If you have ever found yourself matching the vocabulary, speed and cadence of the person you are talking to, you have experienced firsthand an illustration of Communication Accommodation Theory. What you were doing is called convergence. On the other hand, if you delighted in using the same slang words your peers used when you were a teenager, in spite of the way it frustrated your parents and teachers, you also have firsthand experience with another aspect of Communication Accommodation Theory called divergence.
First introduced in 1971, Communication Accommodation Theory, which was known as Speech Accommodation Theory at the time, says that when humans talk to each other, they tend to change the way they talk to match the way the listener talks. Whether you realize it or not, and it can be either conscious or unconscious, you match your accent, your speed, your rhythm, your vocabulary and even your stance and gestures to that of the person you are talking to.
The main reason a person does this is to show agreement and affinity for another. Often, this makes the other person feel liked and makes them like you more, as well. Unfortunately, it can also come across as being fake or too familiar or even as mockery. If the person using convergence has more power than the listener does, the speaker can come across as patronizing. Sometimes convergence is a tool used by people with less power to accommodate those with more power. In this case, it can sometimes seem like toadying.
People do not always identify so closely with the people they are talking to, however. This is especially true when the speaker does not want to identify or be identified with the other person. This can happen when a person is trying to make it clear that they have their own identity apart from the person to whom they are speaking. A good example is a person who emphasizes their own regional accent and dialogue rather than trying to sound more like the other person.
Divergence can also happen when a person wants to maintain some distance from another person. This can happen when people are speaking to someone they view as belonging to a group that is inferior to their own, but it can also simply be a way for an individual to highlight their own identification with a group by making differences seem more pronounced.
Origins of Communication Accommodation Theory
Howard Giles, who was a professor of linguistics and psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), developed Communication Accommodation Theory. He was trying to find the reason for the shifts he observed in the speech of most people as they spoke to different people and to detail the consequences of this behavior. Giles was particularly interested in the underlying thought processes and emotions that are involved in the use of convergence and divergence during conversations.
Criticism of Communication Accommodation Theory
Giles’ theory is generally considered to be sound because few researchers have been able to successfully challenge it. However, critics of the theory point out that conversations often seem to be too complex to be broken down into components as simple as convergence and divergence. They also point out that people can use both techniques in the same encounter, a scenario that has not received much attention by researchers. Finally, critics counter that Communication Accommodation Theory assumes that both parties are communicating in a rational manner. They point out that people can and do become unreasonable and even irrational during conflict. Critics charge that, as it stands, the theory does not deal adequately with this aspect of communication.