Accommodation Theory

Howard Giles. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. Sage Publications, 2009.

Sociolinguistic research in the 1950s and 1960s had shown how people change the degree of formality of their language as a function of the social contexts in which they find themselves. This was explained in terms of social norms dictating language use. In other words, we should speak very softly and respectfully here, but we can be more boisterous and casual there. Communication (or speech) accommodation theory (CAT), while acknowledging such normative demands, was an attempt to move beyond these and toward a more dynamic framework underscoring the more complex sociopsychological dynamics involved in language use. More specifically, the theory provides a framework for understanding how and why people adapt their communication toward and away from others and the social consequences of doing so.

Spawning a robust literature over the past 40 years, CAT has been elaborated many times. Importantly, it has been revised regularly as a formal propositional structure that indicates the conditions likely to trigger certain accommodative moves, as well as the social effects that can ensue from these moves. In what follows, forms of accommodation—as well as the motives attending them—are introduced, as are some of the satellite models that sprang from the theory.

Accommodative Moves

CAT first emerged as a consequence of observing people shifting their dialects—and bilingual speakers switching their languages—toward others they address on an everyday basis. Many times, these shifts, called convergences, come about so as to reduce significant social distances between the speakers. For example, speakers can shift their accents toward higher, as well as sometimes lower, prestige-sounding speakers, shifts called upward and downward convergence, respectively. In response, recipients might, or might not, reciprocate, thereby resulting in symmetrical or asymmetrical patterns. Although these shifts could be strategic and consciously performed, other times participants may not have been consciously aware that such convergent activities had even occurred.

The driving force behind these convergent adjustments was initially construed in positive reinforcement terms. In other words, increasing one’s similarity with another’s communicative style would promote mutual liking—which research in fact confirmed. In this vein, CAT proposed that the more you admire or wish to gain the respect of an influential person, the more likely you are to converge toward that individual, assuming you have the communicative repertoire to enable this. While an abundance of accommodative moves is good for greasing the wheels of interactional success, there can be limits to this. Hence, CAT addresses notions of optimal magnitudes and rates of convergence in that social costs could be incurred by completely converging toward the communicative style of another (e.g., deliberately mimicking them in a potentially patronizing manner), and also doing so too swiftly.

As this discussion would suggest, relative social power became integral to the theory in the sense that it was people of lower status who converged more to people of higher status than vice versa as people of higher status controlled more social capital. Similarly, the process of immigrant acculturation is, in large part, a communicative one: Immigrants converge to the dominant language of their new culture whereas members of the host community typically feel little need to accommodate the various subordinate ethnic groups around them. Indeed, near nativelike proficiency in the host language can often be one of the strongest symbols that immigrants have assimilated to the new culture’s values, practices, and ideologies.

Nonaccommodative Moves

Not converging toward another individual or other group can signal that the speaker does not value the approval or respect of the other. Predictably, nonconvergence would be unfavorably evaluated by recipients. After all, most of us do not appreciate it when we are not taken seriously or when we are not considered a worthy ally. That said, the attributions we make about why accommodations and nonaccommodations occur can be critical in mediating our evaluative reactions to them. For instance, an American sojourner’s inability to speak or even pronounce the Welsh language could assuage any negative reactions associated with nonconvergence by most open-minded Welsh people.

The other side of the accommodative coin of convergence is, of course, divergence, and its ability to explain these contrastive shifts provides CAT much of its theoretical bite. Hence, depending on circumstances, speakers may diverge upwardly by sounding more sophisticated than their partner, for instance, while on other occasions, they may diverge downwardly and emphasize their contrastive cultural roots, regional origins, and so forth. Either way, these forms of divergence can increase perceived social distance as well as dissimilarities and are often consciously crafted for such purposes.

On the basis of social identity theory, divergence can often be conceived of as a strategy of social differentiation. In interethnic situations, diverging speakers are those who accentuate their in-group language style and do so when their ethnicities are salient within the situation and when they feel their group is accorded an illegitimately low status by others. An example would be an African American adopting more Black Vernacular English when encountering an aloof (and possibly prejudiced) White speaker. Although in-group peers might applaud such divergent moves, recipients of it might not view it quite so positively. Indeed, sometimes recipients can interpret divergences as personally directed when in fact they are actually intended to diverge from the group and not the individual.

Divergences can, however, fulfill other social and cognitive functions, as in the case of a speaker really slowing down in reaction to another talking way too quickly, and agitatedly so, about a topic he or she knows little about. Such a divergent reaction would be enacted in an attempt to calm the person down, thereby getting them to pace their utterances in a more measured fashion. Interestingly, CAT acknowledges the feasibility of blending convergences and divergences simultaneously, but at different communicative levels, in order to fulfill complementary identity and social needs. For instance, a communicator might wish to be respectful to a workplace superior and hence converge on some linguistic and nonverbal levels (such as politeness and deference), yet also wish to emphasize his or her own cultural allegiance by diverging on others (e.g., in-group slang, pronunciations, and posture).

Elaborations on the Theory

CAT really began to blossom as a more general theory of language and communication when it stepped beyond the adaptive use of accents and languages to embracing different discourse styles and nonverbal practices (e.g., gait, smiling, and dress). In addition, the theory has been invoked beyond face-to-face interactions into the domain of electronic communications, such as e-mail, text messages, and voice mail, and has also been used to explain interpersonal and intergroup encounters within the family. Furthermore, convergence and divergence, called in the theory approximation strategies, have been conceived of as but two of the many ways in which people do or do not accommodate. Attention now is also being paid to inter-pretability strategies, discourse management, and interpersonal control by taking into account the knowledge shared by the communicators and their communicative needs and relative social statuses. Once again, though, speakers can be more or less accommodative. Underaccommodative individuals—that is, those who may talk more from their own idiosyncratic agendas and feelings—may be viewed as egotistic, insensitive, and uncaring.

Subsequently, CAT took on more of a subjectivist twist. The insight here was that communicators accommodate not to where others are in any objectively measurable sense but rather to where they are believed to be. An example would be slowing down one’s speech rate for an older person who is stereotyped as somewhat incompetent (and erroneously so), simply because of advanced age. This tactic, sometimes intended to nurture, could also be conceived of as overaccommodation. In parallel fashion, and drawing on self-categorization theory, people sometimes diverge from a contrastive out-group member and toward the linguistic prototype of what they believe is a typical-sounding in-group member. Speakers have, of course, widely different prototypes of what, say, an American should sound like, and hence divergences can manifest in very different forms. Indeed, miscarried convergences and divergences—albeit with positive intent—can be very potent forms of miscommunication. Put another way, effective accommodation is really an integral component of communicative competence.

The larger-scale social conditions necessary to trigger communicative differentiations (e.g., high group vitality) led to the development of ethnolinguistic identity theory, which in turn inspired the intergroup model of second language acquisition. The theoretical position holds that immigrants’ inability to master, or failure to accommodate, their host country’s dominant language could often be due to their desire to retain a strong and healthy vitality for their heritage language. Hence, what is typically attributed to learners’ cognitive incapacities or to inadequacies of teacher or material could be more successfully defined as rugged cultural maintenance.

Satellite models emerged in other intergroup contexts as well, such as between people of different genders, physical abilities, and institutional roles and status (including medical specialties and in police-civilian interactions). Of prominence here was the development of the communication predicament of aging model. This theoretical position has fueled a large amount of work in communication and aging and examined the ways in which accommodative acts, mediated by age stereotypes, can negatively impact older people’s somatic processes to the extent that they actually accelerate physical demise. In addition, the model implies that a highly accommodative family or network climate can contribute to life satisfaction and maybe even longevity.

Concluding Remarks

Gratifyingly, CAT has achieved some stature in influential communication theory texts as well as in other disciplines, and many of its propositions have received empirical support across an array of diverse languages, cultures, and applied settings. The theory, like most others, can still be developed and applied to new situations without falling prey to the temptation of moving beyond its explanatory boundaries. Hence important issues still face CAT: (a) Which kinds of linguistic and communicated features are, more precisely, accommodated? (b) What constitutes optimal levels of accommodation? (c) Why do those who have not accommodated to their new linguistic communities for years continue not to do so, despite manifold rewards for being heard to be vocally a part of this group? (d) Finally, a future challenge will be to theorize about, not only how sociopsychological processes mediate accommodative communications, but how accommodation mediates sociopsychological processes.