This post was written by Claire Schofield, who is a Senior Project Account Manager at Global Lingo.

‘By ’eck – it’s Prince Charles!’

We all find ourselves doing this at times – adopting a more or less formal tone of voice for some purpose.

Naturally, as sociable humans, we will adapt our tone of voice to suit a certain situation, for example, when speaking with a new client over the phone, we will adopt our ‘phone voice’ – a sign of formality and politeness. The voice we adopt here is likely to be more ‘well spoken’ than our usual accent if we have one, after all, our voice is how we are solely judged in this situation.

We will continue conversing in this way until we have established how formal we need to be, or how informal we can be.

Linguistic Divergence

However, we can also use our accents to distance ourselves from our conversation partner, a linguistic tool we refer to as Linguistic Divergence.

Take this example – if an Anti-Royalist met with Prince Charles, he/she could distance him/herself from him by strengthening their dialect and speech patterns, so that the audible difference between the well spoken Prince Charles and themselves is more evident – making them seem worlds apart, and not able to cooperate.

Linguistic Convergence

Likewise, a tool useful particularly for members of the Police force (for example), is Linguistic Convergence – entirely the opposite of the example above. When attempting to build relationships with potentially disruptive members of the public in potentially threatening or dangerous environments, a Police Officer can partially adopt the same level of local accent, grammar, tone of voice etc. as the member of public.

It’s a method that will mostly be carried out subconsciously when the desire to cooperate is genuine, but cannot be overdone, as this will have the effect of mocking or patronising the conversation partner, and have the opposite of the desired effect. If done effectively, Linguistic Convergence simply makes the two participants more alike in their behaviour, and more likely to cooperate.

Essential tools for life

Linguistic Convergence and Divergence are essential tools for us to apply in our business liaisons. Whether we use our ‘phone voice’ for an initial conversation, or adopt elements of speech style from our client in a face-to-face meeting, these are tools that cannot be underestimated.

Further reading

This is just the tip of the iceberg of a really fascinating and useful area of linguistics, as it highlights how we can use our own accent and speech to various social effects. Further reading on Communication Accommodation Theory (1971, Howard Giles) explores in depth the reasons and methods we make use of this invaluable linguistic tool.