Cooperative Overlap

One of the biggest sources of miscommunication is people having different styles of communication, or different norms about the right way to express emotion or context even if there's agreement on more straightforward aspects of verbal communication. Things like "ask vs. guess" cultures are one common manifestation of this, and I was delighted to discover the name for another such potential stumbling point: cooperative overlap.

"I'm a New Yorker, I talk over people to agree with them." That's a refrain I've often said, or heard said to me, over the years as a shorthand for explaining a communication that involves talking along with the person one is having conversation with. Sometimes it's ascribed to ethnicity or community instead of geography, like folks who've told me it's part of Jewish traditions (or similar to the ubiquitous Yiddish influence on speech in New York) or the various South Asian communities that I'm part of.

This is a communication style that I grew up with, and have intuitively understood, my whole life, while also being acutely aware that there are cultures (including the dominant cultures of privilege in America) where this kind of interaction is considered unseemly or even rude. My own feeling is fairly simple: Not talking “with” someone is like leaving them alone, similar to refusing to look at them when talking.

But I got a clear articulation of both those who feel the same way as me, as well as those who vehemently disagree, when I tweeted about the idea and quoted a (since-deleted) tweet that showed off a video explaining the idea. The tweet is here, and I've included the video below.

Some of the responses were particularly insightful. A huge cohort of others (especially those of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent) had the same sense of relief and recognition I did, that incredibly validating feeling of a lived experience being named in a way that makes it legitimate. And there were, to be sure, people from other backgrounds who had the exact opposite response, articulating how this kind of interaction was stressful or off-putting to them. Some people who use the cooperative overlapping style of conversation said they felt embarrassed or ashamed about it, like they had been told they were doing something wrong but couldn't help that it felt like a positive or supportive way to communicate. That's not too surprising to me, because about half of the responses I got made very clear value judgements about cooperative overlap being "wrong" or "rude" or even describing it as akin to bullying; I didn't see any responses where those who don't speak with cooperative overlap were described with similar value judgments.

Ultimately, the strong consensus was that this is cultural and grounded in the conversational practices of each of our communities. I love finding common threads across cultures that speak to me, or discovering why certain folks just feel like we're on the same page when talking. It's also just interesting to observe these differences.

Putting it to work

I've thought a lot about the implications and considerations of cooperative overlapping in workplaces or contexts where we have to collaborate, because it raises a lot of questions about how to accommodate these different styles. For example, in the tension between "ask vs. guess" communications cultures, a workplace could set norms of explicitly stating things that need to be known, in order to reduce stress for people who are more inclined to guess about expectations in a situation. This doesn't inconvenience those who are comfortable asking for what they need, but addresses the needs of those who aren't.

By contrast, there's not as easy a way to accommodate both overlappers and turn-takers. It seems like a situation that's best supported by making explicit that both forms of communication are valuable and that each is the default for different people. I think as inclusion efforts move past platitudes and obvious stumbling blocks, much of the harder, trickier, less straightforward work of team-building is going to move to finding ways to talk about, and support, these causes of stress or tension.

There's a technological aspect to this, as well. In a time when we're all on video conferencing calls all the time, it's very obvious that the actual technology is not built to support cooperative overlap at all. I know I personally augment my listening to conversations on tools like Zoom (or even following along with text conversations in tools like Slack) by making judicious use of emoji and reactions while people are carrying on a dialogue. It feels withdrawn to not offer those reactions or encouragements while someone is talking, especially to a group, and so much warmer if they get feedback and signals while doing so. At the same time, I'm sure there are people who might be thrown off by such signals if they were making a presentation or trying to deliver a complicated idea, so maybe being able to receive those signals asynchronously might help address that concern.

Overlapping Interests

Ultimately, I'm just grateful to have language to describe a phenomenon that's core to my conception of communication and conversation. We don't talk alone. I hope that having these clearer ways of describing our habits makes it easier for those of us whose communication style is less dominant in culture to feel comfortable expressing ourselves. And I'm especially excited to see how norms and practices evolve to support more than one "right" way of talking to each other.

One last update — just as I was finishing this piece for publication, I found that Deborah Tannen, the well-respected linguistics professor whose work was referenced many times in the responses to Sari Rachel's video that catalyzed this entire conversation, had written a piece on cooperative overlap in the New York Times that actually quotes one of my tweets on the phenomenon. Alongside Kelsey Borresen's earlier piece in the Huffington Post, it seems like there's some real momentum building around mainstream articulations of the existence of, and validity of, cooperative overlap. I am excited about the possibilities of this becoming a communication style that's broadly understood and accommodated.