Communication accommodation theory (CAT) is a communication theory that provides a framework for explaining and predicting how individuals change the ways they communicate to create, maintain, or decrease social distance (Dragojevic et al., 2015).
Communication accommodation theory, as the name suggests, explores how we accommodate our communication (Giles & Ogay, 2007, p. 293).
As a theoretical approach, it has several strengths. These include:
- The explanatory power of communication accommodation theory,
- The fact that its four main assumptions are fairly plausible, and
- Its many practical applications.
Communication accommodation theory also has several critics. These critics often point out the reductionistic nature of the theory, its incompleteness, its fixation on rational communication, and so on.
In this article, we will first define what communication accommodation theory is and then discuss its strengths and criticisms.
Definition of Communication Accommodation Theory
Communication accommodation theory is a theory of communication that attempts to explain and predict how people adjust (accommodate) their style of verbal and non-verbal communication in relation to one another (Gudykunst, 2005, pp. 121-148).
The theory was first developed by British-American social psychologist Howard Giles.
Here are two ways it explains communication:
- Divergence: Attuning one’s speech style to that of others helps the communicator gain approval from the receiver(s) and improves the effectiveness of communication for both parties (Infante et al., 2009).
- Convergence: Conversely, deliberately adopting a contrasting communication style can create distance between the senders and the receivers.
The main focus of communication accommodation theorists is the “patterns of convergence and divergence of communication behaviors, particularly as they relate to people’s goals for social approval, communication efficiency, and identity” (Gallois & Giles, 2015). So what do “convergence” and “divergence” mean?
Convergence refers to how individuals attune their style of communication to reduce differences between them and the people they’re communicating with (Giles et al., 1991, pp. 1-68).
For example, I might try to attune my speech patterns and use the words my friends often use when I speak with them.
Divergence is the opposite of convergence. It refers to how individuals change their style of communication to heighten the differences between themselves and the people they’re communicating with (Giles et al., 1991, pp. 1-68).
As we will see later, this division of communication style shifts into two categories that can be criticized as reductionist.
Four Principles of Communication Accommodation Theory
According to Howard Giles and Tania Ogay (2007, p. 294), communication accommodation theory has four basic principles:
- The importance of the socio-historical context,
- Negotiation of social category memberships,
- Expectations regarding levels of accommodation, and
- The use of specific communication strategies to signal attitudes.
Below is a definition of each of these principles in turn.
1. First Principle
The first principle states that not only are the features of the situation important for the accommodation of communication styles but that the socio-historical context in which communication takes place is also important.
Giles and Ogay (2007, p. 294) give the following example:
“an isolated encounter between any particular police officer and citizen could be marred by alleged and past hostile relations between other members of these two groups in the neighborhood…”
2. Second Principle
The second principle states that social category memberships can be negotiated during the communication process.
For example, when being asked about some aspects of American entertainment and media,
“[Howard Giles’] shift from a British into a more American dialect is meant to be far more telling than the overt answer provided. Being conveyed here is the feeling that he is no longer a recent immigrant to the United States, but now a fully fledged American citizen who has embraced many American ideals” (Giles & Ogay, 2007, p. 294).
3. Third Principle
The third principle states that message senders and receivers have expectations about the optimal levels of accommodation in a given interaction (Giles & Ogay, 2007, p. 294).
Stereotypes and social or situational norms usually dictate what is considered optimal.
4. Fourth Principle
The fourth and last principle states that people use specific communication strategies (for example, convergence or divergence) to signal their attitudes.
Social interactions thereby function as platforms for expressing the need for social inclusiveness on the one hand and the need for differentiation on the other.
According to Giles and Ogay, this was the principle that spawned the original empirical studies about communication accommodation theory.
Summary of the Four Principles
The principles above seem plausible, and they are backed by a large amount of empirical research. As a theoretical approach, communication accommodation theory attracts a lot of scholarly attention (Zhang & Giles, 2018).
From 1973 to 2010, Soliz and Giles (2014) examined 149 articles with quantitative data that used this theoretical framework. This alone is proof that CAT is a theoretically useful approach to understanding human communication, but there are many other strengths that this theory has.
Strengths of Communication Accommodation Theory
Besides being well-supported by empirical evidence, communication accommodation has several other important strengths in terms of both theory and practice.
- In terms of explanatory power, CAT is useful for understanding the motivations behind people’s actions and how people change their verbal and non-verbal communication patterns.
- In terms of predictive power, CAT can predict how people will change their communication styles based on what they want out of social interaction. It can also predict how people will try to lower or heighten the differences between them and those they’re communicating with.
- In terms of practice, CAT has been successfully applied in many disciplines, including medical and clinical fields, media studies, jobs and employment, and language learning (Giles et al., 1991, pp. 1-68).
Another important strength of CAT is that its assumptions are fairly plausible. According to Richard West and Lynn H. Turner (2013), CAT has four main assumptions:
- There are speech and behavioral similarities and dissimilarities in all conversations.
- The way we perceive the speech and behaviors of another determines our evaluation of the conversation.
- Language and behaviors can communicate social status and group belonging between people in a conversation.
- Norms guide the accommodation process, which varies in its degree of appropriateness.
These assumptions and the explanations given by CAT are hardly counter-intuitive, so the usual criticisms focus on other aspects of the theory.
Criticisms of Communication Accommodation Theory
Several criticisms can be leveled against CAT. The most obvious of these is the idea that conversations are far more complex than the simple binary of convergence/divergence would suggest.
How would CAT explain an instance where, for example, the communicators use both strategies simultaneously? In essence, this line of criticism accuses CAT of both reductionism and theoretical incompleteness.
Another criticism focuses on the idea that CAT assumes that all communication is rational.
The original theory views every message sender and receiver as a rational agent who calculates the costs and benefits of using convergence and divergence strategies in a conversation. In reality, however, not all conversations are like this.
These criticisms don’t give us sufficient reason to reject CAT in total. Rather, they may be essential for further developing the theory.
Communication accommodation theory is concerned with how we try to accommodate or distance our verbal or non-verbal communication styles when we interact with others. The theory concerns two components of communication: “(1) the behavioral changes that people make to attune their communication to their partner, (2) the extent to which people perceive their partner as appropriately attuning to them” (Shehan, 2016). Despite the criticisms leveled against it, communication accommodation theory still provides a promising and useful framework for explaining and predicting some aspects of communication.
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West, R., & Turner, L. (2013). Introducing Communication Theory: Analysis and Application (2013 Ed.). Books by Marquette University Faculty. https://epublications.marquette.edu/marq_fac-book/215 Zhang, Y. B., & Giles, H. (2018). Communication accommodation theory. In Y. Y. Kim (Ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Intercultural Communication (pp. 95-108). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118783665.ieicc0156