Why is Mrs Thatcher interrupted so often?


If a conversation is to proceed smoothly, the participants have to take turns to speak. Studies of conversation have shown that there are signals which speakers give to inform listeners that they are willing to hand over the conversational turn1–4. Some of these signals are part of the text (for example, completion of syntactic segments), some are non-verbal (such as completion of a gesture), but most are carried by the pitch, timing and intensity pattern of the speech; for example, both pitch and loudness tend to drop particularly low at the end of a speaker's turn. When one speaker interrupts another, the two can be said to be disputing who has the turn. Interruptions can occur because one participant tries to dominate or disrupt the conversation. But it could also be the case that mistakes occur in the way these subtle turn-yielding signals are transmitted and received. We demonstrate here that many interruptions in an interview with Mrs Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, occur at points where independent judges agree that her turn appears to have finished. It is suggested that she is unconsciously displaying turn-yielding cues at certain inappropriate points. The turn-yielding cues responsible are identified.

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Beattie, G., Cutler, A. & Pearson, M. Why is Mrs Thatcher interrupted so often?. Nature 300, 744–747 (1982). https://doi.org/10.1038/300744a0

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