One thing many autistics frequently do is use a conversation style called cooperative overlap. More often than not, during the interview of my autism assessments, the other person will interrupt me with an excited statement about something I am talking about—if they are autistic. And inevitably, they apologize. But I always tell them, it is fine—it is my way of talking too! We are cooperative overlappers, a term introduced in the book Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk Among Friends (1984) by sociolinguist Deborah Tannen.
I have never thought of anyone as rude for interrupting in this manner. They are not trying to change the topic, but instead something I have said has triggered a thought, and they are excited to let me know. These interruptions are a sign of connections and rapport about a topic and are viewed by me as it is an encouragement and agreement about something I am saying. Talking with a turn taker is anxiety provoking for me, and lacks the excitement and joy of conversing about a topic that both parties enjoy. It feels as though I am being judged and also as though I am getting in trouble. In addition, it makes me feel like the other person does not like me, so I tend to feel self-conscious.
Interrupters vs. turn-takers
Research finds that when interrupting the speaker to reinforce a point, it is considered cooperative. If however the listener interrupt by changing the topic, then that is seen as intrusive.Cooperative Overlap, Gender, and Identity in Late Night Talk Show Interview (Krueger, 2019)
There are times when it feels different, however. It feels like I am being interrupted. This is when someone is not joining my conversation but changing topics entirely. That can make me feel very angry when it happens repeatedly in conversations. When that happens, it makes me feel that I am being talked at, and my required job is to nod and “uh-huh”, over and over. Any introjection is met with no acknowledgement.
To a turn-taker, the way I talk is entirely frustrating, and the way they talk is equally frustrating to me. I find it challenging to take turns. If I am patiently waiting, it is usually because I am talking to myself to not interrupt—when I do this, it is hard for me to listen or be interested in the conversation; I just feel exhausted with trying to manage my interrupting and monologuing when I do get to talk. In addition, I feel upset and embarrassed when I know that I have upset the other person.
When talking with a turn-taker, I have to very consciously tell myself not to interrupt over and over. I have to bite my tongue, or hold my breath not to interrupt. In addition, I have to remember that when it is my turn, I should complete my thought in the acceptable turn time of 20 seconds. Why 20 seconds? Well it’s a rule that I learned, and it seems to work well.
The Traffic Light Rule
My social skills are not intuitive, but hard learned through trial and error. Like many other autistics I have been reprimanded, ostracized, ghosted for not knowing social and communication rules intuitively.
Conversations have three stages when they are deteriorating. The first stage is where you are concise and on topic and the listener is engaged. In the second stage the other person is trying to politely let you know through non-verbal language that they would like to have a turn talking or discontinue the topic if it is not of interest to them. In the third stage the speaker may realize that the listener is no longer interested and instead of giving them a turn, the speaker often speaks even more to reengage the listener. This is known as monologuing, a well known phenomenon amongst autistics.How to Know If You Talk Too Much, Goulston, 2015
In the first 20 seconds of talking, your light is green: your listener is liking you, as long as your statement is relevant to the conversation and hopefully in service of the other person. But unless you are an extremely gifted raconteur, people who talk for more than roughly half minute at a time are boring and often perceived as too chatty. So the light turns yellow for the next 20 seconds— now the risk is increasing that the other person is beginning to lose interest or think you’re long-winded. At the 40-second mark, your light is red. Yes, there’s an occasional time you want to run that red light and keep talking, but the vast majority of the time, you’d better stop or you’re in danger.How to Know If You Talk Too Much (Goulston, 2015)
Research demonstrates that most people use different conversational styles in different situations. In work environments, turn-taking is considered correct etiquette irrespective of whether your preferred style is overlap or turns.
Autistics have trouble changing their behaviour to fit different contexts. I will talk to someone with more authority than myself in the same way I will talk to someone with less authority than myself. At work, the person with the higher authority may interrupt the person with lower authority. When people speak with a doctor, you are not supposed to interrupt, but the doctor may interrupt you. These social rules exist within many other social rules that are difficult for us to understand or even know about. Unfortunately, knowing when to use the which conversational style for any given situation and using it appropriately creates the feeling of rapport, whether there is any or not. And obviously, not using the appropriate style creates a lack of rapport.
One of the most striking aspects of high involvement style that I found and analyzed in detail was the use of what I called ‘cooperative overlap’: a listener talking along with a speaker not in order to interrupt but to show enthusiastic listenership and participation. People who use the high involvement style in conversation are seen as rude, and aggressive by speakers who use a different style. In my study I called the other style ‘high considerateness’.Gender and Discourse (Tannen, 1994)
Neither conversational style is right or better, despite our preference. If possible, we need to be aware of when interrupting will be frustrating to another person and when cooperative overlap is most beneficial.In Real Life, Not All Interruptions Are Rude (2021) | The New York Times
I took an informal poll in our Facebook group, the Embrace Autism Private Community, and the results were that about 80% of autistics use cooperative overlap. I think this may cause challenges in our communication, as the highly considerate style (i.e., turn-takers) is preferred by neurotypicals in almost all situations that are not close relationships (such as friends and close family).
Personally, I find myself using both cooperative overlap and turn-taking, depending on who I’m talking to, the context, and whether I’m talking to a group or one-on-one. In a work context it feels safer for me to take turns, whereas with people I’m close to, cooperative overlap can bring energy and excitement to the conversation. It also seems that cooperative overlap can be a beneficial strategy if you want to be heard.
When I was younger, it would frequently happen that I was part of a group conversation—patiently waiting my turn—but by the time I found a gap where I could contribute without interrupting others, the topic of conversation often shifted to a different topic already. It left me frustrated, because I often thought of interesting anecdotes or funny jokes that could have been meaningful contributions to the group, but I just missed my moment. So I find as an autistic person who doesn’t intuit the social dynamics very well, turn-taking can leave me without a voice in a group situation, where I’m inevitably seen as the quiet one who has nothing to contribute.
Interestingly, scientists have not been successful in teaching robots to converse with cooperative overlap.
The taking of turns is a fundamental aspect of dialogue. Since it is difficult to simultaneously speak and listen, the participants need to coordinate who is currently speaking and when the next person can start to speak. Humans are very good at this coordination, and typically achieve fluent turn-taking with very small gaps and little overlap. Conversational systems (including voice assistants and social robots), on the other hand, typically have problems with frequent interruptions and long response delays, which has called for a substantial body of research on how to improve turn-taking in conversational systems.Turn-taking in Conversational Systems and Human-Robot Interaction: A Review (Skantze, 2021)
Clearly, it is a complex algorithm that requires a more socially attuned brain than most autistics have. The neurotypical brain from birth is designed to observed and engage in watching and learning social cues. The autistic brain is more focused on other aspects of the world. Neither way is right or wrong, better or worse, just different.Autism and the Social Mind (Mundy, 2021)
Is it interrupting?
Okay, so—if knowing when you can and can not interrupt is complicated, knowing when someone interrupted should be easier. If someone waits until the other person stops talking before they speak, that should not be interrupting, while if they speak before the other person is done, that should be interrupting.
Of course it can not be that simple, socializing never is! Stanford linguist Katherine Hilton recorded males and females reading the same script. She had listeners judge if the actors were interrupting or not. You can listen to a clip she used in her research and decide if you think it is interrupting or not.Stanford researcher examines how people perceive interruptions in conversation (Shashkevich, 2018) | Stanford News
It will never be natural for me to take turns speaking, but I can stop stressing about it with my autistic friends, as I now know we are enjoying cooperative overlap in our conversations.
I recall being so happy when I first heard this term! It was so validating to hear that there are different ways of conversing. It was yet another understanding that I was not wrong, bad and broken. Understanding that there are different conversation styles, to be used in different environments and with people, has been helpful for me in navigating the social world. But even more importantly, it has helped me be a lot kinder to myself.
Do you use cooperative overlap?