution for these problems — muting debate mics when it’s not a candidate’s turn.

“Or at least start playing Oscar music,” he said in an email.

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