Communication Accommodation Theory, an intercultural communication theory developed by Howard Giles, examines the communication patterns of speech between two people of different cultural or ethnic backgrounds. This theory was later expanded to include speech patterns between different generations of speakers, and it is applied to other contexts today.
According to Howard Giles, accommodation is defined as “the constant movement toward or away from others by changing communication behaviors.” The theory states that assimilation in speech, or moving towards others, is called convergence, whereas dissimilation, or the movement away from others, is called divergence.
When speakers converge, they adapt their communication styles to speak similarly to their communication partner. If they decide to diverge, they purposefully enunciate their speech to show a marked difference between them and the speech of the other individual.
Typically, convergence occurs when people desire social approval. Speech patterns including accents, speed, and tone can all be adjusted to sound similar to other speakers, or they can be accentuated to display differences in sound and rhythm. According to the theory, divergence affects social identity, for speech can be used to identify various social groups and backgrounds. Typically, when a speaker seeks approval, he or she will converge. However, if they wish to establish their identity with a specific group, he or she will diverge.
For my last Communication in Pop Culture blog post, I’d like to apply Communication Accommodation Theory to the aesthetic of a Christian youth group.
If you grew up in church, you probably know that the youth group is an intriguing place of communication, often involving students from 6th-12th grade from several different high schools and parts of town. Church youth groups are meant to be a place of belonging, a safe space for friendships, learning about God, and a trendy activity on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. Youth groups want to appeal to youth; they want to bring in unchurched kids and stay relevant to the lives of teenagers. Here, Communication Accommodation Theory plays itself out often.
Sometimes convergence occurs; for example, consider the age of your youth pastor. Was he young, in-the-know, and culturally relevant? Chances are he was converging to the world of his students, willing to drink Starbucks, watch Friday night football, and act wild at summer camp to form relationships. Can you remember his sermons? Did he tell stories and use slang terms that matched the kids’ vernacular? Did he attempt to relate the pages of Scripture to the struggles of his students? In all of these examples, the youth pastor is converging his speech behaviors to gain social approval from the youth group, for he wants to share the love of Jesus with them.
On the other hand, divergence often occurs as well. Did you ever have a new student visit who was totally against everything the Church had to offer? Chances are he or she intentionally diverged his or her speech patterns to assert his or differences, attempting to develop a social identity apart from that of the youth group. What about rival high schools? Perhaps students came on Wednesday nights wearing school t-shirts and sharing inside jokes from their friend groups. All of these instances are examples of diverging, for they want to maintain their uniqueness within the larger group.
Neither convergence or divergence are necessarily bad things; there is a time and a place for both! However, the ability to notice whether your speaking partner is converging or diverging to you may benefit your interpersonal communication skills.