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Communication Accommodation Theory

One interesting thing humans have in common is that we tend to adjust the way we communicate to either fit in with or move away from those around us. This may be either verbal (such as speech) or non-verbal (such as gestures or body language). When this happens, it is known as the communication accommodation theory. 

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Communication Accommodation Theory

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One interesting thing humans have in common is that we tend to adjust the way we communicate to either fit in with or move away from those around us. This may be either verbal (such as speech) or non-verbal (such as gestures or body language). When this happens, it is known as the communication accommodation theory.

Communication accommodation is quite a complex topic, but we will focus on the main areas of the theory so you can gather a deeper understanding of it and what it can tell us about how we communicate with others. We will explore the definition of communication accommodation theory, along with the two types of communication accommodation; convergence and divergence. We will also consider the four main socio-psychological theories and the principles of communication accommodation.

Communication Accommodation Theory Definition

Check out the definition of Communication accommodation theory below:

Communication accommodation theory is a theory - established by social psychologist Howard Giles - that concerns the changes we make to become either more or less similar to the people we communicate with. It also deals with how much the accommodation of others is perceived in a conversation.

For example, we often change our speech or behavior in a conversation to either match those around us or distance ourselves from them.

The communication accommodation theory is concerned with the relation between language, context, and social identity. It is important in helping us to understand how and why we adapt our speech and behavior in different social situations and with different people.

For example, a child may try to match their parent's way of speaking to help them find a sense of belonging and gain approval. This also shows a level of respect and adoration, as a child will often look to their parents for guidance while trying to figure out their own social identities.

A lot of what we do is influenced by our parents, even down to the behaviour and language we use in everyday life!

Communication accommodation can occur in two different ways:

  1. Convergence
  2. Divergence

Let's take a look at these in more detail, starting with convergence:

Communication Accommodation Theory Convergence

One type of communication accommodation is convergence. Let's take a look at a definition of convergence:

Convergence refers to when two or more things become more similar or come together.

In terms of communication, convergence concerns when people adapt their speech and behavior to become more similar to the other people in the conversation. So why do we converge?

We tend to converge in order to:

  • Maintain efficient communication and keep the conversation flowing well.
  • Fit in with others.
  • Gain societal approval and maintain a positive image.

Communication Accommodation Theory People having a conversation StudySmarterFig. 1 - We tend to converge with people we like or look up to.

Convergence often happens when we speak to people we like and relate to or people we look up to. After all, speaking with people you have a lot in common with is a good feeling!

Divergence in Communication Accommodation Theory

Aside from convergence, another type of communication accommodation is divergence. Check out a definition of divergence below:

Divergence refers to when two or more things become different. It is the opposite of convergence.

Divergence is not to be confused with the 2014 hit movie, Divergent

In terms of communication, divergence happens when people move further away from and become less similar to others in a conversation. This can be done one of two ways:

1. Not changing your speech or behavior because it is already different from those around you.

2. Changing your speech or behavior to make it less similar to those around you.

So why would we feel the need to be dissimilar to those around us? Divergence can happen in order to:

  • Maintain a positive image.
  • Establish dominance/power.
  • Stand out from others.

Divergence is often viewed negatively as it may be interpreted as a sign of dislike by others in a conversation.

Communication Accommodation Theory Teacher in a classroom StudySmarterFig. 2 - Teachers may diverge to assert their authority.

Communication Accommodation Theory Example

Now you know more about the types of communication accommodation, but what about some examples? Let's start with convergence. There are different ways to converge, for example:

  • Matching the length of a pause - either elongating or shortening your pauses to match the pauses of others.
  • Matching the pitch of your voice to the other person - for example, when someone is excited, the pitch of their voice will rise. This pitch change can be matched by the listener to portray a similar feeling of excitement and increase mutual understanding.
  • Using similar words, such as picking up slang words or phrases that others use.
  • Adjusting body language - such as leaning forward when the other person is or using similar gestures to the other person. This also shows that you are actively paying attention to the speaker in a conversation.

Now let's move on to divergence. Examples of divergence are as follows:

When a teacher is talking to a student, they tend to diverge their speech and behavior in order to maintain their position in a conversation and assert their authority. The same is also the case for other pairings such as a doctor and patient.

When someone is talking to a person they dislike, they tend to diverge their speech and behavior because they do not want to be seen as similar to them. They instead want to maintain a positive self-image and sense of individuality.

Communication Accommodation Theory and Social Psychology

The communication accommodation theory draws upon four main socio-psychological theories, which help us to understand why we either converge or diverge in a conversation. It is also influenced by the social identity theory, which explores the idea of social identity and how we tend to change our behavior when in a group of people.

The four main socio-psychological theories are as follows:

  1. Similarity Attraction
  2. Social Exchange Process
  3. Causal Attribution Process
  4. Intergroup Distinctiveness

Let's unpack these further:

Similarity Attraction

What is the similarity attraction theory?

The similarity attraction theory puts forward the idea that if people are similar and share similar opinions/beliefs, the more likely it is that they will be attracted to one another.

Convergence helps us to achieve this, as it allows us to become more similar to the people we are speaking with. In turn, we are able to gain social approval from them, which can boost our self-esteem.

Social Exchange Process

What is the social exchange process theory?

The social exchange process theory focuses on how people assess their relationships with others. It has been found that, during the process of assessing relationships, people like to be in relationships where they are receiving more than what they are giving.

In such instances, the rewards are greater than the costs. People then tend to evaluate the rewards and costs of other paths before picking one that guarantees more rewards and fewer costs.

When we converge, we often gain rewards, but this is not always the case, as there could be costs instead. For example, converging could lead to an increase in effort, a loss of integrity, and a loss of identity. This is why it is important to assess these factors before proceeding in a relationship.

Causal Attribution Process

What is the causal attribution theory?

The causal attribution process theory argues that people interpret and assess others in terms of what they assume to be the cause of their behavior (such as what their intentions and motivations may be).

Convergence is often seen as positive, whereas divergence is often seen as negative. However, in terms of the causal attribution process theory, convergence may be seen as something either positive or negative, as it is influenced by our assumptions of the causes of others' behavior and intentions.

Intergroup Distinctiveness

What is the intergroup distinctiveness theory?

Intergroup distinctiveness theory suggests that when people in different social groups interact with one another, they tend to compare themselves in terms of what is most important to them. For example, personal qualities, skills, possessions, etc. They do this in order to make a positive distinction between themselves and others in another group, which strengthens their personal social identity.

Intergroup distinctiveness relates to divergence, as we often use divergence to maintain distinctiveness within our own social groups and separate ourselves from other groups.

Communication Accommodation Theory Principles

The principles of the communication accommodation theory have been heavily influenced by the principles and ideas from the social identity theory (proposed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the late-twentieth century). The social identity theory is led by four main assumptions:

  1. In every conversation, there are similarities and differences in terms of speech and behavior.
  2. How we assess a conversation is dependent on the way we perceive the speech and behavior of others.
  3. Social status and group belonging can be communicated through language and behavior.
  4. The accommodation process is guided by social norms, which have different levels of suitability.

These principles contribute to the communication accommodation theory as they provide a basis for the role that conversations play in everyday life. In particular, social identity is an important aspect of both theories, as our views of ourselves and others (both inside and outside other social groups) help to determine whether or not we converge or diverge our speech and behavior.

Communication Accommodation Theory - Key takeaways

  • Communication accommodation theory is a theory that concerns the changes we make to become either more or less similar to the people we communicate with.
  • There are two types of communication accommodation; convergence and divergence.
  • Convergence concerns when people adapt their speech and behavior to become more similar to the other people in a conversation.
  • Divergence concerns when people adapt their speech and behavior to become less similar to the other people in a conversation.
  • Communication accommodation theory draws upon four main socio-psychological theories; similarity attraction, social exchange process, causal attribution process, and intergroup distinctiveness.

Frequently Asked Questions about Communication Accommodation Theory

Communication accommodation theory is a theory that concerns the changes we make to become either more or less similar to the people we communicate with. For example, we often change our speech or behavior to match others.

Communication accommodation is concerned with the relation between language, context, and social identity.

The communication accommodation theory is important as it helps us to understand how and why we adapt our speech and behavior in different social situations and with different people.

The communication accommodation theory was created by social psychologist Howard GIles.

The four main assumptions of the communication accommodation theory are:


1. In every conversation, there are similarities and differences in terms of speech and behavior.


2. How we assess a conversation is dependent on the way we perceive the speech and behavior of others.


3. Social status and group belonging can be communicated through language and behavior.


4. The accommodation process is guided by social norms, which have different levels of suitability.

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