Communication Accommodation Theory

People were always interested in the essence of human relations and some rules that would allowed them to use communication for their purposes, achieve success, for example. The scientists worked out many theories of communication that explore different aspects of this process.

One of the communication theories that explore the aspects of interpersonal communication is the Communication Accommodation Theory. This paper is devoted to the analysis of this theory that presupposes the exploration of its background, theoretical and practical application and interpretation.

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According to Em Griffin (2009), Communication Accommodation Theory is interpreted as follows:

“People in intercultural encounters who see themselves as unique individuals will adjust their speech style and content to mesh with others whose approval they seek. People who want to reinforce a strong group identification will interact with those outside the group in a way that accentuates their differences. (Socio-psychological tradition).”

It is one of the key communication theories that described the peculiarities of human intercultural communication.

The theory deals with the intercultural communication. It suggests that when we talk to people from other country and culture, we try to accommodate our speech style so that it matched the expectations of the other person. Moreover, we tent to change our behavior, diction and even tone of the voice. All these changes happen at the subconscious level (Britton, 2010).

This theory is widely used in different spheres of people’s activity. It does not mean that we change out communication style only when we talk to people from cultures different from our own. Each time we talk to other person, we try to find a balance between his/her conversational style and our style. It helps us enhance conversation and maintain communication.

Briefly, it is our subconscious desire for socialization. The theory has been applied to different studies. It was studied in medical communication (Linell, Streel, Ferrara, 1991), mass media (Bell, 1991), in psychology of family communication and in professional communication, “it has been supported by research from diverse authors” (West and Turner, 2004).

The theory is based on two polar processes: convergence (“a strategy whereby individuals adapt to each other’s communicative behaviors in terms of a wide range of linguistic/prosodic/nonvocal features including speech rate, pausal phenomena and utterance length, phonological variants, smiling, gaze, and so on” (Giles and Coupland, 1991)) and divergence (“the way in which speakers accentuate speech and nonverbal differences between themselves and others” (Giles and Coupland, 1991)). It means that communicators are motivated by particular circumstances.

The communication accommodation theory was described by Howard Giles and Nikolas Coupland in their book Language: Contexts and Consequences (1991). However, the development of this theory started in 1970s, previously, the theory was developed as speech accommodation theory and dealt with the linguistics, “Street and Giles (1982) put this theory in propositional form for the first time, although precursors to this had already appeared in the parallel-evolving ethnolinguistic identity theory” (Gudykunst, 2005).

The speech communication theory was aimed at describing changes in speech and language styles in social communication and the results of these changes. Later on, the question of motivation and nonverbal behavior were included. It was a contribution of the attribution theory that “suggested that we explain and appreciate people’s behavior in terms of the motifs and intentions that we think caused it” (Gudykunst, 2005).

Today, we know the speech accommodation theory (which was incorporated with some satellite theories) as communication accommodation theory. It has two functions: cognitive which presupposes a cognitive organization of communication (facilitating comprehension between speaker and listener) and affective (the speaker tends to be more similar or different to the listener).

According to Gudykunst (2005), there are two major types of accommodation that were described by Thakerar: linguistic and psychological. Linguistic accommodation presupposes the changes in the speech behavior and psychological accommodation deals with the speaker’s motivation and intentions to maintain the conversation among communicators. Thus, Giles and Coupland (1991) describe their theory as:

“robust paradigm in the particular sense that it able to attend to (1) social consequences (attitudinal, attributional, behavior, and communicative), (2) ideological and macro-societal factors, (3) intergroup variables and processes, (4) discursive practices in naturalistic settings, and (5) individual life span and group-language shifts”.

The authors emphasize that the theory has a “truly sociopsycological core”. We can sum up that the communication accommodation theory helps us understand the ways people communicate and what factors motivate people to accommodate their verbal and non-verbal behavior and communicate the way people do it.

As it has already been mentioned, the communication adaptation theory was used as a framework by many researches in field of media, psychology and intercultural relations. The authors of the following articles have used the accommodation theory approach in order to build their researches.

In research article by Ayoko, O., Hartel, C., & Callan, V. (2002), the authors apply the accommodation theory approach in order to explain productive and destructive conflicts that may appear I heterogeneous work grounds. The authors claim that types and courses of conflict in heterogeneous work grounds depend on the communicative behavior and strategies that every member of the group adopts when interacting with other members of the group.

The assumption is based on the communication adaptation theory. According to Ayoko et all. (2002), culturally heterogeneous groups experience more communication problems because of the diverse workgroup experience. It results in less trust to each other, dissatisfaction with job, more stressful situations, etc.

The communication adaptation theory explores motivation, personal attitudes and deals with the communication strategies. It suggests that people enter into interaction with personal and, at the same time, group goals. Consequently, the theory can help explain inclusion and exclusion behavior in the communication patterns within culturally diverse groups.

Application of the accommodation theory allowed defining the types of conflicts, their characteristics, frequency, duration and intensity. The study showed that, “communication breakdown in intercultural breakdowns results when an individual breaks a formal rule for another culture and other interactants judging that the individual had broken the rule deliberately and maliciously” (Ayoko et all, 2002).

The study suggests that groups that have leaders who can reverse communication have less breakdowns in their communication and perform better achieving better group task outcomes. The accommodation theory can also be applied in order to describe the aspects of the accommodation in public relations.

Cancel, A., Cameron, G., Sallot, L., and Mitrook, M. (1997) argue that successful public relations depend on the degree of accommodation undertaken by public relations practitioners. The authors suggest that accommodation approach to intercultural public relations gives an opportunity to work out the most success ways of organization of these relations and “effectively illustrates the fluidity with which organizational stance decisions and public relations strategy decisions are made and change over time.” (Gregory et all, 1996).

The communication accommodation theory can be applied to the decision-making process in intercultural group communication. As research by Aritz, J., and Walker, R. (2010), provides a perspective on the role of culture as a core issue in the international management and intercultural communication practices in “intercultural decision-making meetings”.

The authors use the adaptation theory as a basis for explanation of the role of differences in conversational styles and how they can contribute to group decision making process. In grooving global economy, the work of multicultural teams has a great significance for the success of the group performance.

The adaptation theory makes it possible to study of the cultural diversity in the group and find decisions for the preventing possible communication problems that can result in relational conflicts and “low team identity” (Aritz et all, 2010) that can have a destructive impact on team’s effective performance. In addition, such approach allowed scholars to apply “interactions studies” in order to better analyze how cultural differences may affect organization practices (Aritz et all, 2010).

The communication adaptation theory focuses on the lingvopsycological characteristics of intercultural communication, however, one of its domains is nonverbal communications accommodation.

The work by Gregory Jr., S., and Webster, S. (1996) explores the role of nonverbal signal in voices in order to explain how those signals can help in prediction of communication accommodation and defining social status of communicators. The basis for this work is the Howard Giles’s theories of speech convergence and accommodation. The study has shown that lower status partners lower their voices and change their behavior in order to accommodate their speech styles to higher status partners.

The theory presents a connection between the “speech attributes and power or social status relations” (Gregory and Webster, 1996). The authors assume that voice correlations depend not only on the social status of both communicators, but on the difference in their statuses. These correlations are characterized by actual and pseudo matches in social statuses of communicators.

Finally, as it has already been mentioned in previous paragraphs, the communication adaptation theory covers different aspects of human life. Its principles were effectively used by Baker, M. (1991) in order to provide a model for reducing gender bias in management communication. The study of the other is based on the exploration of empowering communication strategies that can help women achieve “influential positions in management” (Baker, 1991).

The author used the linguistic approach to the speech behavior adopted from the accommodation theory in order to explain the differences between two differing language groups and how these groups can achieve mutually satisfactory interaction to implement common goals and work out successive strategies. The author explores the differences in male and female group interactions and provides a linguistic analysis of the male and female communication.

Thus, analyzing the communication adaptation theory, we can come to a conclusion that all authors mentioned above addressed the original theory and used some of its principles in order to build their researches. The basic principles that were used include the convergence and divergence in communication, intercultural approach to interaction and exploration of human behavior including non-verbal communication, such us change in voice correlation and speech style.

The researchers agree with the Giles’ findings because they helped in building their own approaches to the problems explored. However, some scientists do not agree with certain positions of the communication adaptation theory. As West and Turner (2004) state in their book, “the strengths of the theory may be quite significant because the theory has elicited little scholarly criticism”.

Such scientists as Judee Burgoon, Leesa Dillman, and Lesa Stern (1995) that explored the question of adequacy of the convergence and divergence in the adaptation theory, assume that, “complete convergence and divergence is not always desirable… There is a potential for too much or too little convergence that may lead to a negative evaluation” (Burgoon, Stern, and Dillman, 1995).

So, people’s accommodation cannot be explained with the help of only those two processes. However, Giles theory broadened the scientists’ understanding of people’s behavior: why in some situations people are trying to adapt to each other and in some situations people ignore adaptation.

Thus, it is a positive theory and it falls under two traditions of communication theories: socio-psychological and socio-cultural. It describes human behavior in different situations and explores such issues of cultural communication as conflict, alienation, rules culture and identity.

Using Chaffee and Berger criteria for evaluation a theory, we can say that it is communication theory as it can be easily understood and it provides a “profound explanation for the phenomenon it was constructed to explain” (Chaffee, and Berger, 1987), next, the theory is able to prevent outcomes of a particular situation, it is certainly valid as it was used to construct other researches.

Moreover, the theory is contradict itself and logically consistent and it functions as a framework for the understanding of the already discovered knowledge about intercultural communication. (Chaffee, and Berger, 1987)

So, I believe that this theory is very useful for understanding of the peculiarities of the intercultural communication and people’s behavior in various situations. As we have discovered, it was used by many scientists for their researches in different fields of science, thus, we cannot underestimate the meaning of the theory for exploration of communication.

The communication adaptation theory explores the role of communication in our life. It sheds light on how people adapt to different situations and why conversation can be successful or why people can ignore adaptation strategies during their conversation.

References List

Aritz, J., & Walker, R. (2010). COGNITIVE ORGANIZATION AND IDENTITY MAINTENANCE IN MULTICULTURAL TEAMS. Journal of Business Communication, 47(1), 20-41. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.

Ayoko, O., Hartel, C., & Callan, V. (2002). RESOLVING THE PUZZLE OF PRODUCTIVE AND DESTRUCTIVE CONFLICT IN CULTURALLY HETEROGENEOUS WORKGROUPS: A COMMUNICATION ACCOMMODATION THEORY APPROACH. International Journal of Conflict Management (1997-2002), 13(2), 165. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.

Baker, M. (1991). Reciprocal Accommodation: A Model for Reducing Gender Bias in Managerial Communication. Journal of Business Communication, 28(2), 113-130. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.

Britton, J. (2010). Communication Accomodation. Theories Articles. Retrieved from http://www.theories.com/index.php/Communication-Accomodation.html

Burgoon, J. K., Stern, L. A., and Dillman, L. (1995). Interpersonal Adaptation: Dyadic Interaction Patterns. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cancel, A., Cameron, G., Sallot, L., & Mitrook, M. (1997). It Depends: A Contingency Theory of Accommodation in Public Relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 9(1), 31-63. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.

Chaffee, S. H., & Berger, C.R. (1987). What Communication Scientists Do. In C. R. Berger, & S. H. Chaffee (Eds.), Handbook of Communication Science (pp. 99-122). Sage: Newbury Park, CA.

Giles, H., Coupland, J., and Coupland, N. (1991). Contexts of Accommodation: Developments in Applied Sociolinguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gregory Jr., S., & Webster, S. (1996). A Nonverbal Signal in Voices of Interview Partners Effectively Predicts Communication Accommodation and Social Status Perceptions. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 70(6), 1231-1240. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.

Gudykunst, W. B. (2005). Theorizing about Intercultural Communication. London: SAGE.

West, R., and Turner L. H. (2004). Communication Accommodation Theory. Introducind Communication Theory: Analysis and Interpretation.. Retrieved from http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0767430344/student_view0/chapter29/

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