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
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
“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.”