Have you ever caught yourself speaking slower and louder to someone who did not speak your language well in an attempt to help them understand you? Or perhaps you remember a time when someone did that to you because they thought you didn’t understand them. These accommodating behaviors, their motivations, and their consequences, are what make up Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT)
Created in 1973 by Howard Giles
, CAT was originally called Speech Accommodation Theory but later renamed to account for nonverbal elements of communication (and not just verbal ones, which is what the original theory did). Giles realized people changed their communication behaviors in several ways depending on the context of the interaction (e.g., who they were talking to, in what setting, what they wanted to get out of the interaction, etc.).
For instance, you might speak louder and slower when in an interaction with somebody who is elderly because you might assume they will have trouble hearing you and wish to help them understand you. Or you might have grown up in a place with a very distinct regional accent and dialect (e.g., Minnesota), so every time you go back your native accent and dialect seem to come back as well.
Giles indicates that if you change your communication behaviors to match the people you’re interacting with, such as matching their accent or language if you are bilingual, you are converging towards them and in someway attempting to improve the interaction and their perception of you. However, if you actively seek to distinguish yourself from the person you are talking to, such as using words your parents would not understand on purpose so they don’t know what you’re talking about, you are diverging away from them.
Communication Accommodation Theory looks at why people choose to converge or diverge, how the other people in those interactions perceive their convergence / divergence, and what that choice means for the overall results of that interaction. This theory is used in intercultural / intergroup communication because the role of cultural identity and related concepts is crucial in convergence / divergence. The theory can also be used to help us predict what type of communication behaviors help to improve interactions between people from different groups.
For example, a study in 2007 looked into the accommodation practices of police officers across cultures to analyze whether better accommodation can lead to better attitudes about police and found that accommodation by police towards civilians did indeed play an important role in how civilians viewed (and potentially responded to) police (Giles et al., 2007
Given the recent racial tensions between police and civilians in the United States, this is a great example of how CAT can contribute directly to helping improve intercultural and intergroup communication in society.