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August 5, 2002

Pair keeps ears open for vocal accomodation

By Rachel Robertson

Sometimes, when two people are speaking to each other, an interesting phenomenon will occur: One person’s vocal characteristics will change to sound more like his or her conversational partner.

Hearing a strong southern drawl, for example, might bring out vowel sounds in listeners’ speech that they don’t normally use. This is called “vocal accommodation,” and it’s something women tend to do more than men (though both men and women are more likely to accommodate to male speakers than female speaker).

These gender differences in accommodation caught the attention of Laura Namy and Lynne Nygaard, even though the question was outside either professor’s normal research interests. A combination of friendship and opportunity led them to pursue the factors that contribute to this phenomenon, as well as its apparent gender differences.

Namy, assistant professor of psychology, researches language development and learning in children. Nygaard, associate professor of psychology, focuses on speech perception. However, when psychology student Denise Sauerteig approached each of them independently about pursuing an honor’s project in social psychology and communication, they collaborated to come up with a project for her.

“We have this file drawer of ideas that are an intersection of things both of us are interested in,” Namy explained. The ideas have been generated through their frequent communication as friends and colleagues. So, when Sauerteig needed a project, they capitalized on the opportunity and found something that was interesting to all of them.

The particular question they decided to pursue stemmed from some research by Nygaard and her graduate student, Jennifer Queen. In a voice identification study, they found differences in the ability of male and female listeners to identify voices.

“What we found,” Nygaard said, “was that female listeners identified both male and female speakers quite well … but male listeners identified male speakers better than female speakers.”

She and Namy thought this could explain the gender differences in vocal accommodation. A better ability to perceive vocal styles could explain why women are more likely than men to accommodate to a conversational partner.

However, most of the existing research in this area attributed the differences to social affiliation motives. One theory asserts that the goal of vocal accommodation is to gain social approval and acceptance, and that women may be more motivated to achieve this by “adapting” more to their conversational partners.

So, with Sauerteig, they set out to create a situation where social factors would play a minimal role. In Namy and Nygaard’s study, they recorded a group of male and female students reading a list of words. This provided a baseline of their natural speaking patterns.

Next, study participants listened over headphones to recorded voices and were asked to
“shadow” or immediately repeat the word the speaker said. The recorded voices were two males and two females who read the same list as the participants. A third group then judged whether the shadowers had accommodated their speech to the recorded speakers.

“What we found was that people reliably detected that accommodation had occurred,” Namy said. “So listeners were able to tell when the shadower was repeating what the speaker was saying and when the shadower was just speaking.

“But there were gender effects,” she continued. “The listeners perceived more accommodation from female shadowers than from male shadowers and there was more accommodation overall to the male speakers.”

Thus, even in an impoverished social situation where listeners were not interacting with a person at all but simply repeating words they had heard over headphones, the gender differences in accommodation were still apparent. This finding reduces the strength of an account based on in-the-moment social motives, since there was very little social interaction during the shadowers’ task.

Although they have put forth a perceptual account in a paper that will appear in The Journal of Language and Social Psychology and that challenges earlier social-affiliation motive theories, they do not discount the influence of socialization in the process. They recognize that the differences in socialization for girls and boys could encourage females to be more aware of and sensitive to speaking styles.

“The history of particular persons and their perceptual experiences,” Nygaard said, “can tune their perceptual mechanisms to be more or less sensitive, and there may be social and other factors that cause certain groups to become more sensitive.”