For scholars in the field of manterruption, mansplaining and intrusive interruption, the 30 or so impolite violations of etiquette during Wednesday’s Democratic debate will no doubt turn into a classroom lecture, or maybe even a scientific paper.
If the terms aren’t exactly familiar, a simplified explanation: They refer to the tendency of men to dominate group conversation, often by interrupting.
The largest field of women ever on a presidential debate stage — and the fact that the men on the stage butted in more than the women, who waited their turn — seemed to provide yet another example of a gender dynamic regularly observed in studies, according to Adam M. Grant, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in organizational psychology.
Because of gender stereotypes, people often respond positively to assertiveness in men but negatively to the same behavior in women. “This means male candidates are free to interrupt, while female candidates face a double bind: stay silent and fail to be heard, or speak up and get judged as too aggressive,” Grant explained.
In the first debate, Grant noted, several of the male candidates, and moderators, did interject, while the women were less likely to jump into the fray. He suggested that the front-runner on Wednesday night’s stage, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, might have been wary of stirring up a repeat of past “unfair complaints about hectoring and lecturing” directed against her.
The gender dynamics of interruption, on display Wednesday, could appear again in Thursday’s debate, when Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and self-help author Marianne Williamson will all be onstage.
It wasn’t that the women were totally demure. Warren delivered some sharp criticism of giant corporations and inequality. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota got off a zinger, responding to a boast by Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington about his administration’s work on reproductive rights with the retort: “I just want to say, there’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.” And Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a veteran, inveighed against Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan’s position on fighting the Taliban.
Tali Mendelberg, a professor of politics at Princeton, said it was her impression that “men did interrupt and seize the floor more often than the women did,” adding that the free-for-all debate format “tends to disadvantage women competing with men.”
“Just because these are high-level officials doesn’t mean they’re not subject to some gender dynamics,” she said.
For the most part, though, the men jostled for exposure by talking when they weren’t called on by the moderators. And while some viewers regarded Wednesday’s interruptions as off-putting, judging from some of the Twitter traffic, the intrusions were minor when compared to the 2016 presidential debate, when Donald Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton 40 times, by one estimate.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, barely registering in polls among the crowded field, came off as the most aggressive. Some viewers, including former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, called him rude.
“What about the War Powers Act?” de Blasio interjected, without being asked by the moderator, after a foreign policy answer by former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke. He later called out, “Hey, wait, wait,” when O’Rourke was discussing whether to replace private insurance, then added, “How can you defend a system that’s not working?”
Later, when Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey was asked a question, former housing secretary Julian Castro interjected, “If I might briefly …”
Castro and O’Rourke got into a back-and-forth over immigration policy, prompting Castro to twice interject, “That’s not true.” In another exchange, one of the moderators, Lester Holt, told O’Rourke that his time was up three times as he continued to talk.
In the end, Booker and O’Rourke ended up with more talking time during the debate than any of the other candidates, with Warren coming in third.
Meanwhile, it was an interruption by a woman that prompted the only official blowback from a campaign.
After the debate, Ryan’s campaign sent an email to the media complaining about how Gabbard challenged his statements on Afghanistan and the Taliban.
“While making a point as to why America can’t cede its international leadership and retreat from around the world, Tim was interrupted by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard,” the statement said, complaining about her “lecturing” him.
Grant of the Wharton School suggests a technological solution for these problems — muting debate mics when it’s not a candidate’s turn.
“Or at least start playing Oscar music,” he said in an email.