A reader writes:
I’ve been dealing with a weird problem in my work relationships for a long time, and it’s happening again in my new job. I was really hoping you’d have some advice on how to make it stop.
The gist of it is, people occasionally talk right over me, in the middle of a sentence (not where we both start talking at the same time). It’s never a situation where we’re talking about books and suddenly they ask someone else if they remembered to lock the safe. It’s more like we’ll be talking about books and halfway through my response to something, they’ll ask that someone else what they’re going to have for dinner that night. And I just…smile and go along with it. I don’t know what else to do. (Particularly if it’s just casual chatter, I feel stupid calling attention back to me. I just assume this new thing must be more important).
Look, even if I had some terrible habit people didn’t like, like going off on tangents and rambling on and on, or talking too slowly, I can’t imagine them thinking the answer is just to start up a conversation with someone else like I’m not standing there in the middle of a sentence. Who does that?
Looking back, I’ve kind of always had this problem from childhood. I could be reading the history off my blood sugar monitor to my mother (after being asked, no less, and in response to me reporting feeling dizzy) and her friend would just interrupt with some random work anecdote and that would be the end of it. So…I think it’s really just me, independent of the subject or urgency and regardless of how concise I’m being. And it’s something I really want to change now that I’m older and working in a professional setting, but I have no clue how.
I actually fit in really well with my coworkers and we have a great relationship the rest of the time—it’s been that way everywhere I worked. Plus I’m always being complimented about the quality of my work, so it isn’t that I’m not being taken seriously as an employee. But sometimes this thing occurs and I’m left wondering what the hell just happened.
I’ve internalized a lot of your advice after years of reading your blog, and it’s helped immensely. I’ve come across situations where I just ask why something is happening (nicely) rather than stewing about it. I feel like this is different because if I singled out one person, they’re not very well going to come out and say, “Well, I was tired of talking about _____, but you’re not worth the trouble of waiting until the end of your sentence to change the subject.” I think if they actually understood why it was happening, they wouldn’t do it. (That sounded better in my head).
If it were one coworker, I’d probably get up the nerve to ask them nicely what the deal is. But it’s me. It’s just a type of treatment I seem to invite. I’m wondering if you know a way I can change that. There’s so much advice out there on how to sound decisive so people want to implement your suggestions. All I want is whatever level of respect it takes to be able to finish a thought before being shut down.
I’d really appreciate any thoughts you might have on this. When it happens it really throws off my confidence for days at a time. :(
Well, my first thought is that when people do this to you, they’re probably also doing it to other people — in other words, it’s not about you at all, but rather about them. And I say that because there are loads of people out there who do this. So, any chance that you’re taking it personally when it’s something they’re doing to everyone?
(Your example from childhood about your mom seems especially likely to fall in this category. Kids take a ton of energy, and as a result parents do sometimes ask their kids a question and then get easily distracted in the way you described. It’s not ideal and it’s easy to take it personally when you’re on the receiving end, but it’s not uncommon.)
My second thought is about whether there’s any chance that you … well, take longer to get your thoughts out than other people around you? There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing that; in fact, it can even be better, if it means that you’re being more thoughtful. But people have different conversational styles, and if you’re talking with people who tend to express themselves quickly, they might instinctively rush you along without quite realizing what they’re doing. Which isn’t the most polite thing in the world, but it’s about two different conversational styles clashing more than it’s about a disregard or disrespect for you.
Moreover, in some cultures people talk over each as a matter of course. And I don’t mean just cultures in some far-off land — it’s a conversational marker of some demographic groups right here in the U.S. It can feel incredibly rude if you’re not from that cultural background yourself, but to some people it feels normal.
The remaining possibility, of course, is that everyone you know, both personally and professionally, is being incredibly rude to you … but that seems pretty unlikely. I know that seeing multiple people do this to you makes you feel like something about you is causing it, but if you break that down, it doesn’t make a lot of sense — are you really so unworthy of notice that loads of perfectly polite people have decided to openly disregard you and act like that’s no big deal? Even if there were something about you that somehow signaled No Need To Pay Attention To Me, is it really likely that all these otherwise lovely people would be willing to be openly dismissive of you? I doubt that very much (and I also doubt that you are not worth paying attention to, particularly on that kind of scale). So that to me says that the most likely possibility here is that you are particularly attuned to — and perhaps particularly sensitive to — a behavior that’s relatively common. And not about you.
All that said, I wonder if there’s anyone who you trust to candidly talk this through — someone who would be willing to think about this honestly rather than just rushing to assure you that it’s not happening, who is blunt enough to tell you if there is something you’re doing to contribute to it, and who won’t get defensive if you ask them about it. That’s where I’d start … but I’d also watch to see if the people doing this to you are also doing it to others, and particularly whether my “you might just notice and care about it more” hypothesis rings true.
I bet you’re not the only one who has felt this way, so what other thoughts do people have?