Communication Accommodation: Are You an Accent Copycat?

A Slip of the Lip

Hailing from the glorious city of Queanbeyan, Caroline spent her first year of uni dabbling in Physics, Maths, English and Music. By some drastic turn of events she is now majoring in German and Linguistics. ‘A Slip of the Lip’ is a linguistics student’s attempt to provide interesting and (reasonably) well-researched language titbits.

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Have you ever spoken to someone who has a strong accent and suddenly, to your horror, found yourself mimicking them mid-conversation? If you’re new to ANU and susceptible to this, you’ll probably be doing it a lot over the course of the Semester. You’ll be meeting hundreds of new people and having countless conversations with total strangers. Your willingness, presumably, to make new friends will drive your desire to be as attractive a candidate for friendship as possible, and leave you with a high chance of becoming an accent copy-cat. So what’s the deal? Why do we suddenly pick up a Texan twang, even if we’ve never set foot in the US?

If this has ever happened to you, then according to what’s known as ‘Communication Accommodation Theory’, what you’ve experienced is called language ‘convergence’. Basically, the more attractive you want to appear to someone, the more you try to communicate as they do. This can be conscious or sub-conscious, and includes accent, gestures and the number of pauses you take while speaking.
The underlying principle is that people like people who are like them – the more similarly to someone you speak, therefore, the more likely it is you’ll get along.

How susceptible you are to adapting your speech depends on how much you desire social approval. The person in a conversation who most desires social approval will most likely be the one to adapt – matching to even the smallest of things, such as the volume of the other’s voice. Language convergence is a great tactic for making friends and fostering relationships. There are, however, pitfalls.

When overdone, convergence upon another person’s communication style doesn’t necessary bring about a growth in intimacy. This is called ‘over-accommodation’ or ‘miscarried convergence’ and can lead to all sorts of problems.

It can come across as mildly amusing – such as when a learner of English uses absurdly formal language with a native speaker. An example of this was documented by researchers Platt and Weber, who describe a Singaporean who was learning English asking, ‘Will you furnish me with your telephone number, please?’

At the other end of the spectrum, language convergence can be detrimental to a relationship. One example is a group of older native speakers who talk down to someone they presume is non-fluent. The speakers use oversimplified language and exaggerated sounds in the belief that they’re making the language easier to understand, but instead miss the mark entirely and end up looking pretty silly. Miscalculated convergence can also be detrimental when you find yourself suddenly acquiring an accent that’s an integral part of your conversation partner’s minority identity, and they conclude that you’re speaking that way to mock or patronise them. Clearly, sensitivity is needed.

A similar phenomenon to convergence is something called ‘code-switching’. This involves changing the way one speaks – usually switching languages, dialects, or accent – depending on the context of the conversation. This is particularly pertinent for minority groups whose predominant speech-style adds to their chance of being discriminated against. In the US, it is felt that for African Americans who were brought up speaking African American Vernacular English (AAVE), it is actually a necessity that they code switch to a more ‘standard’ style of American English for the purposes of education and career-development. Similar expectations are held for the 20,000 or so Kriol-speaking Indigenous Australians, on the presumption that Kriol – which is its own language with English as its base – is just ‘bad’ English. The ability to do this type of code-switching definitely comes with its benefits, but it also results in the speaker temporarily departing from a core part of their identity in order to please others.

Conversely, sometimes people actually become more exaggerated and assertive in their own language identity when chatting with someone who speaks differently to them. This is called ‘divergence’. You might have experienced this if you’ve ever travelled away from your home country and found that your accent has actually become stronger. You might also experience this if you belong to a cultural or linguistic minority group. As discussed previously, there is often a degree of social pressure to converge on the language features of the majority culture, as this tends to make communication more effective and efficient. This pressure, however, can be overridden by a desire to overtly assert pride in one’s culture by heightening or even exaggerating minority linguistic features. A cultivated Australian English speaker suddenly speaking Strine on a trip to Europe, for example, is the language equivalent of painting their face green and gold, pouring a goon-bag over their head and shouting: ‘Proud to be Aussie’.

Of course, communication isn’t all about speech. On top of all these linguistic variables, your gestures can also change to accommodate your communication partner. If you’ve ever consulted the internet for ‘signs someone is flirting’ (no judgement) you will know of a classic move called ‘mirroring’. This is where someone subtly mirrors what their conversation partner is doing with their body. You lean forward, they lean forward. You put your hand on your chin, they put their hand on their chin. This type of communication accommodation is a blatant signal saying: ‘I am interested in you, fellow human.’ This interest could be platonic or romantic.

So whether you’re looking for love, looking for friendship or looking to assert pride in your heritage this Semester, the way you communicate with people is key. Communication accommodation, when done right, can lead to quickened development in the intimacy of relationships, expansion of your social circle and ultimately, a growth in your sense of self. What a great way to start the year!