woman speaking to two men

Men Interrupting Men

We received a question submitted by a woman, we'll call her Jane, who observed that the men in her office seemed to have no problem being interrupted by other men. However, when Jane, or another woman, interrupted these same men by asking a question, most of the responses from the men differed greatly from the way they interacted with each other. This naturally surprised, and sometimes, infuriated Jane, and I sympathize with her.

Our teaching centers around the instinctive behavioral differences between men and women, and we can observe that most men and women treat interruption differently. To a single-focused man like me, almost every outside stimulus occurs as an interruption, and every interruption frustrates our ability to produce the result on which we’re focused. Furthermore, men don’t easily transition from A to B and then back to A, so our frustration builds as we try to recover. In contrast, multitasking-adept women far more readily shuttle from one task to another; with the ability to cope with frequent interruption being a natural part of their design.

To understand the office dynamic, it helps to examine the two components of the transaction: the question and the answer.

What’s the Point?

Because men generally get to the point quickly, and because we’re focused on getting only what need for the task at hand, questions are pointed and direct. “Jay, can you put that XYZ spreadsheet on the server.” “Burt, can you make a meeting at ABC Company’s offices on Thursday?” Bing, bang, boom, it’s over in seconds. There’s no ‘getting related’ before asking for what we need. There’s no back-story about why we need it. There’s no preface for the question.

If the responding man’s answer is in the affirmative, it may come as a grunt, a hand wave, or a head nod. Occasionally we’ll even use language to answer ‘yes!’ Simple and direct. If our response is negative, it may take a few more words, but we’re also direct. For men, ‘No’ just means no. We’re not wondering ‘What did he mean by that?’ We don’t take the ‘No’ personally. We’re not concerned that saying ‘No’ to a male colleague is going to strain our relationship.

The entire transaction takes mere seconds, beginning to end. We’re in; we're out, and we’re done. It’s not gracious. It may not be ‘civilized.’ However, it’s efficient, and that’s what counts. A man in pursuit of his goal dispenses with the niceties of communication that women so highly value. Women are instinctively more concerned with building and maintaining interpersonal relationships than are men.

Mixed Gender Adds Complexity

Contrast this interaction of two men with a similar situation involving a man and a woman. The question often takes more time to deliver, sometimes a lot more time, because women are naturally given to provide more detail and rationale for their requests. Women don’t want to appear abrupt, lest that be interpreted as uncaring or impersonal.

From the man’s perspective, even an affirmative response needs to be delivered a bit more graciously. Because we’re sensitive to your feelings - yes, believe it or not we are - negative responses demand more consideration and time. All of which throws us off the track we were on. It could take us fifteen minutes to get back to where we were when the woman with the question walked through the door.

Now, I want Jane, and everyone else, to know that I admire and respect the importance women place on feelings and relationships. Most men share my feelings, even though we may not express it very often. What happens in the office situation we’re discussing is that the interruption temporarily frustrates the man’s ability to complete the task at hand, and it’s the frustration that is being expressed by the man, not his response to the question, or the way it was posed.

Men who are less single-focused and more capable of multitasking suffer fewer effects of interruption. However, most of my gender cringes inwardly at every interruption because we suffer its effects. Wish it weren’t so, but it is. I hope this provides some insight into, yet another, puzzling behavior of men.