By: Maralee McKee, Manners Mentor
“Excuse me for a second! May I Interrupt You?”
Depending on what we’re doing at the moment, and how our day is going, the question can be annoying or a nice distraction. And because we’d rather be considered an excellent distraction than an annoyance, “How can I politely interrupt someone?” is a question I get asked a lot!
We all need to get others’ attention from time to time. In the urgency of our moment, sometimes there’s just no other way, and we need to interrupt someone deep in concentration or conversation.
But is there an etiquette for how to politely interrupt someone?
Sure there is!
In fact, there’s a way to do most anything graciously. You just need to know the how-to. The thing is, the how-to is often counterintuitive to what we initially think.
Let’s look at a few of these how-tos now, like:
What are some of the guidelines for knowing when to interrupt and when to keep walking?
How do you politely interrupt a person?
Do you need to make introductions for someone who stops to say hi when you’re having a conversation with someone else?
Should you stand close by and wait for others to finish talking before you interrupt?
What to do if you’re interrupted.
How, When, and When Not to Interrupt (How to Politely Interrupt)
Should you interrupt your friend’s conversation or walk on by: This is tricky. You have to use your sixth sense. In general, if you haven’t seen the friend in more than a week, and you’re confident the friend has noticed you, it’s gracious to interrupt briefly (if the conversation doesn’t seem to be intense or romantic) to acknowledge your friend, especially if you know both the people.
How do you politely interrupt: Stand back a little and wait until you catch your friend’s eye. Then say, “Excuse me, I’m not staying, I just wanted to say hello! Give me a call and we’ll catch-up.” Again, stand further away than you normally would as you say this. Distancing yourself sends the signal that you’re not attempting to make yourself part of their conversation. Now the ball’s in your friend’s court. If she motions you over, then you know it’s fine to join in. If she says, “Hi! I’ll give you a call this week!”, you know to keep moving.
Grace Note: Greeting and Acknowledging are Two Different Things: Greeting is when you stop and say something. Acknowledging is offering a look of recognition. It includes brief eye contact and a smile. Acknowledging others (friends and strangers) is often appropriate. In fact, if someone is not in a public place (sidewalk, mall, grocery store) and they’re within five feet of you, it’s kind to acknowledge them. Examples: at church, at school (parents and students), those you pass on the floor of your building at work, in the hall of your apartment building, at a neighborhood street party, and such.
Should you interrupt the conversation of someone, especially someone you don’t know well: If passing by someone you don’t know well, like a new friend, or a potential client or business contact, the best thing is just to smile and make eye contact. You can send an e-mail or personal note later saying, “It was nice to see you at the event.” This way, you acknowledge the person and also give an opportunity to connect with you when the person’s time is not divided.
Don’t Just Stand There: Children are taught to wait patiently beside mom or dad until the grownups have finished talking. It was polite when you were a child, but only until you’re an older teen. After that, hovering makes you appear childish.
An adult standing nearby waiting their turn makes everyone feel pressured to end the conversation. It’s better to interrupt briefly, “Excuse me for just a moment. David, when you can, stop by my cubicle. I need to share information about the fourth-quarter sales projections.” Then smile and keep walking. 🙂
Interrupting Someone Who’s On the Phone: It’s sometimes harder to catch the eye of people who are on the phone. Your best bet is to be proactive. Before heading out from your office to find them, bring a small notepad with you. If they’re on the phone when you arrive, step out of earshot, so you don’t overhear their conversation, and step out of their field of sight, so they don’t feel rushed by seeing you waiting. Jot down a quick note and set it on their desk, smile, and maybe give a little wave as if to say, “It’s fine, I’ll talk to you later.” You can hand them your note or leave it on their desk. Write something along the lines of, “Let’s finalize details for tomorrow’s presentation.” You just need to give them enough information so they know why you came to see them.
When and When Not to Make Introductions: When someone stops to greet you in passing, there’s no need to introduce the person(s) to others unless they join the conversation. After about three minutes into the conversation, or two back-and-forth exchanges, if no one has made an introduction, go ahead and introduce yourself. Share your name and very briefly (in a sentence) how you know the other person. “We haven’t been introduced. I’m Leigh Spearman! David and I are neighbors.”
Saying Hi to Someone You Know While Dining Out or Passing in Public: If the other person(s) saw you, then you do need to stop by their table to say hello or in some way acknowledge them. (If it looks like a romantic dinner, a smile and hello as you walk past is all that’s needed. As the song goes, “Walk on by!”)
Romance aside, there’s no reason for you to wait for them to come and see you instead of you going to them, unless one of them is your big boss and your company culture is one of “No talking to the manager.” However, those days are pretty much gone, especially if they recognize you; and, even more so, if they know you by name.
Since the other people are eating and the restaurant is probably eager to take your order, the conversation should be brief. Just say hello and how nice it is to see them this evening. If family members are with you, you should introduce them. If you’re with friends, there’s no need unless the conversation lingers.
What to do if you’re interrupted: If you’re interrupted for an urgent matter, of course excuse yourself from those you’re talking to, and step away to speak privately with the person(s) in urgent need. If the interruption isn’t urgent, and it’s inconvenient for you to chat with them at that moment, acknowledge them and their situation, and let them know how and when they can get back to you. You could offer to get back in touch with them; however, by asking them to contact you (if you’re comfortable giving them your contact info), you’ve put the monkey on their shoulders. You’ll often find that they will come up with the answer, they’ll get the help they needed, or they’ll decide later that the matter isn’t as urgent to them as it was when they first approached you. It’s possible that you won’t hear back about the issue.
You’d say something along the lines of, “I can see you need a listening ear, Shelly. I’m in the middle of another conversation that needs my attention. Let’s talk about this tomorrow when you have my full attention. You can call or text me anytime after 4:30 PM.”
See, easy-peasy! There’s an etiquette for everything, even for knowing how, when and when not to interrupt someone! No more wondering about how to politely interrupt!
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