Communication accommodation theory

The Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT) explores the various reasons why individuals use speech and paralinguistics in order to try to emphasize or minimize the social differences between themselves and their interlocutors. It evolved from the Speech Accommodation Theory and was developed by Howard Guiles, professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara.[1]. However its roots can be traced back to social psychology and particularly to the Social Identity theory, which discusses how a person’s identity is very tied to his or her social identity, an identity based upon comparisons of in-groups and out-groups [2] According to this theory, when speakers seek approval in a social situation they are likely to converge their speech to that of their interlocutor. This can include, but is not limited to the language of choice, accent, dialect and paralinguistic features used in the interaction. In contrast to convergence, speakers may also engage in divergent speech. In divergent speech, individuals emphasize the social distance between themselves and their interlocutors by using linguistic features characteristic of their own group.[3]. Because a person's speech style affects the impressions that other people get from them, as well as how their interlocutors judge the conversation, individuals adapt their style according to the setting, the person to which they are speaking to and the conversation topic.[4]. Social Accommodation Theory therefore assumes both that "language and behaviors impart information about social status and group belonging" and that " accommodation varies in its degree of appropriateness, and norms guide the accommodation process" [5].



Convergence describes how an individual shifts his speech patterns in interaction so that they more closely resemble the speech patterns of his interlocutor(s). These shifts include features such as phonetic changes (e.g. changing pitch and prolonging pauses), speech changes and changes in the language used. People use convergence selectively and according to their perceptions of others, as well as what they are able to infer about them and their backgrounds [6]. Unfortunately this also means that convergence and the extent to which an individual converges might also be based on stereotypical perceptions, a form of indirect stereotyping [7]. Convergence is also determined by aspects such as the "the speaker's ability to communicate, and the status differential between communicators" [8]. Like previously explained convergence tends to favor the individual which is seen to have the higher social status. Attraction (likability, charisma, credibility), also trigger convergence. Giles and Smith posit that when people have similar beliefs, personality and behaviors they tend to be more attracted towards each other and that this leads to convergence. For this reason they argue that it is probably safe to assume that speech shifts can result in a more favourable appraisal of the speaker, that is: when convergence is perceived positively it is likely to enhance both the conversation and the attraction between the listener and the speaker [9].


However, although people usually have good intentions when they attempt to use converge in conversation, some interlocutors can perceive convergence as patronizing and demeaning and hence just as it can enhance conversation it can also detract from the processes of communication [10].


Divergence is a linguistic strategy whereby a member of a speech community accentuates the linguistic differences between hisingroup and the respective outgroup of his interlocutor in order to preserve his positive ingroup identity, rather than accentuating ingroup similarities as in convergence. The speaker from the ingroup will emphasize ingroup speech characteristics in order to index his ingroup status to his interlocutor(s). "Given that speech style is, for many people, an important subjective and objective clue to social group can be argued that in situations when group membership is a salient issue, speech divergence may be an important strategy for making oneself psychologically and favourably distinct from outgroup members.". Divergence can thus be a mean to contrast self images when the other person is considered a member of an undesirable group, it is meant to create a positive image of one's own group [3]. It can thus be used as a way to indicate power or status differences [11], as when one individual wishes to render another one less powerful. However it is also a way for members of different groups to maintain their cultural identity [12].

The theory

There are four components in CAT: the sociohistorical context, the communicators’ accommodative orientation, the immediate situation and evaluation and future intentions.[13] These components are essential to the theory and affect the course and outcome of intercultural conversations.

Sociohistorical context

The sociohistorical context represents the general basis for any intercultural communication. Thereby, the relations between the two interacting groups influence the communicators’ behavior. Such influencing factors are for example political or historical relations between nations or different religious or ideological views between the two groups participating in the conversation.

Accommodative orientation

There are three factors that are crucial to accommodative orientations: (1) “intrapersonal factors” (e.g. personality of the speakers), (2) “intergroup factors” (e.g. communicators’ feelings toward outgroups), and (3) “initial orientations” (e.g. perceived potential for conflict).

Immediate situation

The immediate situation, i.e. the actual communication, is shaped by five aspects which are interrelated: (1) “sociopsychological states”, (2) “goals and addressee focus” (e.g. motivations and goals for the encounter), (3) “sociolinguistic strategies” (e.g. convergence or divergence), (4) “behavior and tactics” (e.g. topic, accent) and (5) “labeling and attributions”.

Evaluation and future intentions

This aspect deals with how communicators perceive their conversational partners’ behavior and its effects on future encounters between the two groups. Positively rated conversations will most likely lead to further communication between the interlocutors and other members of their respective groups.

Foundations of The Communication Accommodation Theory

Giles based The Communication Accommodation Theory on four socio-psychological theories which help to explain why speakers seek to converge or diverge their language, dialect, accent and behavior to that of their interlocutor. These theories are, similarity-attraction, social exchange, causal distribution and intergroup distinctiveness.


The basic idea behind similarity-attraction theory is quite simply, “the more similar our attitudes and beliefs are to others, the more likely it is we will be attracted to them." [3] Speech convergence includes reducing the linguistic differences between oneself and one’s interlocutor in terms of accent, dialect, paralinguistic features, or the language of choice. Convergence is a tool among many that individuals use as a means “to become more similar to another.” [3] By increasing similarity in communication between two people, it is likely that understanding and attraction between them will also increase.[3] Convergence of this sort may be due to the speaker’s wishes for social approval from his or her interlocutor.[3] This has led to “the idea that the greater one’s need for social approval, the greater will be one’s tendency to converge.”[3] “Natalé (1975) has found that speakers with high needs for approval converge more to another’s vocal intensity and pause length than those with low needs for approval”.[3]


In a 1984 study conducted by Purcell, he found that "Hawaiian children's convergent shifts in prosodic and lexiogrammatical features depended on the likeability of the particular peers present when talking in small groups."[14]

Social Exchange Process

The similarity-attraction theory describes the positive aspects of convergence whereas the social exchange process theory addresses the possible drawbacks of convergence. The negative aspects of converge could involve “a loss of perceived integrity and personal (and sometimes group) identity”.[3] The social exchange process “states that prior to acting, we attempt to assess the rewards and costs of alternate courses of action”.[3] Therefore, when deciding what to say and how to say it, individuals most often choose the option which will yield a positive outcome rather than a negative one. “Engaging in convergent speech acts should then incur more potential rewards for the speaker than costs”.[3]


A man going for a job interview might decide to speak with a more prestigious accent in order to be better perceived by the interviewer, thereby practicing upward convergence. On the other hand, the owner of a small firm might shift to a less prestigious accent while communicating to his laborers in order to reduce the feelings of difference in status between them, thus practicing downward convergence.[3]

Causal attribution process

The causal attribution theory “Suggests that we interpret other people’s behavior, and evaluate the persons themselves, in terms of the motivations and intentions that we attribute as the cause of their behavior”.[3] In other words, we judge the convergence of our interlocutor's speech to our own based on our understanding of their motives for converging.


“ When French Canadian listeners attributed an English Canadian’s convergence to French as due to his desire to break down cultural barriers, the shift was viewed favorably. However, when this same behavior was attributed to pressures in the situation forcing the other to converge, positive feelings were not so strongly evoked”.[3]

Process of intergroup distinctiveness

The process of Intergroup Distinctiveness, as theorized by Tajfel theorizes “that when members of different groups are in contact, they compare themselves on dimensions which are important to them, such as personal attributes, abilities, material possessions and so forth. He suggests that these ‘intergroup social comparisons’ will lead individuals to search for and even create dimensions on which they can make themselves positively distinct from the outgroup”.[3] Because speech style and language is an important factor in defining social groups, divergence in the speech style or language one uses is often employed in order to maintain intergroup distinctiveness and differentiate from the out-group when such issues as identity and group membership is threatened.[3]


In a study by Giles and Bourhis conducted in Wales, Welshmen with strong ties to their nation and their language who were learning Welsh were asked questions about methods of second language acquisition. In this study the questions were asked by an English speaker with an RP-sounding accent “who at one point arrogantly challenged their reasons for what he called ‘a dying language which had a dismal future’”.[3] In response to this question, which greatly threatened their identity and intergroup distinctiveness, the informants diverged considerably by strengthening their Welsh accents and using Welsh words.[3]

"Speak Arabic please!" A case study in communication accommodation

In Sonia S’hiri’s “Speak Arabic please!: Tunisian Arabic Speakers’ Linguistic Accommodation to Middle Easterners” she describes how speakers of Tunisian Arabic converge to the “Sharqi” or “ Middle Eastern Arabic” of their co-workers.[15]

One of the many ways to divide the Arab world is between the West “Maghreb” and the East “Sharq”. Although there is no official “Sharqi Arabic”, the varieties that are usually associated with “Sharqi Arabic” are Egyptian, Levantine, and Gulf/Iraqi Arabic. Due to Egypt’s dominance of the media and arts, the “Sharqi” Arabic spoken in the region has come to be “perceived by Tunisians, as “lighter”, more poetic and artistic, more humorous, more romantic and even more beautiful than the local [Tunisian] variety”.[15] Again, for the reasons of dominance in the media and arts, Arabic speakers throughout the Arab world are much more familiar with “Sharqi” varieties than they are of “Maghrebi” varieties. A common yet incorrect belief about speech interactions in the Arab speaking world is that when speakers of different varieties of the language come into contact with one another, the default language for communication is fusha, (Modern Standard Arabic).

In her study conducted in London S'hiri examined the social reasons for Tunisian Arabs to converge linguistically to speakers of "Sharqi Arabic". The data she found also gave ample evidence to show that code-switching into pure fusha for communication is a misconception. S’hiri recorded five Tunisian Arabic speakers (M1, M2, W1, W2, and W3) who worked at two different broadcasting companies and found that they did indeed converge linguistically to their Sharqi co-workers. They did not however, resort solely to fusha. S’hiri found that when interacting with speakers of “Sharqi” Arabic, her Tunisian informants used linguistic features and lexical items characteristic of the "Sharqi" variety, some English words, (instead of the French words often used in Tunisian Arabic speech) in addition to switching to fusha. S'hiri found that many of her informants were proud of both their Tunisian variety of Arabic as well as their ability converge linguistically and even posits the idea of "showing off" as a goal of linguistic convergence".[15] Her findings lead to an interesting sort of paradox being that although the Tunisian Arabs abandon their own variety of the language they do not experience a feeling of loss in identity because they identify with the ability to code-switch as this is perceived of as prestigious in their culture. Despite these inner feelings of pride in their own group S'hiri does suggest that in accommodating the Sharqi speakers, the Tunisians are setting aside their ingoup identity in order to "promote their extended ethnicity as members of an Arab nation instead of just as Tunisians."[15] In terms of Accommodation Theory, Tunisians in London can be seen as the “ingroup” trying to assimilate to the “outgroup”.[15]

Some informant explanations for accommodation

When her informants were asked why they had switched to the “Sharqi” variety, they all agreed it “is psychologically motivated, allowing them to get closer to their interlocutors. M1 adds that this allows him to convey friendliness to his interlocutors, to reduce differences and avoid rejection”.[15] Informant W2 “Found that using TA [Tunisian Arabic] is an obstacle to getting closer to people. She felt excluded especially at the beginning since Sharqis seemed to avoid her because they believed she would be difficult to understand”.[15] W2 also “Claims that the level of readiness of Sharqis to understand her determines whether she uses TA with them or not. She wants to avoid ridicule”.[15]

Other case studies

Giles has studied the interaction of young and elderly persons in business settings using communication accommodation as a theoretical framework. Findings demonstrated that elderly persons tend to be less accommodating than their younger counterparts. While several other factors came into play, convergence, and divergence portions of this theory were used in interpreting and explain this phenomenon (McCann, & Giles 2006).

Among this and other studies, Giles has also looked at the actions and attitudes in the public's interaction with police officers, using Accommodation theory. Relational and identity aspects of this theory help to demonstrate interaction patterns that exist between the public and the police in the various situations that these interaction take place (Giles, et al., 2005). This study looked at both the accommodation patterns of the officers and the public with whom they were dealing.


  • McCann, R., & Giles, H. (2006). Communication with people of different ages in the workplace: Thai and American data. Human Communication Research, 32, (1), 74–108.
  • Miller, K. (2005). Communication theories: Perspective, processes and contexts (2nd ed). NY: McGraw Hill.
  • Law enforcement, communication and community. Journal of Multilingual & Multicultural Development, 26, (3), 265–267.
  • Gudykunst, William B. (2003), "Intercultural Communication Theories", in: Gudykunst, William B (ed.), Cross-Cultural and Intercultural Communication, 171–174, Thousand Oaks: Sage.


  1. ^ (Gallois, Giles and Ogay, 130.)
  2. ^ West and Turner, 468
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Giles,Howard and Robert N St. Clair, Language and Social Psychology. London: Basil Blackwell. 1979
  4. ^ Giles and Smith, 1987
  5. ^ Turner and West, 2010
  6. ^ Giles, Coupland and Coupland, 1991
  7. ^ Orbe, 1998
  8. ^ Turner and West, 2010
  9. ^ Turner and West, 2010
  10. ^ Zuengler, 1999
  11. ^ Street, 1991
  12. ^ Giles and colleagues, 1987
  13. ^ Gudykunst, William B. (2003)
  14. ^ Giles, Howard and Nikolas Coupland. “Language: Contexts and Consequences”. Pacific Grove: Brooks/ColePublishing Co. 1991
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h S’hiri, Sonia. Speak Arabic Please!: “Tunisian Arabic Speakers’ Linguistic Accommodation to Middle Easterners”. Language Contact and Language Conflict in Arabic Variations on a Sociolinguistic Theme. Ed. Aleya Rouchdy. New York: RoutledgeCurzon. 2002.

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