A View from the Hill: Pardon my interruption

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Some people online are influencers. They influence behavior with their social media postings, blogs, and whatever.

I, on the other hand, am an interrupter. I don’t influence anyone. I don’t post anything. Except for this column, I keep mostly to myself. For the most part, I play by the rules.

But put me on a FaceTime call or especially a Zoom meeting and I become a rebel. When the administrator tells me to mute my audio, I don’t. James Dean with a keyboard.

There are several reasons for this antisocial behavior. One is that by the time I unmute to say something I may have forgotten what I was going to say. Another is that several times I’ve watched as an inexperienced Zoomer prattled on and on with the audio off, oblivious to the visual and audio entreaties of administrator and Zoommates.

Others begin speaking while muted and casually unmute mid-sentence. “… –ich is why I will not, under any circumstances, support this effort, so help me God.”

I don’t want to be one of those people. 

Which is weird because in my first-ever Zoom call I made a complete ass of myself. I wasn’t going to write about the pandemic anymore, but as a point of reference, this particular Zoom took place just as COVID-19 was sharpening its claws. Or spikes. 

A neighbor had kindly arranged a call with a friend who was studying epidemiology at Harvard so we could get some answers about how to prepare. We had lots of questions.

I have a neighbor who was also studying epidemiology at Harvard so I invited her in to see if she knew the person on the Zoom. She didn’t. At that point, I launched into a critique of the poor presenter who had donated her time and expertise. After a while, I heard a lot of shouting coming from my computer.

“Hey! You’re not muted!”

“We can all hear you!”

“PLEASE MUTE!”

I had a lot of apologizing to do.

Then the pandemic came into full bloom and I was alone. Zooming ramped up, but any more victims were spared. The only conversations going on in my home were all in my head. With no one else around, there was nobody to share a critiquing session with.

There were no pets to bark or meow or squawk. There was nobody to slam a door or whistle. No TV or stereo. No vacuum. No flushed toilets. I made sure my phone wasn’t going to ring. Radio silence. 

So despite my earlier lesson, I quit muting. I know it’s not proper Zoom etiquette, but so far I’ve gotten away with it. Not only does not muting give me the jump when comments are solicited or questions are asked, but I’ve eliminated one of the most awkward and unnatural Zoom practices.

And the experts say my behavior is anything but antisocial. In fact, according to sociolinguistic professor Deborah Tanner of Georgetown University, I’m practicing “social overlap,” which is basically polite interruption designed to move the conversation along and encourage others to speak. 

Tannen described it as “a way of encouraging the other person to keep speaking rather than cutting them off.”

All this talk of interruption reminds me of my kids’ favorite knock-knock joke when they were little. 

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Interrupting cow.”

“Interrupting c–“

“MOOOOOO!”

Maybe they were on to something.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.