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Communication Accommodation Theory
Howard Giles

CULTURAL CONTEXT: INTERCULTURAL COMMUNICATION


  1. Introduction.
    1. Howard Giles built communication accommodation theory (CAT) as an answer to questions regarding intent and perception of changing speech patterns, cultural group membership, and social consequences.
    2. Giles refers to his speech adjustments as accommodation, or changing communication behavior in a way that reduces social distance.
    3. In contrast, failing to alter one’s style (or any other communication adjustment that maintains or increases social distance) is nonaccommodation.
    4. The early research of Giles and his colleagues centered on interethnic communication, often between two bilingual groups in the same country.
    5. In the last three decades, however, CAT researchers have also shown consistent interest in exploring accommodation in an intergenerational context.
    6. Whether differences between people are generational, cultural, or from any other source, Giles thinks an understanding of CAT can help members of different groups communicate effectively with each other.
  2. How we accommodate (or how we don’t)
    1. Giles contrasts convergence and divergence, two strategic forms of communication used to interact with diverse others.
    2. Convergence
      1. Convergence is a strategy by which you adapt your communication behavior in such a way as to become more similar to the other person.
      2. Most of the time, we do it because we want to accommodate the other person.
      3. It is a form of audience adaption to reduce nonverbal differences.
      4. Discourse management, another way of adapting, is the sensitive selection of topics to discuss.
    3. Divergence
      1. Divergence is a communication strategy of accentuating the differences between yourself and another.
      2. Most of the time, the goal of divergence is nonaccommodation.
      3. Divergence may include counteraccommodation—direct, intentional, and even hostile ways of maximizing the differences between speakers.
      4. The elderly often increase social distance through the process of self- handicapping —a defensive, face-saving strategy that uses age as a reason for not performing well.
      5. Giles and his colleagues describe two other strategies similar to divergence that are a bit more subtle, but function as nonaccommodation.
        1. Maintenance is the strategy of persisting in your original communication style regardless of the communication behavior of the other.
        2. The other strategy that’s similar to divergence is overaccommodation, which may be well-intended, but has the effect of making the recipient feel worse.
  3. Different motivations for convergence and divergence.
    1. CAT theorists have always maintained that desire for approval was the main motivation for convergence
    2. But this doesn’t account for divergence, nor for when speakers act as representatives of a group.
    3. Social identity theory
      1. When communicators are aware of their group differences, that’s intergroup contact. Henri Tajfel and John Turner believed intergroup contact is common, and that our social identity is based upon it.
      2. We often communicate not as individuals but as representatives of groups that define us.
      3. Communication may be used to reinforce and defend ties to reference groups.
      4. When groups are salient at the start of an interaction with someone different, CAT claims that communication will diverge away from a partner’s speech rather than converge toward it.
      5. Tajfel and Turner pictured a motivational continuum with personal identity on one end of the scale and social identity on the other.
      6. If communicators feel the need for distinctiveness, then divergence is often the result.
      7. They hold out the possibility that a person could seek approval and distinctiveness within the same conversation when personal and social identities are both salient.
    4. Initial orientation
      1. Initial orientation is the predisposition a person has toward focusing on either individual identity or group identity.
      2. Five factors impact the perception of a conversation as an intergroup encounter.
        1. Collective cultural context.
          1. The we-centered focus of collectivism emphasizes similarity and mutual concern within the culture—definitely oriented toward social identity.
          2. The I-centered focus of individualistic cultures valorizes the individual actor—definitely oriented toward individual identity.
        2. If previous interactions were uncomfortable, competitive, or hostile, both interactants will tend to ascribe that outcome to the other person’s social identity.
        3. The more specific and negative stereotypes people have of an out-group, the more likely they are to think of the other in terms of social identity and then resort to divergent communication.
        4. Expectations of group norms can affect whether a member of one group regards a person from another group as an individual or as “one of them.”
        5. High group solidarity and high group dependence would predict that we have initial intergroup orientation.
    5. No single factor determines a person’s initial orientation, yet if all five factors line up in the direction of social identity, they make it almost certain that a communicator will approach it as an intergroup encounter.
  4. Recipient evaluation of convergence and divergence.
    1. People converge when they want social approval and diverge when they want to emphasize their distinctiveness.
    2. Giles and his colleagues still believe that listeners regard convergence as positive and divergence as negative.
    3. Convergent speakers are evaluated as more competent, attractive, warm, and cooperative compared to divergent communicators who are seen as insulting, impolite, and hostile.
    4. What is ultimately important is how the communicator is perceived.
      1. Objective versus subjective accommodation.
        1. A disconnect may exist between what is actually happening and what a listener perceives is happening.
        2. Speakers who converge may also misperceive the other’s style.
      2. Attribution theory.
        1. Heider and Kelley suggest that we attribute an internal disposition to the behavior we see another enact.
        2. Our default assumption is that people who do things like that are like that.
        3. Listeners’ evaluation is based on the other’s ability, external constraints, and expended effort.
        4. Overall, listeners who interpret convergence as a speaker’s desire to break down cultural barriers react quite favorably.
    5. The interpersonal tension created by divergence or maintenance can certainly block the formation of intergroup or intercultural relationships and understanding.
    6. But the upside for the communicator is the reaffirmed social identity and solidarity that comes from enacting a divergent strategy.
  5. Applying CAT to police officer-citizen interaction.
    1. CAT can be applied to any intercultural or intergroup situation where the differences between people are apparent and significant.
    2. Giles has employed CAT to analyze routine traffic stops for issues of accommodation and race.
    3. The goal of one CAT study was “to move beyond casual assumptions to systematically investigate the extent to which the race of interactants might influence the nature of police–civilian communication.”
  6. Critique: Enormous scope at the cost of clarity.
    1. CAT not only describes communication behavior, it explains why it happens.
    2. The theory has consistently predicted what will happen in specific situations.
    3. CAT is an extraordinarily complex theory presented in multiple versions that are sometimes offered simultaneously.
    4. The structure and underlying terminology are not always represented consistently with even the meaning of “accommodation” slippery.
    5. The complexity problem spills over into the possibility of being able to demonstrate that the theory is false.
    6. Tests of the theory have admirably used a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods.
    7. The theory provides practical insight into many situations where people from different groups or cultures come into contact.


CHANGE TO View by Type

Resources
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MOVIE CLIPS





Instructors can get additional
resources. Read more

Archived chapters (PDF)
from previous editions
are available in
Resources by Type.
See list

New to Theory
Resources?

Find out more in this short
video overview (3:01).


Communication Accommodation Theory
Howard Giles

CULTURAL CONTEXT: INTERCULTURAL COMMUNICATION


  1. Introduction.
    1. Howard Giles built communication accommodation theory (CAT) as an answer to questions regarding intent and perception of changing speech patterns, cultural group membership, and social consequences.
    2. Giles refers to his speech adjustments as accommodation, or changing communication behavior in a way that reduces social distance.
    3. In contrast, failing to alter one’s style (or any other communication adjustment that maintains or increases social distance) is nonaccommodation.
    4. The early research of Giles and his colleagues centered on interethnic communication, often between two bilingual groups in the same country.
    5. In the last three decades, however, CAT researchers have also shown consistent interest in exploring accommodation in an intergenerational context.
    6. Whether differences between people are generational, cultural, or from any other source, Giles thinks an understanding of CAT can help members of different groups communicate effectively with each other.
  2. How we accommodate (or how we don’t)
    1. Giles contrasts convergence and divergence, two strategic forms of communication used to interact with diverse others.
    2. Convergence
      1. Convergence is a strategy by which you adapt your communication behavior in such a way as to become more similar to the other person.
      2. Most of the time, we do it because we want to accommodate the other person.
      3. It is a form of audience adaption to reduce nonverbal differences.
      4. Discourse management, another way of adapting, is the sensitive selection of topics to discuss.
    3. Divergence
      1. Divergence is a communication strategy of accentuating the differences between yourself and another.
      2. Most of the time, the goal of divergence is nonaccommodation.
      3. Divergence may include counteraccommodation—direct, intentional, and even hostile ways of maximizing the differences between speakers.
      4. The elderly often increase social distance through the process of self- handicapping —a defensive, face-saving strategy that uses age as a reason for not performing well.
      5. Giles and his colleagues describe two other strategies similar to divergence that are a bit more subtle, but function as nonaccommodation.
        1. Maintenance is the strategy of persisting in your original communication style regardless of the communication behavior of the other.
        2. The other strategy that’s similar to divergence is overaccommodation, which may be well-intended, but has the effect of making the recipient feel worse.
  3. Different motivations for convergence and divergence.
    1. CAT theorists have always maintained that desire for approval was the main motivation for convergence
    2. But this doesn’t account for divergence, nor for when speakers act as representatives of a group.
    3. Social identity theory
      1. When communicators are aware of their group differences, that’s intergroup contact. Henri Tajfel and John Turner believed intergroup contact is common, and that our social identity is based upon it.
      2. We often communicate not as individuals but as representatives of groups that define us.
      3. Communication may be used to reinforce and defend ties to reference groups.
      4. When groups are salient at the start of an interaction with someone different, CAT claims that communication will diverge away from a partner’s speech rather than converge toward it.
      5. Tajfel and Turner pictured a motivational continuum with personal identity on one end of the scale and social identity on the other.
      6. If communicators feel the need for distinctiveness, then divergence is often the result.
      7. They hold out the possibility that a person could seek approval and distinctiveness within the same conversation when personal and social identities are both salient.
    4. Initial orientation
      1. Initial orientation is the predisposition a person has toward focusing on either individual identity or group identity.
      2. Five factors impact the perception of a conversation as an intergroup encounter.
        1. Collective cultural context.
          1. The we-centered focus of collectivism emphasizes similarity and mutual concern within the culture—definitely oriented toward social identity.
          2. The I-centered focus of individualistic cultures valorizes the individual actor—definitely oriented toward individual identity.
        2. If previous interactions were uncomfortable, competitive, or hostile, both interactants will tend to ascribe that outcome to the other person’s social identity.
        3. The more specific and negative stereotypes people have of an out-group, the more likely they are to think of the other in terms of social identity and then resort to divergent communication.
        4. Expectations of group norms can affect whether a member of one group regards a person from another group as an individual or as “one of them.”
        5. High group solidarity and high group dependence would predict that we have initial intergroup orientation.
    5. No single factor determines a person’s initial orientation, yet if all five factors line up in the direction of social identity, they make it almost certain that a communicator will approach it as an intergroup encounter.
  4. Recipient evaluation of convergence and divergence.
    1. People converge when they want social approval and diverge when they want to emphasize their distinctiveness.
    2. Giles and his colleagues still believe that listeners regard convergence as positive and divergence as negative.
    3. Convergent speakers are evaluated as more competent, attractive, warm, and cooperative compared to divergent communicators who are seen as insulting, impolite, and hostile.
    4. What is ultimately important is how the communicator is perceived.
      1. Objective versus subjective accommodation.
        1. A disconnect may exist between what is actually happening and what a listener perceives is happening.
        2. Speakers who converge may also misperceive the other’s style.
      2. Attribution theory.
        1. Heider and Kelley suggest that we attribute an internal disposition to the behavior we see another enact.
        2. Our default assumption is that people who do things like that are like that.
        3. Listeners’ evaluation is based on the other’s ability, external constraints, and expended effort.
        4. Overall, listeners who interpret convergence as a speaker’s desire to break down cultural barriers react quite favorably.
    5. The interpersonal tension created by divergence or maintenance can certainly block the formation of intergroup or intercultural relationships and understanding.
    6. But the upside for the communicator is the reaffirmed social identity and solidarity that comes from enacting a divergent strategy.
  5. Applying CAT to police officer-citizen interaction.
    1. CAT can be applied to any intercultural or intergroup situation where the differences between people are apparent and significant.
    2. Giles has employed CAT to analyze routine traffic stops for issues of accommodation and race.
    3. The goal of one CAT study was “to move beyond casual assumptions to systematically investigate the extent to which the race of interactants might influence the nature of police–civilian communication.”
  6. Critique: Enormous scope at the cost of clarity.
    1. CAT not only describes communication behavior, it explains why it happens.
    2. The theory has consistently predicted what will happen in specific situations.
    3. CAT is an extraordinarily complex theory presented in multiple versions that are sometimes offered simultaneously.
    4. The structure and underlying terminology are not always represented consistently with even the meaning of “accommodation” slippery.
    5. The complexity problem spills over into the possibility of being able to demonstrate that the theory is false.
    6. Tests of the theory have admirably used a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods.
    7. The theory provides practical insight into many situations where people from different groups or cultures come into contact.


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