The Daily Tar Heel

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Monday January 30th

Accents: a subtle form of ?attery

Sometimes I have a very Southern accent. Other times, it’s practically undetectable. And really it just depends on where I am and who I’m talking to.

But it doesn’t stop at minor alterations in dialect, and it’s not only me. We all change various things about ourselves to adapt to a slew of very different social contexts.

In essence, we’re adapting ourselves to please whomever we happen to be talking to. And while some remain critical of this social morphing, I think it’s a skill we need to welcome — at least as far as our verbalization.

These automatic, unconscious shifts in language are evident in how we alter our vocabularies when speaking to children. And generally, the way you speak to friends at a party is not the same as the way you speak to a professor at office hours.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is known for delivering speeches in the accent of his audience — so much so that the accent he took on in some of his 1980s speeches bore no resemblance to his recent ones.

Social psychologists title this copycat nature “the chameleon effect” and insist that it happens naturally and frequently because we feel a rapport with people who mimic not only our accents, but also our moves.

While on the P2P the other day, my casual conversation with the person next to me was interrupted with a phone call. She quickly switched over to a Jersey accent for that conversation, and then back to her neutral Chapel Hill tongue after it ended. Comforting the caller in her native accent was probably all that caller really needed. Her mimicry was unconscious, unnoticed and harmless.

It would typically be in our best interests to have pleasant relations with those around us. And if slight alterations in speech patterns can help, then why not use them?

Therapists, salespeople and tons of other professionals are sometimes advised to use mimicry to help build relations with others. Imitating vocabulary, speech, rhythm, accents, posture and gestures can help ease communication.

This chameleon effect reaches farther than just regional accents. New York University psychology professors Tanya Chartrand and John Bargh had college students discuss pictures with researchers. The experimenters were neutral and relaxed with half of the students. With the other half, experimenters mimicked their movements, posture and mannerisms.

Afterward, imitated students reported that their experimenters were more likable and that they had smoother interactions with these researchers.

Keeping that in mind, at an interview with Goldman Sachs for a summer internship, it would probably be wise to leave the “y’alls” and the twang behind. Not because a Southern dialect is anything to be embarrassed about, but instead because mimicry is one of the best forms of flattery, and it’s doubtful that the interviewer will be speaking “Southern.”

In the end, the bulk of communication isn’t how we’re saying it — it’s what we’re saying. And if altering an accent helps get my point across, so be it.

Hinson Neville is a columnist from The Daily Tar Heel. He is a freshman business major from Roanoke Rapids. Contact him at

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