Dinner at my house during the pandemic has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand it is wonderful to spend time together as a family each day. Given that most of us in our household are working or doing school from home makes it easier for all of us to eat together. The downside is that after a year cooped up, we may be getting on each other’s nerves a bit.
My wife and I notice that around this time of year our kids start to get impatient with each other and with us. In a normal year, this phenomenon makes us all excited for summer camp, when each kid gets to spend time with their friends and we, the parents, get to experience a preview of the empty nest. At the end of the summer we are all happy and excited to be back together again.
Last year, with camps closed, we didn’t get a chance to enjoy the separation that brings our family closer together. Instead, we had to power through the challenge of prolonged closeness. This year, camps are set to open, and all signs point to a more normal summer experience.
Until we drop off our kids, however, we must endure some heated conversations at dinner. On the one hand, these arguments raise everyone’s blood pressure, but on the other hand, they do show passion and exuberance. The kids fight for their position on whatever the topic might be: coronavirus, politics, culture.
We often have to set rules and referee the conversation as well. Only one person can talk at a time; one should not insult someone else’s opinion. Interrupting is a major problem, but perhaps I am worried too much about it. It turns out that there is more than one way to talk over others.
Linguists distinguish between someone who jumps into the conversation to dominate and the more positive “cooperative overlapper”. The latter is so engaged by what they are hearing that they start “talking along with the speaker, not to cut them off but rather to validate or show they’re engaged in what the other person is saying.” A cooperative overlapper is not seeking to contradict what is being said, but to amplify and add to it.
This type of conversation has been linked to a number of cultures, including some in the Jewish community. We are all aware of the image of the noisy Jewish family engaged in loud conversation, often with extensive use of the hands. Of course, if one is not part of the culture, one may find this type of discourse rude, which is why Jews are often stereotyped as pushy and inconsiderate.
You may recognize yourself as a cooperative overlapper. If so, it is important to understand that not everyone will respond in the same way to this style. One way to overcome the misperception of rudeness is to say something like this before you comment: “I really don’t mean to interrupt. I just want you to know I really agree with what you are saying.”
I’m not sure if my family is always engaging in cooperative overlapping. Sometimes we are, in fact, trying to dominate the conversation, but I do think it is important to think about how we speak to each other as we approach Passover, whose Seder is the greatest conversation ever. We are not meant to just recite the Haggadah, but rather engage in a dialogue about freedom and redemption. At your table feel free to kindly and cooperative overlap as you tell the story of our people.