Before we were so rudely interrupted

by Prof. Neil Mercer

The title of my blog is taken from a reunion album by a rock band I used to be very keen on, the Animals. They apparently took it from the first article written after World War II by journalist William Connor in the Daily Mirror. But the significance of rude interruptions in spoken language was demonstrated to me just this week, when I read in the Guardian that Sonia Sotomayor had been identified as the US Supreme Court judge who was most interrupted during court cases in 2019[i]. The relevant research was carried out by Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers of Northwestern University in the USA, who more generally found that ‘judicial interactions at oral argument were highly gendered, with women interrupted at disproportionate rates by male colleagues and male advocates.’[ii] They suggest that the most senior female judges only cope by ‘learning over time to behave more like male justices’. As Sotomayor herself put it, ‘I respond in a way which perhaps I shouldn’t, which is: I interrupt back’.

Sotomayor’s more considered solution has been to introduce a new structural format for how debates in court are to be conducted, so that opportunities for interruptions are limited. In other words, she is changing what my colleagues and I call the ‘ground rules’ for that kind of spoken interaction. Derek Edwards and I took up that concept back in the 1980s in our study of classroom interaction, Common Knowledge[iii], after encountering it in the work of the cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser[iv]. Adopted from sporting jargon, it usefully describes the unspoken, culturally based rules which we all normally follow in social situations in order to make them conform to expectations. Thus, for example, at job interviews the interviewers know that they are expected to ask the questions and direct the course of events; the candidates know that they are expected try to answer the questions and not run the show.  If a candidate enters an interview and says ‘I think I’ll ask all the questions today’, the interview would probably fall apart (and that candidate would be unlikely to be recruited). But such implicit norms may not necessarily help achieve the best outcomes, as Jacobi and Schweers argue on the basis of their findings. The absence of shared ground rules may also create problems in cross-cultural communication.[v]

My colleagues Rupert Wegerif, Lyn Dawes, Karen Littleton and I have used the concept of ground rules to explore the ways that problem-solving discussions go well or go badly. Using recordings of children working together in the classroom, we tried to identify the characteristics of good discussions, in which participants seemed not just interact, but to interthink[vi]: to think together to address a set task and reach the best solution to any problem they faced. We were able to do this by relating the relative incidence of features of recorded discussions to the quality of the outcomes the children achieved. We found that participants in the more productive discussions seemed to follow rules like ‘encourage everyone to contribute’, ‘give reasons for your views’, ‘respectfully challenge any ideas you think are wrong’ and ‘strive for agreement’. We also noticed that students sometimes seemed to follow ground rules which did not help the productivity of their discussions, such as ‘If someone is your friend, always agree with them’, ‘always stick to your original point of view, whatever anyone says’; and in an echo of conventions of US courtrooms ‘interrupt a speaker immediately if they say something with which you disagree’. Of course, students (or anyone else involved in such a discussion) may not be consciously aware that they are following any ground rules – and be even less aware of how such behaviour affects the success of their joint problem-solving endeavours.

In order to help teachers promote effective, productive discussion during group work, we proposed that the characteristics of effective discussions could be transformed into a set of ground rules which a teacher, after raising students’ own self-awareness of how they talked in groups, could ask students to try and follow. Here is an example from one teacher’s classroom:

Our ground rules for talk

  1. everyone in the group is encouraged to contribute
  2. we take turns and listen to each other
  3. contributions are treated with respect
  4. reasons are asked for
  5. everyone is prepared to accept challenges
  6. alternatives are discussed before a decision is taken
  7. all relevant information is shared
  8. the group seeks to reach agreement[vii]

Our research has shown that getting students to follow such ground rules is a very effective strategy for improving the quality of group work in school. Students come to generate more of the productive kind of interaction we call ‘Exploratory Talk’ and less of the unproductive kind we call ‘Disputational Talk’[viii]. Moreover, students become more metalinguistically aware; they are able to see beneath what the sociologist Harold Garfinkel called ‘the obstinate reality of everyday life’ [ix] and appreciate the benefit of regulating their activity in this way.

Examining which implicit rules help promote good discussion and which do not can be useful for improving the quality of discussion in other settings, outside school. For example, Jo Longman and I found this helped improve consultations between employment counsellors and their clients[x]. This approach should also be applicable to committee meetings, university seminars, work team discussions, doctor-patient consultations, job interviews and any other events in which people are meant to use language to think together effectively.

So what has been the effect of Sotomayor and her colleagues changing the ground rules for speaking in court? The Guardian quotes her as saying that the change has made an ‘enormous impact… I found that my colleagues are much more sensitive than before’.  Like the children in our research schools, those members of the legal profession should also have become more metalinguistically aware of how they ways they talk affect judicial processes. Our work at Oracy Cambridge tends to focus on classroom talk, because schools are where my colleagues and I have mostly been involved as teachers and/or researchers. But the experience of Sotomayor, and the research of Jacobi and Schweers, shows that there is great potential value in exploring – and questioning – the implicit norms that govern other kinds of talk situations, if we wish to ensure that our uniquely human capacity to use language for thinking collectively is employed to best effect.


[i] ‘Order in court: new rules to curb interruption of female US justices’. The Guardian, Saturday 16th October, p. 37.

[ii] Jacobi, T. & Schweers, D., (2017) ‘Justice, Interrupted: The effect of gender, ideology and seniority at Supreme Court Oral Arguments’. Virginia Law Review, Vol. 103, pp 1379-1493. Available at SSRN:

[iii] Edwards, D. and Mercer, N. (1987/2012) Common Knowledge: the development of joint understanding in the classroom. Abingdon, Routledge.

[iv] Neisser, U. (1982) Memory observed: remembering in natural contexts. Oxford: W.H. Freeman.

[v] Chapter 4, ‘Laying the foundations’, in Mercer, N. (2019) Language and the Joint Creation of Knowledge: the selected works of Neil Mercer. Abingdon: Routledge

[vi] Chapter 1, ‘Understanding interthinking’, in Littleton, K. & Mercer, N. (2013) Interthinking: putting talk to work. Abingdon: Routledge.

[vii] A teacher can be seen rehearsing ground rules with a class at:


[ix] Garfinkel, H. (1963) A conception of, and experiments with, ‘trust’ as a condition of stable concerted actions. In O.J. Harvey (ed.) Motivation and Social Interaction. New York: Ronald Press.

[x] Chapter 4, ‘Laying the foundations’, in Mercer, N. (2019) Language and the Joint Creation of Knowledge: the selected works of Neil Mercer. Abingdon: Routledge.

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