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BINTEL BRIEF My friend doesn’t like the way I talk. And now she won’t talk to me about it

Bintel says: What some see as interrupting, others call being Jewish

The Forward has been solving reader dilemmas since 1906 in A Bintel Brief, Yiddish for a bundle of letters. Send us your quandaries about Jewish life, love, family, friends or work via email, Twitter or this form.

Dear Bintel: 

Recently someone I considered to be a very close friend asked me to have lunch because she said she wanted to hear about my recent travels. 

She then ambushed me to tell me she was bothered by my behavior at an event a few days prior. She told me I was “zero to 60,” and always just show up and start talking.

Apparently I didn’t notice that she was in the middle of a private conversation, and interrupted. In my mind, we were all in the lobby of a sold-out comedy show at the synagogue, so I didn’t presume that privacy was an expectation, I just went up to say hello. She continued talking to her friend, and I turned to talk to her husband. He engaged me in conversation, so I didn’t get the feeling I was supposed to leave.

The problem is that she didn’t just gently let me know I annoyed her. She behaved like it was an intervention, giving me counseling advice on how to have a conversation, asking me why I talked in the way that I do.

The most insulting part was when she asked me if I talk over my patients in my medical practice. I bit my tongue, but really wanted to say, “Gee I don’t know, when you call me for free medical advice, how do I talk with you?” 

We have been friends for over 12 years, our kids are in Hebrew school together and our families spend most of the Jewish holidays together. We have had other intense conversations over the years, but they were always mutual. 

I have lived in my town for 17 years, but still feel like an outsider. We don’t have any family close by, and this felt like a rip in our friendship that leaves me more alone than before, especially since it will be super awkward for me to be around her with all the families together. 

I did reach out twice to have another lunch to work it out, but she told me she was too busy. I have seen her around at Jewish community events and she has come up to me like nothing ever happened. But I am not able to pretend. How do you manage a crack in a friendship? Because if it’s not repaired, then our whole social circle crumbles. 

Sincerely, 
Chatterbox Checkmate


Dear Chatterbox,

There is a TikTok that went viral a few years ago about a linguistic concept called “cooperative overlapping.” It’s a term coined by Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor and author of many popular books about conversational styles. 

Basically, cooperative overlapping is when people interject throughout conversations as a way to demonstrate their engagement. It can be something as small as saying “yeah totally,” or a larger digression, like sharing an anecdote of something similar happening to you. It’s a way to show that you understand and relate to what someone is saying — it’s common in Jewish culture, as well as in many others.

The thing is, not everyone interprets these habits the same way. When the video went viral, a bunch of the responses were from people who felt seen and were excited to learn that there’s a term for how they communicate. But others accused cooperative overlappers of being rude, arguing that it’s no different from interrupting, and that interrupting is always a sign of disrespect.

When I spoke to Tannen about her research, she said people rarely think about these issues from the perspective of cultural morés or communication styles; instead, they make inferences about an individual’s values and personality. And this can lead to serious misunderstandings — Tannen called it “one of the most fundamental tragedies of human relations.” 

Unfortunately, there’s no magic solution; all you can do is extend understanding and try to adapt to people’s conversational styles over time. But there’s usually some bumps along the way.

The good news is, you did nothing wrong. Don’t let this get into your head about whether or not you know how to talk. It sounds like you and your friend just have different communication styles: You feel as though you’re acting friendly, while she feels as though you’re being disrespectful. Similarly, she perhaps saw the lunch as a direct, 1:1 way of communicating her concerns in hopes of improving an important friendship, while you felt she was ambushing you. (Admittedly, it would have helped if she hadn’t pretended she wanted to hear about your trip.) 

The bad news is that your friend did exactly what Tannen worries about: She made a lot of big assumptions, and those led to serious accusations. That pretty much blew up.

Perhaps most concerning is that she is rebuffing your invitation to sit down again to, well, communicate about your communication.

I would understand wanting to rethink this relationship — someone you considered close spoke to you in a condescending way. If she hates the way you talk so much, what’s the point in staying friends? But it sounds like your lives are too enmeshed to really part ways, and that you’d like to keep the friendship alive if possible.

The best course of action, as you’ve already tried, would be to have another conversation about the conflict. Since she has avoided you thus far, perhaps try sending an email stating upfront that you’re upset, and that her communication style was as hurtful to you as yours was to her. She was direct with you, so you should return the favor. The email will give you both time to prepare — don’t just spring a big confrontation on her, the way she did to you. First of all, that’s not very kind — as you well know— and secondly, maybe she really is too busy for a casual lunch, but will make time for a serious conversation.

If you convince her to have another conversation about this, it must be less charged. You can calmly share what you’ve learned about why your communication broke down, and explain how you see the style she finds rude. Hopefully, outlining your goals for the meeting will help: State clearly how important the relationship is to you, as well as respect and empathy for her perspective.

Meanwhile, there may be some adaptations worth considering in your conversational style when you’re speaking with her. Try to leave more pauses in the conversation for her to jump in, for example, instead of assuming that she’ll insert herself when she has something to say. It’s not easy — I’m also a conversational overlapper and have to try to slow down with certain friends, which can feel unnatural — but it can really help.

But if she continues to turn down your invites, how you speak to her isn’t going to matter much. In that case, maybe it’s time to put some concerted effort into building new friendships so you don’t feel so alone. You might still see your friend at Jewish events, but the tension won’t weigh on you so much if you have other fulfilling friendships to lean on. Maybe you get more involved at synagogue, or maybe you pick up a new hobby, join a book club or start volunteering somewhere. 

Making friends as an adult can feel impossible, but really, most people are as hungry for community as you are; if you get involved with something you enjoy, you’ll eventually find like-minded people. Besides, as a bonus, staying busy will help distract you from the friend drama.

Signed,
Bintel

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