August 29, 2017

The Chameleon Effect: Accents and Assimilation

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The Chameleon Effect: Accents and Assimilation

A major part of living and working internationally is communicating and forming relationships. Communication across regions and cultures can sometimes lead people to unwittingly use what is known as the “Chameleon Effect.”

My accent has, for a long time, been a topic of conversation in my family. A source of amusement to my sister and mother, and often a cause of embarrassment on my part. Born in the north of England, I had a northern accent until the age of ten, when my family relocated to the South West. I’d just started secondary school and nobody understood what I was saying, so I partly consciously, and partly subconsciously, picked up the local accent as a means of fitting in. My mother was bewildered and it was (and still is) the source of much teasing.

chameleonBrits have a tendency to be obsessed with accents. Even though our country is small, there is a plethora of different vowel sounds and intonations that can be observed as you move from county to county, and even a half-hour car journey can result in a drastically altered accent. We love to mimic these dialects, but it seems that some of us have a subconscious tendency to do this, and I happen to be part of this group.

Whenever I go back to the North of England, I somehow automatically start abbreviating the word the to t’, a well-known characteristic of the Yorkshire dialect. If you can decipher the meaning of “t’int int’ tin” (it isn’t in the tin) then you’ll be “reet” (alright) in the North. Still to this day, I’m not sure how I pronounce the words bath, grass, and path (an easy way of distinguishing a Northerner from a Southerner) as the pronunciation changes every time I speak, depending on where I am and who I’m speaking with.

Recently, I went on a trip to Ireland with my mother, who feels a very strong compulsion to speak to both Irish and Scottish people in a ridiculous, over-the-top version of their accent, which is very embarrassing for me. I warned her not to do this before we left and then, strangely, I found myself doing exactly that, mimicking the accent (but in a rather much more subtle way than my mother). It got me thinking, why do I do this? So I did some research.

Assimilating and Bonding through the Chameleon Effect

It turns out that we mimic accents in order to assimilate ourselves with others and create empathy. We unintentionally mirror others when interacting by copying the other person’s gestures, body language, tone of voice and accent, in order to bond with others and feel safe in social interactions. This is called the Chameleon Effect and it’s embedded in human nature. There is even a part of the brain dedicated to copying this behaviour. It’s a natural tendency that we don’t often realise we are doing and if you are a person who is more influenced by other’s behaviour (a high perspective taker) then you are more likely to display the Chameleon Effect.

The downside of this is that the tendency to copy accents can often be a cause of embarrassment. There are many examples of celebrities adopting ridiculous accents, Madonna and her cut-glass English accent come to mind. Another example is British footballer Joey Barton, a Liverpudlian who conducted a press conference in a distinct French accent after he started playing for a French football team. This made big headlines in the UK media, and if you haven’t seen the YouTube video, it’s worth watching. 

However, despite sounding a bit ridiculous at times, the Chameleon Effect can have a positive impact on social interactions. Research has shown that not only does it help us understand each other better, but it also helps us to bond more easily, as imitating another person comes from a desire to feel a strong connection to them. Studies have also shown that people enjoyed social interactions more if they experienced the Chameleon Effect in comparison to those who did not experience it.

How the Chameleon Effect Impacts Relocation

Those of us working across multicultural and/or multilingual teams might catch ourselves in moments of mimicking, but for those on an international assignment communicating in a new cultural environment, the Chameleon Effect is likely to occur even more. It is perhaps one of the (many) ways in which assignees and their families seek to create the new connections and relationships that will support the assignment experience.

So, if like me, you are a high perspective taker, then embrace your inner chameleon as an advantage! Just remember that the Chameleon Effect is a subconscious habit and if you try to consciously copy other’s behavior, then you may come across as a bit strange. 

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