Nicola Sturgeon was called out in the STV Scotland Debates show for talking over other leaders, but did she? Or is it yet another case of a woman being seen as talkative just for daring to make herself heard?
At about the 21:37 mark in the STV Scottish Leaders’ Debate on Tuesday 7th April, a (male) audience member offered this observation:
On the standard of the debate… I am a bit concerned that it seems that Nicola thinks that when it’s her turn it’s her turn exclusively, and when it’s the other three leaders fifty per cent of their time is still hers.
There was a respectable smattering of applause at this so obviously a good few folk agreed with this fair-minded chap, and Sturgeon just smiled wryly, gave a head-tip of acknowledgement and mouthed an ‘okay’ (or possibly ‘sorry’; it’s not entirely clear).
Later when she recognised the same man asking her a question she acknowledged his challenge as fair – but was it?
Certainly my perception, watching along on catch-up, was that everyone had been talking over one another to some degree, but that Sturgeon was no better or worse than anyone else.
As it turns out, we were both wrong.
Keen to check the hypothesis that Sturgeon had interrupted more (after all, I could be biased in her favour, particularly in the absence of a Green candidate to egg on), I revisited the first portion of the debate. I skipped over the opening statements, as these all went without interruption as per the format.
Then we got into the questions from the floor, and I started counting, out of interest logging both genuine interruptions and interjections (more on this later).
By the numbers, counting both interruptions and interjections, we have:
- Jim Murphy disrupting Nicola Sturgeon – 4
- Nicola Sturgeon disrupting Jim Murphy – 1
- Nicola Sturgeon disrupting Willie Rennie – 1
- Ruth Davidson disrupting Jim Murphy – 1
Willie Rennie was the only leader who never interrupted or interjected at all. Ruth Davidson was never interrupted.
Before going any further it’s worth observing that by far the worst interrupter on the floor during this period was Bernard Ponsonby, the chair. He almost always cut off the speakers before they had come to the end of their sentences. He also interrupted Willie Rennie’s first turn in this section three times in quick succession to badger him, to the point where Ruth Davidson intervened from the other end of the floor to call on Ponsonby to let Rennie speak. Some would argue that this interference was strong moderation to keep the leaders on-topic, but the overall effect was to make the whole debate feel far more combative and messy than it might have otherwise been.
Since there are only about eight minutes between the opening of the floor and our concerned lad’s observation, there isn’t, as you can see, a great deal of data to work with here, so what follows is a full account of the disruptions during the period in question.
- When I say ‘interruption’, I mean that when a leader was speaking, another leader cut in in such a way as to break their flow and force them to stop, deviate in what they were saying, or address the speaker.
- When I say ‘interjection’, I mean that a leader said something while another leader was speaking, but that the speaker did not have to break flow, stop, or address the other speaker in any way.
Even within these definitions however there are degrees of severity and questionable calls.
Jim Murphy interrupted Nicola Sturgeon on four occasions during the course of the few minutes she spoke. His first interruption, during her first answer in this section, completely derailed her – he began to speak over her and though she attempted to carry on regardless he eventually took over talking completely. Shortly after the floor passed back to Sturgeon, Murphy interrupted her again. On this occasion, Ponsonby intervened, shutting them both down and passing the floor to Willie Rennie. Thus Murphy broke up Sturgeon’s first answer with a statement of his own, and then prevented her from finishing what she was saying.
Willie Rennie was mainly interrupted by Bernard Ponsonby, as discussed above. Additionally, during this period, he was interrupted by Sturgeon. In point of fact Sturgeon’s interruption was a ‘But-‘, which might be considered just an interjection, except that Rennie did break flow to say ‘Hold on, Nicola’, at which point she stopped speaking and let him continue, so we’ll count it as an interruption.
Ponsonby cut Rennie off (presumably he was wrapping up as he let it go), and the floor passed to Ruth Davidson, who said her piece without interruption.
Then it was Murphy’s turn again. Davidson interjected while he was speaking; it was a passing comment and he continued without breaking flow.
Sturgeon interjected during this section too – commenting ‘That’s not true’ and ‘Rubbish’ when he talked about SNP voters putting the Tories in power. Murphy didn’t break flow or deviate here, but he did turn to face Sturgeon and talk to her.
It’s interesting to note that at this point she then switched to giving ‘active listening’ feedback – she nodded, and made sounds of acknowledgement – ‘Uhuh’, ‘Mhm’. It’s arguable whether we can consider this an interruption – Murphy definitely reacted to Sturgeon’s interjection but far from breaking his flow, she actually then facilitated him continuing to speak by giving positive feedback.
This time, when Ponsonby cut Murphy off (as he had nearly everyone so far) to give the floor to Sturgeon, Murphy continued speaking for quite some time. Sturgeon began to speak twice and had to stop twice, Murphy only relinquishing the floor the third time. As this wasn’t a speaker cutting in on another speaker I haven’t counted this as an interruption – so this is over and above the four ‘points’ I’ve given him above, but it certainly does count as Murphy encroaching on Sturgeon’s speech.
Murphy’s third interruption came about thirty seconds later, but was just an interjection this time and Sturgeon continued unabated… for fifteen seconds, at which point he began to attempt to take over speaking, cutting in with her name – ‘Y’see, Nicola, Ni-, Nico-,’ at which point Ponsonby himself interrupted to pass the floor to Rennie once more – Sturgeon finished her sentence and stopped speaking before Rennie started. On this occasion Sturgeon had been speaking for 45 seconds and had three separate disruptions from Murphy in that time.
Willie Rennie and Ruth Davidson then spoke with no interruptions, and the floor passed back to the audience for our concerned lad to make his wry observation.
In conclusion, of the twice (or three times if you count the first patch where Murphy took over in the middle) Nicola Sturgeon spoke during this eight minute period, Jim Murphy derailed her completely and took over speaking once, spoke over the end of her point on every single occasion, and talked over the beginning of her turn on another.
Sturgeon by contrast interrupted Murphy once – without breaking his flow and following up with positive feedback, and Rennie once, only getting a single word out before he reprimanded her and she immediately backed down.
Well knock me over with a feather
In spite of my original impression that the behaviour of the leaders was relatively equal in terms of interruptions, this data isn’t terribly surprising. Women are habitually given a raw deal in environments like these, as described in some detail by the blogger EdinburghEye in an account of an episode of Question Time in which Sturgeon was repeatedly interrupted by both panellists and David Dimbleby while other speakers were given free rein. (Another woman on that show fared a little better in terms of interruptions – as did Ruth Davidson the other night. Interestingly, like Davidson, she was a Conservative. Hashtag-just-sayin’ hashtag-intersectionality hashtag-lefty-paranoia.)
Linguist and woman in tech Kieran Snyder conducted a short, casual study in her own workplace about the interruption habits of her colleagues, and found that not only were men more likely to interrupt overall, they were almost three times as likely to interrupt women as other men.
Interestingly however, she also found that three of the worst culprits for interruption were the high-status women in that environment. The message from this is pretty clear: women in male-dominated environments get ahead by playing men at their own game.
What this suggests is that, on-balance, even if Sturgeon had been interrupting more often (which, let’s remember, she wasn’t), it may be because that’s something she has had to learn to do to survive in the environment in which she works.
Research conducted into interruptions in group discussions by Lynn Smith-Lovin and Charles Brody of Cornell and Tulane Universities was more in-depth, analysing interruptions with relation to both gender and the nature of interruption – whether positive, negative or neutral. This study found that on balance women and men do about the same amount of interrupting in group discussions – making Murphy, in this instance, an outlier. However, they found that not only were women far more likely than men to yield the floor to a negative interruption, men were discriminatory in their interruption attempts, being far more likely to attempt to interrupt women than men, whereas women spread their disruptive behaviour evenly between men and women.
Obviously eight minutes of debate between four people is not statistically significant, but this status quo might go some way to explaining why the perceptions of the leaders’ behaviour the other night was so skewed on the part of observers.
‘Nothing is so unnatural as a talkative man or a quiet woman’
Or so a Scottish saying tells us (according to the internet; I’d never heard it before). Indeed, PBS’s ‘Language Prejudice’ series opens its ‘Women Talk Too Much’ article with a whole series of sayings from various cultures echoing the idea that women talk more than men. In reality, in a review of 63 studies of Americans in different conversational contexts, Canadian researchers Deborah James and Janice Drakich discovered that only two of these studies found women to be more talkative. This is corroborated by research in New Zealand also.
Realistically it’s likely that whether men or women dominate conversation is probably context dependent, but many women will be able to tell you that they struggle to make themselves heard to the same degree as their male counterparts, particularly in male-dominated fields. This trend can be seen right from childhood, where classroom teachers call on boys to speak more often, let them speak for longer, are more likely to ask them follow-up questions and are more likely to tolerate them interrupting in class (Note: data from 1994 – though both Sturgeon and Murphy were out of school by then and there are plenty more studies where this one came from).
In spite of this, the perception endures that women are the ones who can’t shut up. This is something that women like Nicola Sturgeon – and Ruth Davidson, and Maggie Chapman, and Natalie Bennet, and Leanne Wood – struggle with every day.