Accidental mimicry: The effect of phonetic convergence

UndergraduateStudents_2In conversation, people often adjust the way they speak based on the people
to whom they are talking. We can see this phenomenon most clearly when people
talk to babies or animals and inadvertently switch over to a more high-pitched, sing-
song tone of voice. This is an example of an adjustment made to improve communication. People also unconsciously adjust their speech to either align with
or distinguish themselves from various conversation partners. People often report
that when they speak with someone who has an accent, they find themselves
“mimicking” that accent – and can feel pretty embarrassed about it! When people
end up speaking more like their conversational partner, it is known as “phonetic
convergence” (Pardo, 2010).

Why would we change our vowels, consonants and speech rate to be more
like our friends?

One theory is that we do this not only to facilitate communication,
as suggested above, but also to foster a sense of community with our peers (Giles,
Coupland, & Coupland, 1991). It follows, then, that if you do not want to foster a
sense of community or inclusion, you would not converge. An experiment done in
Britain showed that Welsh-accented speakers converged to friendly London-
accented speakers, but when a set of London-accented speakers insulted Wales,
Welsh-accented participants began to speak with an even stronger Welsh accent,
indicating a desire to distance themselves from their rude conversation partners
(Bourhis & Giles, 1977).

Many of these experiments have been done with participants in a single lab
session. It is possible that people are only briefly converging with a random speaker,
but immediately losing the effect once they leave the lab. To test how phonetic
convergence dynamically affects speech over a long period of time, experimenters
turned to pairs of college roommates and examined their speech over the course of
a semester (Pardo, Gibbons, Suppes, & Krauss, 2012). In college, people from many
different backgrounds come together and interact. In freshman year, students are
often placed with a random roommate that they come to know and with whom they
may develop a close friendship. Given the idea that we perhaps align our speech
with people in order to make friends, we might expect that college roommates that
become close would develop similar speech. In fact, this is exactly what the authors
found:

The more roommates develop a friendship and share a close relationship, the
more they tend to converge on similar patterns of speech.

Phonetic convergence, however, is affected by many complicated factors that
can make it difficult to study. For example, gender has an effect: two men tend to
converge with each other more than two women, and mixed-gender pairs only
sometimes show convergence (Pardo, Urmanche, Wilman, & Wiener, 2017).
There are a number of reasons why we should care about phonetic convergence. First, understanding why we have this tendency could be relevant to a number of fields, ranging from social psychology to linguistics. Secondly, phonetic convergence is particularly critical in a clinical environment: any two speakers will likely converge at least a little bit, and a speech-language pathologist would want to remain an unchanging model of speech for his or her client. Clinicians wouldn’t want to be seen as imitating the speech habits or accent of a client from a different geographical region. As a result, being aware of this tendency to converge could be especially important for clinicians, who could potentially try to develop techniques to avoid converging with clients.


  • Bourhis, R. Y., & Giles, H. (1977). The language of intergroup distinctiveness. In
    Language, ethnicity and intergroup relations (pp. 119–136).
  • Giles, H., Coupland, J., & Coupland, M. (1991). Accommodation theory:
    Communication, context, and consequence. In Contexts of accommodation:
    Developments in applied sociolinguistics (pp. 1–68). Cambridge: Cambridge
    University Press.
  • Pardo, J. S. (2010). Conversational role influences speech imitation, (July).
    http://doi.org/10.3758/APP
  • Pardo, J. S., Gibbons, R., Suppes, A., & Krauss, R. M. (2012). Phonetic convergence in college roommates. Journal of Phonetics, 40(1), 190–197.
    http://doi.org/10.1016/j.wocn.2011.10.001
  • Pardo, J. S., Urmanche, A., Wilman, S., & Wiener, J. (2017). Phonetic convergence across multiple measures and model talkers. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 79(2), 637–659. http://doi.org/10.3758/s13414-016- 1226-0

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