This post is also available in Dutch.
Children are like parrots, copying how people around them talk. It’s how they learn to speak. But adults also imitate each other’s speech, often without even knowing it.
This mimicry can take on many forms. We copy each other’s sentence structure. For example, if someone says something like, “Everything has been arranged” to me, without clarifying who did the arranging, I am more likely to use the passive voice later, too. We also copy each other’s particular word choice, preferring to use certain terms, like “arranged,” instead of other words with the same meaning. We even sometimes mirror the way the person we are talking to sounds, for example, talking more clearly, faster, or even with a particular accent.
People are constantly unconsciously parroting each other’s speech.
In the case of children, vocal mimicry serves a clear goal: it helps them learn to talk. It also makes sense that adults who are learning a foreign language would copy how native speakers of that language talk. But research has shown that adult native speakers of a language often imitate each other. Why does this happen?
Imitation is automatic
It may well be that imitation is just an automatic, passive process. You hear something so it’s just more readily available. This fits with studies demonstrating imitation in situations where people aren’t even interacting with someone but only listening to or repeating pre-recorded audios. Despite this, there is a lot of evidence that some things (see below) can increase or decrease how likely you are to imitate in a given situation, suggesting alternative functions for vocal mimicry.
Talking alike makes understanding easier
There is some evidence that copying each other makes conversation flow smoother. For example, if the person you are talking to has a different accent than yours or uses a different word for something, copying them may increase understanding. For instance, a speaker from the UK might copy the word “elevator” (instead of “lift”) when talking to someone from the US to avoid confusion. This could also explain why some studies have found that native speakers copy non-native speakers, although this may depend on many things like how different the languages are or the non-native speaker’s proficiency.
Englishman Steve McClaren famously adopted a Dutch accent in English after several years of working as a football manager in The Netherlands.
Imitation is the greatest form of flattery
Another reason why people may copy each other is for social reasons. Some studies have found that we tend to “converge” to people we want to decrease social distance from (i.e., get closer to or be more alike) and “diverge” from people we want increase social distance from. This reasoning has also been used to explain other forms of behavioral mirroring, like body language. It also might explain why politicians reportedly change their accents depending on where they’re giving a speech, although perhaps more intentionally. This evidence is more shaky, though, as it’s harder to study.
Most likely all of these things play a role. In certain situations you may converge to be understood and in others, to sound like someone in particular. So unfortunately, no, you can’t use it to tell if someone likes you or whether you’re likely to get a job, yet.
Written by Monica.