Conversation starter: Why we mirror speech

A friend told me recently that she had surprised herself by suddenly starting to call people “baby.” Her son and his girlfriend were staying with her, and she had picked up their favorite endearment. Teenage boys texting male friends use fewer “expressive markers” such as emoji, but their texts to girls are full of hearts, smiley faces, and crowns. These are examples of what linguists call accommodation, the ways people adapt their style of speech (or texting) to that of their conversational partners.  

Many parts of communication are subject to accommodation. Word choice, speech rate, intonation patterns, accent – these can all change in response to different interlocutors. Usually this is an automatic process and we don’t notice what we are doing. Often, too, it involves small adjustments – more rounded o’s talking to a Wisconsinite, speaking slower if your partner has a drawl. Sometimes though, speakers will react to a conversational situation by employing an entirely different dialect or language. Linguists refer to this as code-switching.

When two conversational styles become more similar, the accommodation is called convergence. Linguists and psychologists claim that the phenomenon is associated with “positive social outcomes.” Negotiations and speed dates are more successful when the parties begin to subtly mimic each other’s styles. Servers who echo the speech patterns of their customers receive bigger tips.          

You might think, then, that the more you sound like your conversational partner, the better, but actually you can have too much of a good thing. 

Matching another person too closely or along too many linguistic dimensions feels overfamiliar and creepy. In a successful conversation, the speakers find the Goldilocks level of convergence – neither too much nor too little. 

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Another kind of accommodation, divergence, can help strike this balance. This involves responding to your partner’s conversational style by emphasizing how yours differs. It is a way of asserting one’s own identity, perhaps, or subtly suggesting disagreement. You might respond to someone speaking sloooowly by speeding up your own speech, for example – you don’t have time for this; you have things to do

Nearly everyone accommodates their speech to others to some extent, but linguists have found that certain speakers are more likely to demonstrate convergence. Women mirror their partner’s style more often than men do; people in positions of lower status will adopt the speech patterns of people in higher-status roles. Interestingly, regardless of gender or status, people who score highly in empathy on personality tests are also more likely to accommodate to others’ speech.

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