Interruption and Overlap in Conversations between Men and Women on the Basis of "The Big Bang Theory"

Term Paper, 2018

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 Previous Research

3 Methodology

4 Interruption and overlap
4.1 Definitions
4.2 Power relations and the four functions of interruption

5 Analytical approaches
5.1 Conversation Analysis (CA)
5.2 Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA)

6 Results
6.1 Extract 1
6.2 Extract 2
6.3 Extract 3
6.4 Extract 4

7 Discussion of the results

8 Conclusion

9 Bibliography

1 Introduction

The difference in male and female language is a frequently discussed subject in modern research. Investigating the different utilization of language of both sexes does not only seem to be of interest to linguists and anthropologists, but equally to modern feminists who for instance engage with the issue of power and the role that it plays in conversations between men and women. Gender researchers such as Don H. Zimmerman and Candace West have helped create the groundwork for the examination of this topic by claiming that interruption is mostly done by men, and that this phenomenon correlates with the fact that dominance and control is often directed towards women during conversations (West & Zimmerman, 1975). However, studies such as Zimmerman's and West's have been deemed problematic due to criticism relating to the fact that their main focus lies solely on gender; therefore excluding other important and relevant aspects of identity (McElhinny, 2003) such as ethnicity, nationality, and occupation (Schegloff, 1997).

The purpose of this paper however is not to examine whether those claims are true or false, but rather to analyse the portrayal of such dominance and control in cross­sex interactions on television. In doing so, stereotypical behaviour of men and women could certainly become visible since what we see on screen is often a reflection of what we expect to see.

This study will focus on the analysis of instances of interruption and overlap in the American television series The Big Bang Theory. By looking at the portrayal of gender behaviour in regards to the cross-sex interactions, the aim will be to observe how power relations between opposite sexes is portrayed to us through television and what it tells us about stereotypical thinking in our society.

2 Previous Research

Similar to how, when talking about gender differences, accusations of institutionalized sexism that deal with differences in wages or discrimination in job training and promotion are a common topic, the aspect of power and male dominance is often discussed in gender-and-language research (McElhinny, 2003, 32). The claim that “men use talk to dominate, and women are dominated by talk” (Crawford, 1995) or the results of empirical studies that show that verbal as well as non-verbal male language operates in a way in which it maintains the dominance in a conversation are all assumptions which have also been made through the analysis of interruption and overlap in discourse.

Robin Lakoff's claim, that women's speech style has internally different traits than men's speech style seems to only reaffirm the notion of male dominance in cross­sex conversations. Lakoff argues that a woman's way of talking is characterized by for instance hesitance and weakness; however since her claims were not based on a systematic observation and empirical research, her arguments were met with criticism. Nevertheless she accomplished to draw attention to the absence of empirical evidence in this area of study which ultimately led to researchers attempting to fill the gap (Crawford, 1995). Studies concerning the different usage of so called tag questions of men and women as well as topic control, talking time, use of silence, overlap, interruption and other interactional features of speech have been practiced in order to find answers to the differences of women's and men's speech in conversations (Crawford, 1995). Regarding interruption, studies such as Robinson's and Reis' in The effects of interruption, gender, and status on interpersonal perceptions, in which 187 psychology students have participated, have come to the conclusion that on an average men interrupt women more often than women interrupt men (Robinson & Reis, 1989). On the other hand, the results of another study done by Deborah Cameron has shown that women interrupted more. Cameron disagrees with the idea of making a generalization like this based on a variable such as the speaker's sex (Cameron, 1995). Additionally, some researchers suggest that this “pervasive focus on gender difference in speech style” (Kitzinger, 2008, p. 121) represents the human tendency to ignore social context and draw conclusions regarding human behaviour based solely on what characteristics a person holds. Regarding the depiction of men and women on television, there have been various studies which have for instance analyzed U.S television commercials. Some of these studies have suggested that women are indeed victims of institutionalized sexism based on the stereotypical depiction of women in those commercials (Craig, 1992). Regarding power relations in interactions between men and women, Lemon has conducted a study in which she analyzed television drama. Lemon came to the conclusions that in conversations between men and women, men are more dominant that women and that an important attribute of power was the occupational status of a person. This is an interesting point considering the fact that she also found a tendency of male characters being assigned “high-prestige occupations” more often than women (Lemon, 1978, p. 16).

3 Methodology

As preparation for this study, it was important to first select a suitable TV programme that can be easily observed for the sake of this issue. The 8th season of the TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory has been chosen for this due to its common focus on cross-sex interactions in order to produce comedic effects. Additionally the 8th season of the series has turned out to be the most optimal set of episodes to observe due to the increased number of female characters compared to previous seasons and thus increased likelihood for dialogues between men and women. The next step was to identify situations in which characteristics of talk-in-interaction such as interruption and overlap are shown. Before analyzing the respective conversations, it is necessary to properly transcribe the dialogue using an adequate transcription system. For this, the transcription system GAT2 has turned out to be the most suitable. Being the revised version of the original GAT transcription system, GAT2 has aimed to fix weak points of the previous version while also introducing new conventions for the phonetic and linguistic analysis of spoken language (Selting et al. 2009).

After the completion of the transcription process, the selected sample will be analyzed by using the approach of Conversation Analysis (CA). CA was developed by Harvey Sacks, Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson and is a very helpful tool to analyze not which language people use when they talk to each other but rather how they behave when doing so. Since our focus lies on interruption and overlap, which are forms of action, CA is the most suitable approach. Concerned with the study of social life, CA will assist in analyzing cross-sex interactions in regards to the construction of social order (Kitzinger, 2008). This will be realised on the basis of the identification of interruption and overlap. Moreover, we will also proceed use a different approach, namely Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). CDA is a macroanalytical approach and represents a method to investigate inequality in discourse. It will serve as a helpful tool to critically analyze the upcoming results in a social context (Baxter, 2010).

4 Interruption and overlap

4.1 Definitions

Interruption is being regarded as a violation of so called normative turn-talking practices whereby it is important to firstly identify how turn-taking usually takes place. Taking into account syntax, prosody and pragmatics, the participants are constantly trying to identify when the turn of their interlocutor is over. This usually happens at the end of a sentence, clause, phrase or lexical item (Kitzinger, 2008). The signalling of when the interlocutors intend to end their turns is very important for every conversation. The point at which a turn can occur has been defined by Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson as a so called “transition relevance place” (Pohl, 1996, p. 28) or TRP.

According to West and Zimmerman, the general consensus seems to be that interruption occurs when one participant of a conversation starts to talk at a point where her or his counterpart cannot have possibly finished their turn yet. At this point, it is important to clarify the difference between overlap and interruption. While as mentioned before, interruption occurs when a turn-taking practice is violated, the main distinction seems to lie in the intent of the speaker who begins his turn during an already ongoing turn. Overlap can be understood as “an error in projecting where a speaker is planning to end their turn” (Kitzinger, 2008) which suggests that when overlap takes place, it is unintentional. Nevertheless it is important to put stress on the fact that there are indeed many instances in which these two definitions have been applied incorrectly from a conversation analytic perspective. Schegloff defines overlap simply as the occurrence of multiple persons talking during the same time and interruption as an instance in which an intervention is being initiated during another person's turn to talk (Schegloff, 2006). Furthermore, Schegloff has made an effort to put emphasis on this distinction. In his article Accounts of Conduct in Interaction, Schegloff refers to a statement by Max Weber who claimed that the occurrence of human contact does not necessarily have to be of social nature. Weber goes on to illustrate this by using the example of two cyclists that collide with each other. While the event of colliding with each other has most likely been unintentional, we cannot talk about social action. However, it is possible to talk about social action regarding the attempt of trying to prevent the collision from happening (Schegloff, 2006). In addition to that, Schegloff suggests that overlapping talk does not require an involvement of interruption. A simple example for this would be the initiation of talk by two speakers at the exact same moment. As long as there were no existing preliminary conditions to the conversation that would give one of the two speakers the right of talking first, this is classified as overlapping talk without the occurrence of an interruption (Schegloff, 2006).

4.2 Power relations and the four functions of interruption

Regarding the underlying question of why interruption occurs in the first place, Jeffrey R. Ringer has proposed four different explanations. The first function of interruption according to Ringer is the perspective of dominance and control (Ringer, 1985). During this study, identifying this function will be the most crucial for providing an insight into how behaviour of men and women are portrayed on television. The so-called “Dominance Theory” (Jan, 2011, p. 40) suggests that a clear inequality exists in conversations between men and women due to the linguistic features of the respective sexes. Here, women are taking the role of the oppressed group. This model is aiming to express how men are usually leading conversations while women are simply acting as support characters by taking certain actions such as introducing topics or formulating questions (Jan, 2011).


Excerpt out of 20 pages


Interruption and Overlap in Conversations between Men and Women on the Basis of "The Big Bang Theory"
University of Bremen
Seminar: Key Topics in Linguistics: Language and Gender
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Language, Gender, Language and Gender, Conversation, Conversation between Men and Women, Interruption, Overlap
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Anonymous, 2018, Interruption and Overlap in Conversations between Men and Women on the Basis of "The Big Bang Theory", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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