When people talk, they tend to inadvertently take on each other’s speech patterns, adopting similar pronunciation, rates of speech, posture, and more. The degree to which we fall in with someone else’s speech patterns may have to do with how much we agree with them, and how willing we are to compromise.
A new study by linguists at the Ohio State University and the University of Rochester in the journal Language Variation and Change tested how people reacted to ideologically charged speech. The participants heard different versions of sentences from people with different accents using a slightly different word order. For instance, some heard "Congress is giving too much money to welfare moochers,” while others heard "Congress is giving welfare moochers too much money.”
One of the drawings the study participants described. Image Credit: University of Rochester
They were then asked to describe a set of pictures. When participants agreed with the ideology behind the sentence, they were more likely to mirror its structure when describing an image. Those who heard “Congress is giving too much money to welfare moochers” described the (kind of random) image above as “The waitress is giving a banana to the monk,” mimicking the word order of the political sentence. Those who did not agree with the sentiment were less likely to mimic the speaker’s language patterns. The effect remained the same regardless of the speaker's accent.
A different kind of alignment appeared among participants who said they preferred to compromise during conflicts. Even if they disagreed with the ideologically charged sentence, they showed a greater tendency to mimic the speaker’s language patterns.
Humans are social creatures who tend to be drawn to people who look like them and even share some of their genes, so it’s not entirely surprising that we also subtly try to mirror someone we're having a conversation with. It may be a subconscious way to get them to like and trust us—a read-between-the-lines way of saying, "Hey, I'm one of you."