Conversation Hijacking: How Not To Insert Yourself into a Conversation by Pushing a Woman Out of It

21 October 2014, 1858 EDT

This is a guest post from Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.  She is the author of Inside the Politics of Self-determination (Oxford University Press, 2014).

I was recently at a relatively small academic conference, one that I’ve been attending for years whenever I can. The size of the meeting encourages engagement between big names and small names, grad students and professors, and across genders. It is a classic academic mixer, filled with slightly awkward people, many of whom are slightly disheveled, talking about things that are really interesting in really boring ways (to outsiders).

I started attending as a grad student and have made a number of critical personal and professional connections. In addition to getting useful feedback on my own work, this venue is a great opportunity to reconnect with people in my field and get to know some new ones. While I began as a young grad student, I am now at place where I am a (newly) senior member in the field.

After the final session one day, while people trickled out of the room, I sat down with a colleague I hadn’t seen for years. I was just hearing about a fascinating research project he’s working on when another person (another senior man in the field, though I’m not sure that matters) walked up and sat down, smiled at me but did not introduce himself and started a totally independent conversation with my colleague. I got up a few minutes later to make another meeting, but this small event stayed with me.

It’s hard to explain when and why some situations feel exclusionary to women. Here’s some practical advice to men (and women) in the field that might help combat gender inequality:

  1. Don’t hijack women’s conversations. In doing so, you implicitly (or perhaps explicitly) assume that your interactions or contributions are more important.
  2. If you want to join the conversation, join it with the people that are there. Interrupting a conversation to join it is an essential part of networking; acknowledge that you are inserting yourself into the conversation instead of unilaterally changing it.
  3. If you don’t want to enter that conversation for whatever reason, walk up and say “I’d love to chat with you in a few minutes if you’re free,” then give them some space.

This technique may not always work, or even be necessary in some contexts. Conversation hijacking likely happens to as many men as women; it’s not by nature a gender-related problem. Yet many men I talk to say that they would like to create a supportive environment for women, but aren’t sure what they personally can do. You might ask “shouldn’t a professional woman know how to socially manage a conversation hijacking?” Sure, but we are all responsible for creating an environment where we can focus on our scholarship, not on our ability to manage our peers.  So, try this. You can stop yourself from thoughtlessly marginalizing a woman, and you can prevent it from happening by refusing to let someone else hijack your own conversations with women in your field.