Decision 2020

Taking a Closer Look at Debate Interruptions

NBC Universal, Inc.

In last night’s vice presidential debate, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris faced off on key national issues including the country’s tackling of COVID-19, who should decide the next Supreme Court justice, and the highly contentious topic of climate change.

In stark contrast to the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden, both Pence and Harris appeared to exhibit more decorum and respect for the debate stage. However, interruptions between the two candidates were still apparent with many wondering if Pence’s continual interruptions during Harris’s slotted time crossed the line.

According to NBC News, Pence interrupted Harris twice as much. Harris frequently addressed Pence when he would interject, at times saying phrases like, “Vice president, I’m speaking.”

Angela De Joseph, founder of the Women of Color Roar Media, whose agency focuses on the diversity of women in the media, says the interruptions took away valuable time from Harris and was disrespectful. De Joseph says she believes the experience was understood by women.

“The Vice President was interrupting her, and that’s something women are used to happening in the workplace,” De Joseph said. “ When you’re in a meeting you’re talking and they just talk over you. I think it resonated with women.”

De Joseph says pressure is on Harris to constantly tread a fine line.

“She couldn’t get angry,” De Joseph said. “She couldn’t snap back at him because then she would have been called an angry black woman. She had to make sure she maintained her cool and her decorum.”

Harris also had moments where she interrupted Pence while he was speaking. Jonathan Bowman, who has his Ph.D. and is a professor of Communication Studies at the University of San Diego, pointed interruptions are par for the course when it comes to debating and what happened last night wasn’t unusual.

“Debates typically have a lot of competitive interruptions,” Bowman said. “This is people wanting to get their voice out there. They want to be heard.”

However, Bowman says last night’s interruptions could have been amplified by gender.

“It is exacerbated a little bit more due to her gender, however, men typically feel more comfortable interrupting women," Bowman said.

Bowman says the unusual stage setup due to COVID-19 could have also played a factor, suggesting the unorthodox layout, where they couldn’t look at each other, might have made nonverbal communication difficult.

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