#1363: “Am I overreacting to being constantly interrupted at work?”

Dear Captain Awkward,

I was wondering if you could either please help me with the problem I have, or let me know if I’m making too big of a deal out of it. I (33, nonbinary transmasc, he/they) need some strategies to deal with adults who interrupt me. I am a tour guide and a lot of my interactions with guests go like this:

Me: “Hello, everyone! Welcome to the [historical site]. Would you like me to tell you a little bit about the–

Guest: “When was this house built?”

Me: “Oops, haha, I was just going to tell you that! This [site] was built all the way back in [year], by the famous [historical figure]–”

Guest: “How long did [historical figure] live here?”

Me: “Oh, I was just going to get to that! The [historical figure] family lived here from–”

Guest: “How much of the furniture is real?”

Me: [Internally dying]

Because of my painfully long history of both being socialized as a woman and having worked in customer service since my teens, I always stay smiling and pleasant throughout these interactions, no matter how grating. I am proud of myself that in recent years, I have taken to speaking up at home when family members interrupt me by saying things like, “Oh sorry, I actually wasn’t done speaking yet,” or, “I’m sorry, I hadn’t finished the end of my sentence yet.” I feel safe doing this at home because my parents cannot demand to speak to my manager if they feel offended.

Why I feel that this might be a “me” problem is that I’ve heard from multiple sources about “collaborative overlapping,” where people from some cultures/backgrounds are used to interrupting each other. I honestly don’t know if I’m savvy enough to distinguish collaborative overlapping from people who are being just plain rude and thoughtless. Where is the line?

Is it ever appropriate to gently let adult customers know that you weren’t done talking? I honestly don’t mind if kids interrupt me, because they are still learning manners, but I feel like adults should know better. Or is that just me being insensitive to other ways of talking?

Tired Plebian

Hello from a former college teacher who had to learn how to deal with being constantly interrupted by student questions! I am using exclamation points because I am excited about helping solve a very fixable problem that I have a lot of experience with!

First, I love the example scripts you provided, I can picture the dynamic perfectly. However, I’ve noticed that they all contain a little morsel of pre-apology to the person who is doing the interrupting. At work: “Oops, haha…” “Oh, I was just going to get into that…” With family: “Oh sorry, I actually wasn’t done speaking yet,.” The person is throwing you out of your groove, and you’re apologizing for not reading their minds and working even faster. At work, at very least, I want you to actively practice not apologizing when this happens. Not even a little crumb of “sorry.”

:Brief commercial break while Canadian readers recover:

To accomplish this, I want you to stop thinking of the constantly-interrupting people as customers who need to be catered to at all costs and start thinking of them as participants in a group. You’re in charge of leading a group through an experience. In your opinion, does the interrupting behavior enhance or detract from the experience of the group? You’re worried about potentially pissing off the interrupters, but if you cater solely to them, what about everybody who doesn’t interrupt you? What are they missing when you don’t get to everything you wanted to say because one person kept interrupting you and dominating the experience? How much of everybody else’s time is spent catering to this person? I’d argue that learning to manage this isn’t about your own customer service abilities or personal standards for rudeness, it’s about managing a distraction that impedes your ability to do your actual job and serve everybody who visits the site.

With that framing, here are some practical steps:

1. Set clear expectations from the start. “Hello and welcome! Before we get started, there are a few housekeeping rules. [Insert info about what can be touched, where exits and bathrooms are, rules about photos and recording devices, etc.]. Finally, in every room/stage of the tour, I’ll deliver some information for everybody first, and then I’ll pause so that you can ask questions. If a question pops up at other times, I’ll ask that you kindly hold off until those periodic discussion breaks, so we can all hear each other and stay on topic, thank you.” 

Laying out expectations doesn’t mean nobody will ever interrupt you again, you will definitely be interrupted both by people who are extremely enthusiastic and curious and people who heard you and assumed “Surely they don’t mean ME,” a.k.a. the exact same people who interrupt you now. But setting it up from the start gives you more room to maneuver, and it tells everybody exactly what will happen: a) Don’t worry, there will be time to ask questions, so there’s no pressure to absorb everything all at once, and, b) People can certainly ask questions as they pop up, but they won’t be attended to until the Q&A.

2. Pause, then try working the interruption into the flow of what you intended to say anyway. 

For example, when a guest interrupts your intro to ask When was this house built?,” if that’s part of what you were just about to cover, pause briefly to reorient yourself, then use the question to continue speaking to the whole group. “Everybody in? Great. Gather round. Now, the house was built in [Date] by the [Family], but the part we’re standing in was an addition in [Date].”  Spiel continues….

The pause is important. It can be short, but don’t skip it. It’s an efficient way of silently communicating with multiple audiences at once, delivering “Oh, yup, I heard you,” “There’s a rule about asking questions, you’re not misremembering that!,” and “Don’t worry, I got this” to whoever needs to hear what.

For added effect, try holding up a hand or finger in a non-verbal “”One minute!” or “I see you, please wait!” gesture during the pause to acknowledge the question asker before you return to addressing the group, so they aren’t tempted to keep repeating their question even louder.

3. Remind, redirect, and thank people in advance for doing the thing you want them to do. 

If the same guest then immediately interrupts to ask, “So how long did the [historical figure] live here?” 

Briefly pause again, take a breath, reorient yourself in what you were about to say, and only then address the person. Try keeping a smile and a very even tone, but be firm. “Good timing, we’re about to cover that period in detail, so please hold onto that thought for when we get to questions! Thank you!”

Then, do something with your body language and attention to consciously return to speaking to the group as a whole: “Now, this room was used for [purpose], which is interesting because ….” 

It’s tempting to think that it’s easier to just answer each little quick question and move on, and sometimes it is! Every group is going to be different, so calibrate these strategies as you go depending on who is in the room and how you’re feeling about all of it. Just, keep in mind, people are here to hear from you and learn from you for a reason. If it takes you a second to get back on track, go ahead and take that second!

4. When it’s Q & A Time, definitely *do* go back and invite the interrupters to ask their questions. 

Give them lots of friendly attention and praise during those intervals.“I appreciate your patience! Now, I remember, you were asking about [historical period], Sir. To answer your question, it’s _______.”  If the rest of the group isn’t really asking questions and is more talking amongst themselves, definitely take time to go up to the person and engage more one-on-one. You want the interruptions to stop, not the enthusiasm!

In fact, a very good classroom practice that may be transferrable to you is to give people breathers to talk amongst themselves between “lecture” time and “Big Group Q&A” time. While they’re discussing or just taking the place in, circulate around quietly to each individual and small group, and bring the best insights and questions back to the bigger group  before moving on to the next thing. “You all have such interesting questions! For example, who knows what a ______ is?” Having a loud, interrupt-y, “this group activity is more of a 1:1 chat between me and the teacher” person in the room can have a quelling effect on everybody else, where, even if the quieter people CAN get a word in, they don’t want to come across like That One Person, so they don’t speak up, to everybody’s loss. Doing something like this gives the louder people some of the individual attention and affirmation they crave while also making sure more voices and insights make it into the room.

5. Remember, there’s only so much you can do. 

If one person is really determined to make it all about themselves, there’s only so many ways to be like, “Okay, only one person can be talking at a time, and right now that’s me! We’ll get to your questions and comments in just a moment, ma’am!” or “We also conduct PRIVATE tours of the space, if you’d like to book one of those just check in with the reception desk!” and keep your cool, so if you’re not able to successfully pre-empt it or shut it down every time, assume this person is this way everywhere, with everyone, and it’s probably not you. There are a lot of turds in the world who feel entitled to be catered to in all things at all times. They won’t perish if you shush ’em.

This advice isn’t about being perfect, or never being interrupted again, it’s about restoring a sense of agency and control so that you can incorporate interruptions into your flow without letting the tour be hijacked in a way that upsets you and disrupts the rest of the group. I hope it helps, happy explaining!