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What Is the Communication Accommodation Theory?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Communication Accommodation Theory is a social science or linguistic theory that contemplates why and how people use speech and auxiliary items like body language to enhance social similarity or difference. Experts consider this a spinoff of something called the Speech Accommodation Theory, and attributed to a professor at the University of California. This theory is based on prior research into the use of rhetoric or language in relation to an individual’s social identity.

Some of what is involved in the Communication Accommodation Theory has to do with what some simply call “matching.” Matching is the phenomenon where a speaker will change his or her style of speaking so that it more closely matches those used by the listener or listeners. This is often done involuntarily, without deliberation on the part of the speaker. Speakers might change the speed of their speech, their accent, or their diction or word choice, as well as gestures and other non-speech behaviors.

The theory is that this kind of matching is used to create a rapport. On a general level, it’s easy to see how this kind of accommodation can make a listener feel more at ease, especially if that person might have a hard time with a more diverse set of dialects or rhetorical methods. Some experts refer to the matching type of accommodation as a “chameleon effect,” and theorize that these speakers may be trying to seek the approval of listeners.

Within the overall context of the Communication Accommodation Theory, there’s also the idea that people might unconsciously or deliberately choose a manner of speaking dramatically different from those of a listener or listeners. Social scientists might postulate that these individuals are trying to assert their identities in specific contexts. Looking at this kind of behavior in the workplace is an example of how social scientists might use Communication Accommodation Theory to observe social identities in groups, the effects of hierarchies, or scientific assessments of morale or team function.

As some critics of this theory point out, Communication Accommodation Theory is extremely broad and lacks the kind of detail found in many other kinds of scientific ideas. As a part of social science application to communications, Communication Accommodation Theory contemplates a vast and subjective universe: the role of conversation in human thought. While it is possible for linguists or other academics to collect data on this type of social behavior, many consider it too generalized to produce specific results that can be used for concrete applications.

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Discussion Comments

By umbra21 — On Mar 24, 2013

@Ana1234 - See, this is why this is a little bit of junk science. There's no real depth to this theory. They always trot it out in magazines and things like that to fill out articles like "ten ways to know he's into you" but there are hardly ever decent studies to back up the findings.

I'm not saying there isn't truth to it, because it's almost certainly true that people will change their way of speaking and their body language depending on who they are talking to.

I mean, the way I talk to a preschooler and the way I talk to my best friend are going to be completely different.

But to what extent is that unconscious? Is it learned behavior? Does it extend across cultures? If this was a rigorous scientific theory, it would be able to at least ask those questions, rather than just hand waving them away.

By Ana1234 — On Mar 23, 2013

@pastanaga - I'm sure if you look deeper into the theory, someone would have touched on that. I know one of the things they talk about a lot is the mechanics of dating and how people who like each other tend to mirror each other in body language and so forth.

I know I do this a bit with books I enjoy. If someone in the book has an accent (like a Scottish accent, for example) I will find myself starting to think in that accent, although it doesn't usually change my way of talking (I think!).

By pastanaga — On Mar 22, 2013

This kind of reminds me of an episode of House, where one of the patients was an amnesiac who would imitate the person in the room who was the "boss". The characters in the show put different people into the room to try and figure out who was "dominant" out of various pairs of people.

I wonder if this happens in ordinary conversations to some extent. If someone in the conversation is dominant, are they the one that others mirror with their language? Or does everyone kind of work together (unconsciously) to find a common ground?

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