Dear Language Nerd,
I’m on the phone all the time for my job, and I’ve noticed something odd. When I talk to New Yorkers, I sound a little like a Yankee. When I talk to Georgians, I sound a little Southern. When I talk to Londoners, I sound a little British. I’m not doing it on purpose, but I match their accents. Not enormously, but a bit. Is this normal? Or am I developing the linguistic equivalent of split personalities?
You’re fine. In fact, you’re just being accommodating.
Communication accommodation theory is the idea that people change their speech depending on both who they’re talking to and their own identity. What you’re doing is converging, or speaking more similarly to your conversational partner, and it is very normal. They’re likely speaking a little more similarly to your native accent, too. This signals friendliness, and shows the desire to communicate across different groups. It’s common when speakers have different regional accents, as in your example, but also with speech differences based on race, class, and age.
This is a fun theory, not only because it has the amusing acronym CAT, but also because it’s young. Its roots reach back to the near-off 1970s, so plenty of people are still wandering around experimenting with the various ways speakers, groups, and identifications can be combined and codified. Speech style shifts are messy and complicated, with elements of sociology, psychology, linguistics, and history involved, so it’s neat to watch researchers trying to nail it down into a simple, clear theory.
For example, converging is usually positive – it’s good to be friendly!* But done to excess, convergence is offputting. The subordinate that matches boss’s speech too exactly is a sycophant, not a master of social graces. The middle-aged man trying to use hip teen slang is painful, so painful. And converging to help a non-native speaker of a language understand is normal and positive, like speaking more slowly and using simpler grammar, but taken too far it gets insulting.
Conversely, a lack of convergence would seem to be negative, but it might be and it might not. If Jenny is converging and Anne is standing still, maybe Anne’s not interested in Jenny, or maybe she’s not as socially adept, or maybe she has high self-esteem and is avoiding even a hint of fawning. See? Messy.
And if you’re not being convergent, and you’re not staying neutral, then by gum, you’re being divergent. (No, not that divergent.) This is emphasizing the differences in speech, because someone finds it more important to identify with whatever group the speech represents than to communicate with the other person. This can be negative, like an angsty teen using slang to distance herself from her parents. Or it can be powerful. One famous study involved Welsh speakers talking to people with standard fancy-pants British accents. At first, they converged, but when the Brits started attacking the Welsh language, they diverged dramatically:**
At one point this speaker arrogantly challenged the learners’ reasons for trying to acquire Welsh which he called a “dying language which had a dismal future”. In responding to this statement the learners generally broadened their Welsh accents. Some introduced Welsh words into their answers, while others used an aggressive tone. One woman did not reply for a while, and then she was heard conjugating Welsh verbs very gently into the microphone.
How awesome is that last lady? She, me, and Miss Manners should all go to brunch sometime. Please.
The Language Nerd
*As always, I laugh at controversy.
**Quote from Holmes’ Introduction to Sociolinguistics, which I found through the article cited below.
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These are the bare bones of CAT, available in many places. I was looking at this excellent article by Dimitrios Thanasoulas. And I suppose I’ll mention that once a year I reread Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior and am a better person for about a week.