I keep seeing the same advice going around my social media channels: It’s extremely rude to interrupt someone else’s story with a story of your own. If someone is trying to tell you about something difficult they experienced, or they’re sharing deep feelings, you’re supposed to be quiet and only offer listening cues like nodding your head and furrowing your eyebrows with concern. Show the person that you are there for them. Make sure it’s clear that this moment is all about them and not you.
Every time I see this advice, I’m annoyed at its lack of nuance. First of all, can we please agree that most blanket advice like this needs to go in the trash? It’s disturbing how desperate people are to put everything into a binary. With this advice, you have exactly two choices: Either you listen quietly and say nothing, or you interject with a story of your own and now you’re a horrible friend and a trash human and you should go to your basement and mercilessly flog yourself with a leather strap.
Can we not?
Obviously we don’t want to steamroll a friend in a conversation. If a friend is telling us something they’re experiencing, we don’t want to dominate the conversation and make it all about us. Nor do we want to be the dreaded “one upper.” Clearly all of that is obnoxious, self-centering behavior that should be avoided.
However, in general it’s not only okay to interject during conversation, it’s normal. The back-and-forth sharing of like experiences is a completely natural part of how humans communicate. It’s what conversation is. People don’t generally like to feel as though they’re alone in their experience. They want to know you’ve experienced something similar.
When I have revealed to friends that I was sexually abused as a child and they shared they had also been sexually abused, it didn’t make me feel they were taking away from my story when they shared that information. It made me feel less alone. When I talk to other parents about some of the more frustrating aspects of parenting — particularly when I share my own failures — and they share they have experienced almost identical situations and similar desires to clock their teenager upside the head, I feel better. I feel supported. I know it’s not just me.
In an essay I read on Medium, the writer spoke about how refreshing and fulfilling it was to have a conversation with his physical therapist, because his physical therapist “asked a lot of questions and was interested in my answers.” But … that is not a conversation. That is a doctor’s appointment. A doctor or therapist or other similar professional is not supposed to interject with stories of their own. You’re literally paying them to make the conversation all about you.
To suggest that the good feelings you get out of a conversation with a medical professional ought to be the norm in real-world conversations is disturbingly narcissistic. This writer went on to offer other realistic and helpful examples of how people can and do bogart conversations and play the “one-upper” game, but I still don’t think we should use conversations with medical professionals, no matter how casual and friendly they may feel, as models for personal conversations.
This directive to just “shut up and listen” can also come off as ableist and even unintentionally racist. Not everyone is neurotypical and/or able to sit silently and just listen, and not all cultures require silence and nodding from one side of a conversation.
For some folks, they have actively worked to learn the skill of responding to a story with a similar story of their own as they practice reciprocal conversation. It’s frustrating to see this advice telling these folks that a skill they worked hard to acquire is “rude.” Autistic folks and folks with ADHD often need or want to relate by finding and sharing commonalities, and they can’t always put the brakes on their urge to share. We need to let folks relate in their own way.
In some cultures, it would be considered rude to sit in silence and not make it clear that you can relate. My ex-husband’s family is from Peru and they are quite happy to interrupt and even sometimes talk over one another. As an outsider, I can’t speak for their entire culture, but I can say with confidence that the various conversations I witnessed in Peru contained lots of interjection and overlap, and no one was the least bit offended. To be fair, the reverse is also true. In some cultures it could be considered selfish to interject. The point is, this is not a one-size-fits-all issue where a blanket rule will cover every conversation.
For me, if someone doesn’t interject with their relatable experience, I assume they are bored by my story and think I’m extremely weird. I get the anxiety sweats. Please, for the love of all that is good and holy, interject with your relatable story so I don’t feel like a fucking weirdo or like I’m the only person dealing with this shit. To me, that is literally the point of conversation: relating to one another as human beings. If I want someone to listen to me and make the entire conversation all about me and only me, I’ll schedule an appointment with my therapist.
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