In interpersonal situations, language can be used to convey information about one’s personality, temperament, social status, group belonging, and so forth. Although many of us like to think that we interact essentially the same way to virtually every person we encounter, thanks to fairness and our integrity, this simply is not true. In most instances, it is desirable, and even necessary, to adjust our language patterns to our conversational partners, be they close friends or loathed felons. Sometimes we encode this deliberately and consciously, other times it emerges automatically and may not even be decoded overtly.
Communication accommodation theory (CAT), initially known as speech accommodation theory, was first developed by Giles in 1971 so as to explain how we manage certain facets of interpersonal communication, particularly, our choice of accents and dialects. Indeed, it was originally conceptualized to mine more complex socio-psychological understanding of language choices than a mere recourse to people’s socially normative dispositions (Giles & Powesland 1975). Over the years, and with various colleagues, Giles has elaborated and revised the theory in varying directions (e.g., Giles et al. 1991) and it has, according to many commentators, assumed the status of a major socio-psychological theory of language and social interaction (e.g., Tracy & Haspel 2004). It has embraced a wide range of communicative behaviors (linguistic, paralinguistic, discursive, and nonverbal) as well as being applied to a rich array of contexts (e.g., the workplace, intergroup and intercultural relations, the mass media, and health clinics; see Gallois et al. 2005 for a history of CAT; Giles et al. 2007 for the most recent refinements).
The Concept Of Convergence
Accommodation – as a process – refers to the way interactants adjust their communication behaviors so as to either diminish or enhance social and communicative differences between them; such shifts can be complete switches (as in bilinguality) or partial ones (as in a word choice). Put another way, the theory has devoted a significant proportion of its attention to examining how and why we converge or diverge from each other. Convergence – the empirical heartland of CAT – occurs when interactants’ communication styles become more similar to another by choice of slang, obscenities, grammatical structures, volume, pitch, gait, hand movements, dress style, and so on. When the features involved connote social value (e.g., a fast speech rate is often associated with competence, a slow one with incompetence), convergence can be termed upward or downward. The former occurs when an individual approximates another’s more formal, prestigious communicative style, while the latter refers to matching another’s more colloquial, informal, and/or nonstandard product.
Convergence is a means of signaling attraction to, and/or seeking the approval of, the other person. As social power is an important component of CAT, interviewees, salespersons, and those in socially inferior roles will converge more respectively to interviewers, clients, and those in socially dominant roles than vice versa. People can also converge to underscore common social identities, to convey empathy, and to develop bonds with others. Relatedly, and giving a motive for convergent propensities, studies have shown that people in general evaluate those who converge toward them more favorably (e.g., considering them more socially attractive and respected) than those who do not – albeit up to an optimal point and perhaps also at an optimal rate. By assembling linguistic communalities, speakers reduce interpersonal uncertainties and interactional anxieties, and increase communication satisfaction. Moreover, not only are we more compliant and cooperative with those who identify with us by sharing our own language features (in the cases of, e.g., physicians and police officers), but it can also bolster our self-esteem. Indeed, data show that having a social network that is accommodating later in life can facilitate life satisfaction.
An important feature of CAT is that people converge not so much toward where others are located in any physical sense as to where they believe them to be. An illustration might be using an ethnic dialect with a known immigrant who, in actuality (and in ways you do not discern), has linguistically assimilated. In such cases, subjective convergence is translated into, and can be measured by, objective divergence. In addition, people can accommodate to where others expect (or would wish) them to be. This might occur in romantic situations where males take on more macho stances (e.g., speaking with deeper pitch) while females might incline toward sounding more feminine (e.g., softer tones) – tactics called “speech complementarity.”
Such subjective moves are often based on social stereotypes and therefore can be problematic when people “over-accommodate” to certain others. In this vein, much work on intergenerational talk has shown how, because of unfavorable stereotypes that people hold of those who are older, young people can patronize elderly people by slowing down for them and using overly simple language. For those elders who are socially and cognitively active, such messages (even if constructed from positive and nurturing motives) risk being construed by recipients as condescending and demeaning (see Coupland et al. 1988).
Other accommodative strategies have been articulated (Giles & Coupland 1991), one of which is a so-called “interpretability strategy” (Jones et al. 1999). Here, interactants attend to their interlocutor’s knowledge of, or sophistication about, a particular topic being talked about. Supposedly communicatively competent speakers should, for example, attenuate the complexity of their speech and reduce jargon, thereby promoting comprehension, coherence, and clarity. The goal of this strategy is to establish mutual ground with an interlocutor, yet it is quite easy not to appreciate another’s lack of understanding and “under-accommodate” them – a stance that is often interpreted as insensitive and egotistic (Williams & Nussbaum 2001).
Applications Of Communication Accommodation Theory
As mentioned above, accommodation is not limited to converging behaviors, since CAT has, in contrast, shed light on why interactants may sometimes choose to accentuate communicative differences between themselves and others. This may occur through so-called “speech maintenance,” where people deliberately avoid using another’s communicative style and, instead, retain their own idiosyncratic stance or that of their social group’s; for instance, by not switching languages when they have the capability of easily so doing. Moving along the social differentiation continuum, people can diverge from others by adopting a contrasting language, dialect, jargon, speech rate, gestures, and dress style.
Drawing upon social identity theory (e.g., Tajfel & Turner 1979; Intercultural Conflict Styles and Facework; Intercultural Norms; Intergroup Accommodative Processes), CAT has argued that the more a person psychologically invests in or affiliates with a valued ingroup (be it occupational, religious, political, or whatever), the more they will want to accentuate that positive identity by communicatively divergent means. This will be evident where the dimensions diverged are salient components of their social identity (e.g., a switch to Greek where that language is a source of pride for, say, GreekAustralians) or when the relevant outgroup has threatened some aspect of their social livelihood, and particularly by illegitimate means (Giles & Johnson 1981).
In general, recipients who perceive divergence directed at them will tend to see the speaker in a negative light, other extenuating circumstances notwithstanding. The speaker will appear unfriendly, incompetent, impolite, and perhaps even belligerent or hostile (as in a situation where an African-American child adopts Black English with a Caucasian teacher). This need not actually be the intent behind the act, which is simply performed, again sometimes intuitively, to emphasize one’s loyalty toward a group. Sufficient numbers of a group frequently engaging in language divergence in an array of public contexts (such as in the resurrection of an ethnic minority language or even the widespread creation of a youth code) can change the whole tenor of the communication landscape through street signs, newspapers, TV channels, or the Internet. Indeed such individual actions can mobilize social movements whereby whole languages and codes are institutionalized and or revitalized (see Marlow & Giles 2006).
CAT, therefore, appeals to and captures the evolving histories, politics, and changing demographics of the cultures in which interactions that draw on accommodative moves are embedded. Like all theoretical positions, it has its limitations (e.g., it cannot precisely predict what linguistic dimensions particular people will accommodate). Nonetheless, it is supported by empirical research from diverse cultures and languages, is invoked across disciplines and different methodologies, and has spawned an array of satellite models in diverse areas (e.g., intergenerational relations and bilingualism).
- Coupland, J., Coupland, N., Giles, H., & Henwood, K. (1988). Accommodating the elderly: Invoking and extending a theory. Language in Society, 17, 1– 41.
- Gallois, C., Ogay, T., & Giles, H. (2005). Communication accommodation theory: A look back and a look ahead. In W. Gudykunst (ed.), Theorizing about intercultural communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 121–148.
- Giles, H., & Coupland, N. (1991). Language: Contexts and consequences. Monterey: Brooks/Cole.
- Giles, H., & Johnson, P. (1981). The role of language in ethnic group relations. In J. C. Turner & H. Giles (eds.), Intergroup behaviour. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 199 – 243.
- Giles, H., & Powesland, P. F. (1975). Speech style and social evaluation. London: Academic Press.
- Giles, H., Coupland, J., & Coupland, N. (eds.) (1991). Contexts of accommodation. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Giles, H., Willemyns, M., Gallois, C., & Anderson, M. C. (2007). Accommodating a new frontier: The context of law enforcement. In K. Fiedler (ed.), Social communication. New York: Psychology Press, pp. 129 –162.
- Jones, E. S., Gallois, C., Callan, V. J., & Barker, M. (1999). Strategies of accommodation: Development of a coding system for conversational interaction. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 18, 123 –152.
- Marlow, M. L., & Giles, H. (2006). From the roots to the shoots: A Hawaiian case study of language revitalization and modes of communication. In C. S. Beck (ed.), Communication yearbook 30. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 343 – 386.
- Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. C. Austin & S. Worchel (eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations. Monterey: Brooks/Cole, pp. 35 –53.
- Tracy, K., & Haspel, K. (2004). Language and social interaction: Its institutional identity, intellectual landscape, and discipline-shifting agenda. Journal of Communication, 54, 788 – 816.
- Williams, A., & Nussbaum, J. F. (2001). Intergenerational communication across the lifespan. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.