Thinking alike changes the conversation

May 22, 2015

Credit: University of Rochester

By Monique Patenaude

As social creatures, we tend to mimic each other’s posture, laughter, and other behaviors, including how we speak. Now a new study shows that people with similar views tend to more closely mirror, or align, each other’s speech patterns. In addition, people who are better at compromising align more closely.

“Few people are aware that they alter their word pronunciation, speech rate, and even the structure of their sentences during conversation,” explained Florian Jaeger, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester and coauthor of the study recently published in Language Variation and Change. “What we have found is that the degree to which speakers align is socially mediated.”

“Our social judgments about others and our general attitude toward conflict are affecting even the most automatic and subconscious aspects of how we express ourselves with language,” said lead-author Kodi Weatherholtz, a post-doctoral researcher in Jaeger’s lab.

To test the social effects of how greatly we mimic each other’s , the researchers devised an experiment in which participants first listened to ideologically charged messages with a set . After listening to the diatribes they were asked to describe some simple illustrations showing characters performing simple actions, such as a waitress giving a banana to a monk.

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9 comments on “Thinking alike changes the conversation

  • I remember my mother being furious with my father for affecting bad grammar when he gave a speech to a group of union men. My dad defended himself saying he needed to do that to be perceived as one of them.

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  • I needed to be able to do the same thing to be effective in my job. From Prime Ministers to paupers. Serial killers, suicidals, triads and perverts. I was conscience of, and probably deliberately adjusted my language to maximize empathy with the persons world view. I was “One of Them”. It works. This study doesn’t surprise me.

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  • This might explain some of the hostility of the uneducated to Richard Dawkins, hostility which is sometimes visceral. He speaks and writes in a very precise fashion, as a scientist should, and with refined language — as an Englishman should — and, of course, he’s an academic. He deals in nuances, not in simplicities. People with limited education, who speak in short sentences and clichés do not respond favorably to that and call it snobbery.

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  • David R Allen
    May 22, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    I needed to be able to do the same thing to be effective in my job.

    In any form of communication, it is necessary to pitch the level of comprehension to the level of the audience. – Especially when dealing with the uneducated or with children.

    The exception is deciding who the audience is, when dealing with a mixture of levels.

    When dealing with pseudo-science, pseudo experts, or simplistic creationists, who are posing FOR an audience, exposing their ignorance at the most basic level is a useful tactic where they can usually be debunked by failing to recognise some elementary feature of the subject area in which they are falsely posing as experts!

    (For example: AGW deniers when asked which of the figures they are disputing are wrong, can usually easily be shown, to have no idea of how to measure, or what to measure and that they are simply quoting garbage from some dubious source.)

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  • That was a clever experiment.

    It’s interesting to think that we may be wired to make it more difficult for ourselves to communicate effectively when we disagree with someone.

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  • Is another issue not that people who have similar views may well be likely to spend more time together and so be more likely to develop short cuts in communication? That’s the case with professional jargon.

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  • Ewan
    May 23, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    and so be more likely to develop short cuts in communication? That’s the case with professional jargon.

    Professional jargon – or more precisely, professional terminology, works at a level of understanding, where the parties to the discussion share a knowledge of the subject, and so merely have to label clearly defined areas of knowledge, thus avoiding wasting time, going over basic stuff, with which they are already familiar.

    The danger with this is ambiguity in subject areas where terms do NOT have the recognised standard definitions which are used for scientific laws etc.

    Theology for example: – is notorious for woolly meanings and flexible “interpretations”, of its terms.

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  • It’s always fascinating to listen to recordings of people talking from just a few decades ago. It makes it clear just what a dynamic thing language is, constantly changing without us – its users – realising it.

    But what this research suggests is that our language isn’t just changing from decade to decade, but from moment to moment and in such subtle ways. Back in the 60s and 70s, a commonly expressed opinion was that we would all end up speaking American because of the influence of television. No chance of that. Our language use is working too hard (even if subconsciously) to maintain a clear expression of our similarities and our differences.

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