I’m a million different people from one day to the next

July 4, 2013 at 12:57 pm

If you recorded everything you said for seven days, you may be surprised at how many people you can be.

Consider two different situations. Firstly, you are in a job interview and keen to impress your interviewer. Chances are, you will speak clearly, use correct grammar and make an effort to use prestigious words.

The second situation is a nightclub with friends. If you started speaking like you were in a job interview, your friends would be baffled.

“Shall I take reponsibility for refreshment purchase and distribution? I have a proven track record in making considered and appropriate investments…”

In the nightclub, you would probably make many more gestures too. If you waved your hands around in that interview, you may be marked down as a little crazy.

And when you speak to your parents or grandparents, you are another person again.

Sometimes you speak faster, sometimes slower, sometimes you use long words, sometimes you use slang, sometimes you use dialect words, sometimes you don’t. And this is entirely subconscious.

But linguists have shown that we actually go much further in adapting the way we communicate depending on whom we are speaking to.  That is why a theory once known as “Speech Accommodation Theory” has evolved into “Communication Accommodation Theory”. More than just adapting our speech and the content of what we say, we adapt our gestures too.

Convergence and divergence

Developed by Howard Giles, Communication Accommodation Theory argues that “when people interact they adjust their speech, their vocal patterns and their gestures, to accommodate to others.”

Communication Accommodation Theory suggests various ways in which we adapt, and various reasons for doing so. The first phenomenon is known as convergence. If you feel, or want to develop empathy with the person you are speaking with, your speech and gestures will converge. This subtly emphasises common ground between you. During the course of a conversation, you may come to use the same gestures, pronunciation and words.

An experienced salesman may consciously use this technique to develop rapport with the person he is selling to. So watch out!

In the context of a non-native speaker of a language speaking to a native speaker of a language, research has shown that when you feel you have a lot in common with the person you are speaking to, your language will converge more. This reduces social differences, even across cultures.

The second phenomenon is divergence. Just as conversation partners move towards each other’s speech patterns and gestures when they are looking for common ground, it is possible to try and emphasise differences. There can be various reasons for doing this, including national or ethnic pride, or if you wish to project perceived superiority.

For example, in a study conducted in Wales, proud Welshmen who were learning Welsh were asked questions about methods of second language acquisition. The questions were asked by an English speaker with an RP English accent “who at one point arrogantly challenged their reasons for what he called ‘a dying language which had a dismal future’. The respondents strengthened their Welsh accents in response.

Foreign talk

If you are speaking to a foreign person, even in your own language, you are likely to mimic their gestures and pronunciation. Here is a famous example of former-England football manager Steve McClaren shortly after his move to the Netherlands to coach FC Twente:

Steve McClaren didn’t speak Dutch. His interviewer spoke excellent English. Still, McClaren simplified his English, shortened his sentences and removed articles to be understood. This phenomenon is known as Foreign Talk.

“…that’s one of the reasons I came, because, a good team… and they qualify Champions League”

Part of the reason the video became so popular was that he also mimicked Dutch pronunciation. And sounded a little silly to people who were used to him speaking with a Yorkshire accent. Here he is speaking to the (British) BBC:

Compare the difference. In the second video, he is speaking in full sentences with the accent to which the British public were accustomed.

So why would a successful football manager speak like this? He appears to be doing his best to be liked by the people in his new country and the fans of his new club. Perhaps even by the female journalist conducting the interview. Logically, he would be seeking approval.

Another popular example from the world of football is Liverpudlian Joey Barton, who currently plays for Marseille in France:

Does it sound silly? To a native English speaker, it probably does. But it is completely natural. Consider the British English speaker who moves to the United States or Australia. How long will they keep their British accent? And in what situations would that accent start to slide?

Similarly, if you spend most of your time speaking to non-native speakers of your language, you will naturally start to simplify and slow your speech. That is a natural part of communication.

So, if you hear strange slurring noises coming out of your mouth when you are the Netherlands (perhaps managing a football team), or find your hands wildly waving around when you are in a Latin country, fear not: it’s perfectly normal. But sometimes amusing to watch.

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