Unconscious Accent Mimicry

Or, The Chameleon Effect

Julie Ballantyne Brown
Jan 27 · 4 min read
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Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Social media can be both a blessing and a curse, but for me, it’s mainly a way to keep in touch with people, especially those who I don’t get to see very often. In the past ten months of COVID, that’s almost everyone I know, so it has definitely come in handy. I learn new things all the time.

A few weeks ago, one of my cousins posted something about having accent mimicry and something clicked in my head. For many years, whenever I have been around someone with a different accent than me, I would subconsciously begin to pronounce words the way that they would. This also happens when I watch television or movies. As soon as I notice that I’m doing it, I have to make a conscious effort to stop and switch back to my normal Midwestern, mainly for fear of offending the person I’m speaking with or sounding foolish. That day, my cousin finally gave a name to something that I thought was just one of my many weird quirks.

I clearly remember the first time I noticed myself slipping into another accent. I had the good fortune to travel to Australia on international tour with a marching band when I was sixteen. Other than Canada, which is literally about 15 minutes from me, I had never been to a foreign country before and I loved everything about the experience. Well, not the giant cockroaches and mice in our dorm rooms, but pretty much everything else. I loved learning the different words that people used for things (tomato sauce = ketchup) and trying new foods. Except Vegemite. Most of all, I loved the way they spoke and I heard my own speech bending to the new patterns with no effort on my part at all. With my bandmates, I spoke my normal Midwestern, but my accent seemed to involuntarily twist when I was with Australian people.

We were in Australia for almost two weeks and then left for Hawaii. Arriving in Honolulu, speaking felt strange. The accents were different in Hawaii and I remember making myself try to sound “normal” again. Not that I was speaking in full-out Australian, or even good Australian, but I definitely pronounced words differently depending on who I was with. It’s not anything that I was trying to do, I would just slip into it and catch myself a few words in.

I didn’t think much about it, but I would occasionally slip into an accent at my job waiting tables. Again, not completely immersed in an accent like a native speaker, but picking up on nuances and patterns. Customers would ask me where I was from and I would tell them that I was an acting student (I was) practicing for class (I wasn’t) so that I wouldn’t seem weird. It just felt natural but I was, and am, also aware that most people don’t just start matching accents with someone else.

After a while, when I was trying to be more “normal”, I would force myself to stop, but the tug was still there. I didn’t cut it out entirely. I read books to my kids using different British accents, which they loved when they were little.

When I traveled to Ireland and the UK, I had to restrain myself. Going down South, it was always a challenge to not succumb to the drawl. It did come in handy in Italy, however, because I was learning the language. When speaking my very limited Italian, I felt free to let my inhibitions go on the accent and actually managed to make myself understood. Successfully asking for towels was never so rewarding.

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Photo by Oscar Nord on Unsplash

Science actually has a name for this: the Chameleon Effect. Besides accent adaptation, it can refer to mannerisms and behavior. There are theories as to why it happens. Some say that people with the Chameleon Effect have more empathy for others, some say it’s a survival instinct to fit in with those around. I actually started looking it up and was surprised to see just how much research has been done on this.

Is this harmful? I don’t think so. It’s good to know that I’m not the only person who does this and it can be kind of fun. It was also good to give it a name.

For further information, check out the following articles. on the topic.

https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/voices/culture/article/2016/11/03/why-youre-nicer-person-if-you-mimic-accents-subconsciously#:~:text=According%20to%20a%202010%20study,called%20%22the%20chameleon%20effect%22.&text=The%20study%20concluded%20subjects%20would,rather%20than%20use%20their%20own.

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1300949/You-subconsciously-try-mimic-accent-person-speaking-researchers-find.html

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Julie Ballantyne Brown

Written by

Future London resident. Follow Julie on Twitter: @BrownBallantyne or on FB and Instagram: @JulieBallantyneBrown

The Shadow

We publish inspiring stories about different topics for a productive and entertaining life

Julie Ballantyne Brown

Written by

Future London resident. Follow Julie on Twitter: @BrownBallantyne or on FB and Instagram: @JulieBallantyneBrown

The Shadow

We publish inspiring stories about different topics for a productive and entertaining life

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