Interruption in Russian Conversation

In a 1993 article on gender and Russian speech, Zemskaja et al. make a number of observations about differences in the way men and women speak. Included in the list is the assertion that men are more likely to interrupt while conversing than are woman. The evidence for this claim is essentially anecdotal with a few examples given as illustration. The present study examines interruption behavior in a corpus of Russian conversational data in order to test Zemskaja et al.’s claim. Preliminary analysis indicates that in same sex conversations, males were more likely to interrupt each other than were females. However, in mixed-sex conversations males and females were more equal opportunity interrupters. These findings are consistent with the literature on sex and interruption in English. Despite early assertions that men are more prone to interrupt than women (Zimmerman and West 1975, Coates 1986), subsequent studies have found this view to be oversimplified (Smith-Lovin and Brody 1989, James and Clark 1993). Interruption is a complex behavior whose identification and interpretation are highly context dependent. This research bears out this characterization.

The data for this study are four dyadic conversations recorded in the Spring of 1998. Four native speakers (two male, two female) of Russian participated in the study. They were all undergraduate students studying in the US on a one year exchange program. Each subject was recorded in two different conversations: one with a member of the same sex and one with a member of the opposite sex. The subjects were told initially that the aim of the research was to learn about their views on the similarities and differences between American and Russian life. Subsequently they were informed that the object of the experiment was to examine how they spoke and interacted. At this time they were given the opportunity to leave the study. None of them chose to do so.

The data were analyzed for a number of conversational features (number of turns per speaker, turn length, and interruptions). This paper focuses on the interruption data. For this project, an interruption was defined as an instance of speech overlap. While there are many more stringent definitions of interruption in the literature (e.g. Nohara 1992), we were interested in examples which were perceived to be interruptions without recourse to counting syllables and the like. The tapes were listened to independently by two researchers and only those interruptions identified by both were included in the analysis. Each segment containing an interruption was then transcribed for further examination. As stated above, these data indicate that who interrupts whom can not be accounted for by sex alone. The paper will suggest better ways of accounting for the interruption behavior observed in this corpus. For example, the degree to which participants construed the speech event as collaborative appears to correlate with the frequency of interruption.


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