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Interruptology Explains the Presidential Debates

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a staff writer for Science magazine and a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and she is the author of “The Score: How the Quest for Sex Has Shaped the Modern Man.”
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If the thought of tuning in to the second presidential debate on Sunday fills you with dread, you’re not alone. More than 80 million Americans watched Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spar at the last debate, while moderator Lester Holt fired off critical questions that seemed to disintegrate, unanswered. After 90 minutes of noisy word exchange, viewers were left with only the broadest outlines of the candidates’ stands on domestic and foreign policy -- the issues presidents are supposed to deal with.

What trickery do the candidates employ to make the challenging questions or uncomfortable topics disappear? One clear pattern from the last debate was that the candidates interrupted each other almost constantly. But as I learned from University of Iowa communications professor Kristine Muñoz, it wasn’t just the number of interruptions that made the debate so unsatisfying. It was the type. A study in “interruptology” sheds light on why the last contest was so uniquely exhausting -- and how viewers might glean more information from the next one.

There are four major types of interruptions, says Muñoz, who studies them as part of her research on gender differences in communication. Some varieties are more civil than others. First there’s “the friendly merger,” in which speakers jump in to reinforce or support each other. In the last debate, Muñoz counted six such outbursts from Clinton, two from Trump, and 12 for moderator Lester Holt. Then there’s “the overlap” -- a familiar glitch that occurs when people talk over each other accidentally. Muñoz counted six initiated by Clinton and 23 initiated by Trump.

More prevalent in the first debate were the two unfriendly forms of interruptions: the “hostile takeover” and “verbal chicken.” In the hostile takeover, one speaker aims to take the floor from the other. That sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails. By Muñoz’s count, Clinton attempted this nine times and succeeded in five of them. Lester Holt did it 11 times and succeeded in just three. Trump was the winner of this game, attempting it 37 times and succeeding in 30. Why did he get away with it? “The critical factor is practice,” Muñoz said. Men are more likely than women to use hostile takeover on a regular basis, and male bosses get even more opportunities to hone the skill.

In contrast, verbal chicken is rarely seen in professional settings, she said, and unheard of in a presidential debate -- until now, that is. It happens when two people speak at the same time for an extended period, each trying to force the other to back down first. “Neither party is listening to the other, and no meaningful transcription of talk is possible,” Muñoz said. In the last debate, a full seven rounds of crosstalk erupted between Trump and Clinton. 

Winning at verbal chicken isn’t easy, Muñoz said. It takes a fair amount of concentration and determination to hold your train of thought when someone is talking over you. In one instance, Clinton appealed directly to moderator Lester Holt, pleading that Trump’s description of her economic policies “can’t be left to stand.” She was allowed to get the last word. In the other six cases, the victor was unclear.

Of course, “winning” the interruption game doesn’t mean much if you lose the audience in the process. In many cases, hostile interruptions are so annoying that they diminish our opinions of those responsible. That’s bad news for Trump. But it might also be bad for Clinton, even though she interrupted less, since some voters may have had held her to a higher standard of professional conduct. What’s more, the hostile takeovers did help Trump change the subject when it suited him to do so. When “successful,” a hostile takeover can get the interrupter off the hook.

Trump is not only good at the hostile takeover; he’s proven adept a more subtle form of deflection -- the pseudo-answer. These are statements that loosely connected to questions but do not in fact answer them.

Linguistics professor Andrew Kehler of the University of California San Diego said the pseudo-answers often work because listeners tend to unconsciously connect the dots. The most glaring example he caught in the first debate was when Trump was confronted with the fact that his company was sued for racial discrimination in 1973. Trump responded that they settled without ever admitting guilt. Some people might have assumed this meant he wasn’t guilty. But his not admitting guilt has nothing to do with his actual innocence or guilt, which went unaddressed. 

As moderator, Lester Holt did confront Trump on another pseudo-answer given in response to questions surrounding his refusal to release his tax returns. Trump had said that he’s being audited, leading people to assume that the audit must somehow prevent him from releasing tax returns. Holt pointed out that it doesn’t.

Can a winner be declared from such a strange event? If it was an interruption contest, Trump clearly won. But many media outlets declared Clinton the winner, in part because she generally appeared more professional and less obnoxious. Post-debate polls seem to tell the same story, with Clinton gaining on Trump. Those of us viewing the next round should keep tabs on the various ways the candidates derail each other and deflect important questions. And the candidates -- especially Trump -- may want to consider whether those outbursts are worth it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Faye Flam at fflam1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tracy Walsh at twalsh67@bloomberg.net