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Accommodation Theory

Have you ever noticed how other people can change their speech and communicative style based on where they are or who they're talking to? Have you ever found yourself doing this? We often change our speech to bring ourselves closer to or further apart from others – this process is called accommodation. 

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Accommodation Theory

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Have you ever noticed how other people can change their speech and communicative style based on where they are or who they're talking to? Have you ever found yourself doing this? We often change our speech to bring ourselves closer to or further apart from others – this process is called accommodation.

This article will introduce Howard Giles' communication accommodation theory, explain the different ways we accommodate and our motives, and provide some examples.

Accommodation Theory in Linguistics

Accommodation theory, also known as communication accommodation theory (CAT) or speech accommodation theory (SAT), aims to understand how and why we change our speech based on who we are talking to. The theory looks at the motivations behind accommodation in communication and the consequences.

In linguistics, the term accommodation refers to the way people adjust their speech and communication style in face-to-face and other types of communication.

People generally accommodate due to the influence of social factors such as gender, culture, ethnicity, native language, social and occupational status, and age.

Consider how you might change your own speech when talking to someone older or considerably richer than yourself. Now think about how you would talk to someone with a different native language. Do you think your communication style would change?

Howard Giles' Accommodation Theory

In 1973, the sociolinguist Howard Giles first introduced the communication accommodation theory in his article Accent mobility: A model and some data1. The theory provides a framework to predict and explain changes in human communication.

Giles believed that individuals adjust their speech to create, maintain, or decrease social bonds and interactions. For example, matching your speech patterns to your interlocutor can strengthen your social bond.

Interlocutor – A person taking part in a conversation or communicative act.

Giles's communication accommodation theory began life as a sociopsychological model that looked at accent and speech pattern changes in intercultural communications.

However, since the 1970s, it has grown into an interdisciplinary model that, although still centres around language, now also examines other communicative and identity features, such as body language and dress sense.

How do we communicate?

We don't just communicate with words. In fact, there are several different ways in which we can share meaning with others. Let's take a look at some of these.

Linguistic communication

  • Vocabulary

  • Grammar use

Paralinguistic communication

  • Tone

  • Pitch

  • Speech rate

  • Pauses

  • Accent

Non-verbal communication

  • Facial expressions

  • Body language

Interpersonal and intergroup communication

Giles suggested that communication happens on two levels; interpersonal and intergroup.

  • Interpersonal communication – Communication that is driven by our personalities. When we communicate on an interpersonal level, we communicate for ourselves and our interests.

  • Intergroup communication – This is communication that is driven by our identities as members of a wider social group. For example, a teacher may feel they are representing all teachers in certain situations and will adjust their communication accordingly. How they talk around students, parents, and peers will likely differ from how they speak to friends or family.

Accommdation theory, two people speaking over coffee, StudySmarter

Fig. 1 - Our speech can change when we feel we are representing a wider social group.

Accommodation theory: types of accommodation

Communication accommodation theory suggests that, during social interactions, we use accommodation to bring us closer together or further apart from each other. Accommodation can be a good way to express our feelings and attitudes towards one another.

Howard Giles's accommodation theory states that there are two main types of accommodation; convergence and divergence.

Types of accommodationDefiniton
ConvergenceWhen individuals change their speech to sound more like their interlocutor
Divergence When individuals emphasise a difference in communication style

Let's look at these two in more detail.

Convergence

Convergence is when an individual changes their communicative style to sound and appear more like their interlocutor. This usually happens when the individual respects the person they are talking to and wishes to seek their approval or seem more like them. For example, when students talk to a teacher they like, they will likely use less slang and match their speech to the teacher.

Convergence can happen on a conscious and subconscious level. This means people can accommodate their speech on purpose, or it happens without them realising it.

Typically speaking, converging speakers are viewed more positively than diverging speakers and are deemed better communicators. Think about it; convergence suggests that the speaker respects you!

However, convergence can also lead to a loss of personal identity. Additionally, if speech change is deemed too much, individuals could be ostracised by their peers.

Ostracised - excluded from a group.

Motives for convergence

There are several reasons why people converge. Here are a few;

  • To seek approval and respect from others

  • To show respect to others

  • Increase social reward

  • Improve communication

  • Reduce uncertainty and anxiety

Divergence

Divergence is the act of changing communication style to emphasise and accentuate a difference or distinctiveness from an interlocutor. For example, someone from a working-class background might emphasise their accent when talking to someone from a more upper-class background to draw attention to their different social status and vice-versa.

Motives for divergence

Here are some potential motives behind divergence;

  • To emphasise difference and distinctiveness from others

  • To shape others' feelings, e.g. making others feel left out

  • To show belonging to a specific group, e.g. speaking with a stronger native accent

  • To influence others' speech, e.g. talking quietly in hopes others will too

Maintenance is when a speaker refuses to change their communication style in any way - they maintain their own communication style throughout.

It is worth noting that divergence and convergence can be received negatively. Generally, receivers of accommodation will assess the following three things when judging how to perceive accommodation:

  • The speakers' language competence, e.g. is it their first language?

  • The effort the speaker is making

  • External pressures the speaker may be under to speak a certain way

Accommodation and social status

Social status can play an important role in accommodation. There are two ways we can converge and diverge related to socioeconomic status; upwards and downwards.

Upwards convergence would see a person trying to match their interlocutor by making their speech sound more upper-class. In contrast, downward convergence would see them adjusting their communication to downplay their social status.

Upwards divergence, on the other hand, involves an individual accentuating their social status (i.e. speaking a little more posh) to distance themselves from others. Downward divergence is the opposite of this (i.e. an individual accentuating a working-class accent/dialect).

Upwards divergence can be used to assert dominance and superiority over others, and there are often societal expectations regarding who should converge to whom. For example, there is a general consensus that someone with a lower social status should upwards converge.

Accommodation Theory: examples

Let's take a look at some real-life examples of accommodation theory. The majority of these examples have been taken from Howard Giles & Tania Ogay's 2007 article Communication Accommodation Theory.2

Example 1.

The sociolinguists Thomson, Murachver, & Green (2001)3 looked at communication style in e-mail exchanges. They found that both males and females would accommodate their communication style, i.e. formality, use of punctuation, and tone, to be more like the person they were emailing. This is an example of general accommodation.

Do you do this when messaging someone? Many of us will choose the number of kisses (x) we put at the end of a message based on how many the other person uses.

Accommodation theory, Image of woman texting, StudySmarter

Fig. 2 - Do you change the way you text depending on who you're texting?

Example 2.

In 1992, the Black British athlete Linford Christie was accused by the press of deliberately speaking in 'incomprehensible' creole English when speaking to his white peers. This is potentially an example of divergence.

Why do you think Linford Christie (a black man in the early 1990s) may have wanted to show a difference between himself and his white peers?

Example 3.

The Linguists Gregory & Webster (1996)4 found evidence of both upward and downward convergence in a TV chat show hosted by Larry King. They noticed King would change the pitch and tone of his voice to match his more prestigious guests (e.g. President Bill Clinton), but less-prestigious guests would match their speech to his.

Accommodation Theory and multilingualism

As previously mentioned, communication accommodation theory began life by examining communication between speakers of different languages. It aimed to explain when and why people converged or diverged during intercultural communication.

Research found that people were more likely to converge toward the person speaking the most prestigious language in that context. For example, in Montreal, Canada, English has historically been deemed more prestigious than French; therefore, people were more likely to switch to English during a conversation.

Conversely, people may diverge away from a prestigious language if it is deemed a threat to their identity.

For example, speakers in Tunisia are more likely to diverge from French as it is their ex-colonisers language.

Howard Giles Accommodation Theory - Key Takeaways

  • Sociolinguist Howard Giles first introduced the communication accommodation theory in 1973.
  • Communication accommodation theory aims to understand how and why people their communication style when talking to others.
  • There are two main types of accommodation; convergence and divergence.
  • Convergence is when individuals change their speech to sound more like others, whereas divergence is when they accentuate differences.
  • People can upward converge/diverge by making themselves appear more upper class. Or, they can downward converge/diverge by making themselves appear more working class.
  • Communication between people is influenced by the individual and their immediate surroundings, and also by the wider socio-historical context.

References

  1. H. Giles. Accent mobility: A model and some data. Anthropological linguistics. 1973.
  2. H. Giles & T.Ogay. Communication accommodation theory. 2007.
  3. R. Thomson, T. Murachver & J. Green. Where is the gender in gendered language? 2001.
  4. S W. Gregory & S. Webster. A nonverbal signal in voices of interview partners effectively predicts communication accommodation and social status perceptions. 1996.

Frequently Asked Questions about Accommodation Theory

Accommodation theory, also known as communication accommodation theory (CAT) or speech accommodation theory (SAT), aims to understand how and why we change our speech based on who we are talking to.

The main ways people accommodate in communication is through convergence and divergence. 


Convergence is when individuals change their speech to sound more like others, whereas divergence is when they accentuate differences.

Sociolinguist Howard Giles first proposed the accommodation theory in 1973.

Howard Giles is best known for his communication accommodation theory.

An example of communication accommodation theory is someone making their speech sound posher when talking to someone else who sounds posh.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Why do people generally accommodate?

Giles suggested that communication happens on two levels, what are they?

Which type of accommodation emphasises differences or distinctiveness? 

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