21 - Interruptions

Imagine you are in the Common Room (Sixth Form, Staff or otherwise). You want to talk to someone in particular but you can see that they are in conversation. What do you do? Normally, one makes a judgement call about the nature of the existing conversation. If it looks serious, you go indicate presence by standing close, showing the potential for joining in. If it is clearly not serious, you would probably go and interrupt, with an ‘excuse me’. But that interruption would still wait for a break in the sound stream. Among students, the process might be less controlled and include shouting across a room. The judgement is to do with the relative import of the interruptor’s business: an emergency allows direct intervention; a phone call might cause a shorter waiting time, maybe just a visual clue; a minor affair might cause a long wait. At some public schools there is a habit of holding the tails of the gown of the person you want to talk to – to indicate a queue, the next person holds the next gown tail, like elephants on a trail, trunk to tail, in line.

Brief interruptions, the phone message (not the call, just that there is a call waiting) being one of them, may well result in divided attention and two simultaneous conversations. This is normal in Britain and I have seen it occur in France, Germany and Italy. A typical such occasion would be at a hotel reception desk.

In China, the system appears to be different. It matters not which language one is working in, it is the culture that determines behaviour. It would appear that “Ah, excuse me” (Ahem, hereafter, as acronym) is considered a sufficient ticket to interrupt any conversation. There is no waiting for a pause, it is no different from throwing open a door. Thus one can be working in a room and interruption begins with Ahem and continues with no pause. So one drops what one is doing. There is no consideration about the import. The locals claim there is a pause for a “moment” in which one might say that word and cause a pause, but I deny that. There is (I say) no judgement of the relative value of the conversation.

Furthermore, it would appear to be an affront to not divert attention immediately. Not giving immediate attention seems to rate as a loss of face. So does the divided attention, dealing with two things simultaneously. Is it not a loss of face to move attention from the other party to the first conversation?

The same applies with telephones. I have yet to go to a meeting at which (Chinese) mobiles are turned off. It is apparently entirely acceptable to answer a mobile in almost any circumstance, (meals, meetings, and probably phone calls and intimate behaviour too). Mobiles are supposed to be ‘off’ at school, so they are set silent and this may be the only occasion where European values are applied – when the phone is supposed to be switched off.

It is hardly surprising then that we have a cultural clash. Both cultures are offended: one by the inferior importance of the interruption and the other by the divided attention given.

If Alf and Bert are talking and Charlie interrupts to talk to Alf, is Bert offended? In Britain, there is a moment of non-verbal communication in which Alf and Bert agree to allow Charlie to interrupt. If Charlie is seriously senior in position to both, this may well be by default, but Charlie is likely to have listened just enough to know whether the topic Alf & Bert are discussing is of the type that one can interrupt easily and if not, will recognise and apologise for destroying the flow of communication. Any emotional flow would not be interrupted unless the effect was becoming widespread, i.e. affecting others not in the conversation. An argument would be left alone, or quashed by stopping both. I have checked this description this week by watching interactions with the ‘native-speaking’ staff.

If Ma and Nu and Oh are Chinese and Oh wants to talk to Ma, who is in conversation with Nu, it would appear that it is sufficient to walk into the conversation, saying a name and proceed directly to displace Nu. I have not heard the Ahem phrase in Chinese (I do recognise it). I have not seen anyone cause Oh to wait. If it is a loss of face for Oh to be told to wait, how does Nu feel at being displaced in the conversation? If, for example Ma and Nu are talking contractual detail (involved thinking, detailed conversation) how does Nu feel if Oh wants to talk about last night’s football match?

I don’t understand. Maybe I am misreading what I observe. There are many opportunities for observation in a day.

I must assume, since the behaviour model is failing, that there are unseen and unidentified precursors controlling these situations in the Chinese culture. I know what happens in English and clearly I must be not recognising what is happening in Chinese. Conflict between the two systems occurs when one culture interrupts the other.

This needs explanation and understanding. It needs exploring, not interment.

But as yet none of the Chinese who have read this have managed to explain what it is I am missing. Each is a skilled observer and as teachers should be capable of detailed analysis. Is this difficult? If that was so, it would go some way to explaining why both cultures as upset by this topic. I wonder whether we see some of the reverse effect in process, where interruptions do not occur by non-Chinese and one consequence is loss of face…. Is that double-think or treble-think?

DJS 20080107

Reading this again in 2012 I am reminded of a tale from the darling daughter, who was  at lunch with a friend at his specific invitation. The oFFending mobile went off and he answered it; no problem, until it became clear that this was (i) a drivel conversation and (ii) it was going to go on.  As she says herself of the event: It was lunch with my friend Ben, who was about to leave Bristol forever. The mobile rang. He said, “You won't mind if I answer this” and answered it. He talked to the moron on the other end for a good minute or two (long enough to make it clear that it was by no means a conversation that was either necessary or important). I stuck it out until he said “No, not much, just having lunch with my friend Jess”, at which point I reached across the table and said “You won't mind if I answer this”, took the 'phone off him and told the person on the other end that Ben would call him or her back once he had finished having lunch with me, an actual person who had bothered to be in an actual room with my actual friend.

Oh dear, even more direct than her father.

© David Scoins 2017