Kamala Harris: how about we just let her talk

The morning after the Vice-Presidential debates, “I’m speaking” is trending and for obvious reasons. (Along with memes about the fly, but that’s not covered here.)

Women across twitter are celebrating Kamala Harris’ reaction to being interrupted. Because we have all been there. “This is unfortunately the reality for many professional women.”

Regardless of who won or lost that debate (except that obviously she won), I’m interested in how I felt when Kamala asserted her right to keep speaking. Sure, part of me celebrated it. I admired her gumption, but there was something else.

I hate to say it, because it makes me feel disappointed in myself, but I thought she was a bit…rude maybe? I know in my head that she was being assertive. Every woman knows this. And she was really calm. Like, she must have wanted to scream at him “Will you just shut up, man?” But she’s a woman of colour on the public stage and she knows she’ll be judged more harshly than most if she does that. So she holds it together like she’s probably had to do her whole life and calmly asks for her time back. It was a master class in restraint. Which is why I hated my gut’s reaction.

When she asked for her turn back or said, “Excuse me, I’m speaking”, deep down half of me cringed a little. I’m a peace-loving white girl with a very thin skin for confrontation, even when justified. At my own dinner table I’m uncomfortable when someone interrupts and my partner or kids point it out by saying “I was speaking.” That act in itself creates a meta-conversational moment that is jarring to me. It’s ultimately a reprimand and this thin-skinned confrontation avoider feels it. Overtly demanding my turn in a conversation is something I very rarely do for myself. Maybe I think it would be…rude. But isn’t it just being assertive? And isn’t that okay?

Now, I have many kick-ass friends who would absolutely demand not to be interrupted just as Kamala Harris did. But truth be told I’m as afraid of them as I am impressed by them. (You know who you are.) I also know that I carry unconscious biases and when I’m uncomfortable with my feelings, I have to scratch the surface to see what’s up.

Having spent most of my professional life analyzing speech, I wondered if Mike Pence’s interruptions and Kamala Harris’ assertions were violating any of Grice’s Maxims of conversational cooperation or at the very least the general understanding of rules on turn-taking in discourse. Long story short: yes, and probably.

You’re not a cooperative conversation partner if you continually interrupt, and you’re not a good turn-taker if you are going to overtly demand time to speak. But let’s be clear; one person started this and his name is Mike Pence.

Once interrupted, Kamala Harris has two choices. She can either be the demure, accommodating woman everyone is comfortable with: the one who smooths things over, doesn’t ruffle feathers, keeps it all positive and civil. She can let Pence take over the conversation and have his say, even though it’s her time. She can be that peace-loving, non-confrontational woman who is rewarded by society.

Or she can assert herself and gain the floor back.

Those are her only two choices. Because he interrupted her. A lot.

Well, Kamala Harris did not find herself in that chair last night by letting those around her take away her time. Would she prefer to simply be able to keep talking to make her point? Yes, of course. But Mike Pence took that option away from her at twice the rate it was done to him.

So she had to gain the floor back from him twice as often. She had to assert herself just to finish her point twice as often as he did. Having to ask for your turn doesn’t look good on anyone. Think about it. “It’s MY turn!” may be necessary to regain the floor but it is likely going to come across as slightly rude or slightly pathetic. We can use our slow brain to see that she is just being assertive, that Kamala Harris is doing what she has to do to make her point, but our fast brain might judge. Mine did. Even though I know better.

The Cost of Interruptions

Every conversation is going to have overlaps. Turn-taking is never perfect, and some of the best exchanges happen in those overlaps. But an imbalance in interruptions creates an impression, because interruptions have a cost. So as mentioned, one cost to being interrupted is that regaining your turn can make you look rude or pathetic—man or woman. You have to overtly request talking time, which explicitly points out that you have not been afforded respect. You have to tell your partner not to interrupt you, or assert “I’m speaking”. Even if our logical mind can appreciate that it was necessary, and even celebrate it, it’s not really a good look, no matter who you are. I once tried to instruct a group of women on how to graciously counter interruptions. It was a bit of a flop because it’s really an impossible task. “Let me finish”, “I’m speaking”, “It’s my turn,” are always going to leave a bit of a bad taste no matter how justified you are. It’s a reprimand and it highlights the fact that you weren’t respected. But if you’re continually interrupted, it has to be done. That’s the cost of regaining the floor and it’s worth it. Otherwise, you have no voice.

There are even more costs. Interruptions also take a speaker out of the game for a second. Whatever point you were in the middle of making, you have to momentarily abandon to deal with the meta-conversational task of gaining back the floor. On top of that you have to manage any emotion that might have surfaced after being interrupted, especially if you’re a woman of colour. In this debate, Kamala has to push that emotion down or risk looking—oh I don’t know—all that. Once regaining the floor, she then has to re-enter her initial thought that was interrupted. She has lost the flow, and the strength of her point will be greatly diminished, if she manages to find it again at all. And I think last night sometimes she didn’t. It was still a masterful performance, but imagine if she didn’t have to spend all those words defending her time.

The costs of interruptions are great. And Kamala Harris had to pay twice as much as Pence did.

If simply being the accomplished person that she is on the stage where she has earned a seat doesn’t afford her Mike Pence’s respect, then it’s either time to cut the other microphone when each speaker takes their turn, or for the moderator to step in and give Kamala Harris her time back, without her having to ask. We can argue about whether her demanding her turn is rude or assertive, but I say why does she have to demand it at all? Why should she be even be put in that position twice as often as her debating partner?

So if any part of your subconscious thought that Kamala sounded a little like an obnoxious bossy-pants—even if you know better—consider that she likely would have preferred not to have gone there. She didn’t want to have to defend her time. She had a lot of other stuff to say. But she had no choice.

Mike Pence did that.

It happens to women too often, and we need to stop letting that fly. If a woman is speaking at the table—or in a Zoom room—how about next time just button it for half a minute and let a girl finish?

And when you see someone who isn’t getting her turn, don’t just stand by and watch. Step in on her behalf.

“Excuse me, she’s speaking” never looked bad on anyone.