16th June 2021
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Accidental Accents: The Chameleon Effect

chameleon effect
By Anna Tompkins

Have you ever noticed someone you know speaking with an accent that isn’t theirs? I don’t mean doing an impersonation, but overhearing your very Southern friend sounding suddenly very French-Canadian when she’s talking with the circus folks; then when you ask her about it she claims to not have realized and fervently denies cultural misappropriation?

Well, that friend is me and that thing is called the Chameleon Effect.

I still remember, very distinctly and with a touch of embarrassment, a situation about 10 years ago, when I really noticed that this was a thing.

I was working with a cast of about 15 people, mostly from Australia. While I had only been with the team a few days, apparently that was enough time for my brain to decide that I needed to blend in…

It was after a long day of rehearsals, we were all getting on pretty well and a group of us had retreated to one of the dancer’s hotel room to play cards and chat. Things were going swimmingly and I was inwardly praising my recent success and confidence in social interaction when another cast member walked in. I hadn’t met this person yet, so we were introduced and exchanged pleasantries, when she gleefully asked — “Are you from Perth?!” — I tilted my head a bit, looked at her funny and said — “No, I’m from Florida.” [yes, I will admit to being a Florida woman and all of the connotations that that information entails]

The undisguised looks of shock, confusion and actual disgust around the room where enough to make my, then, very introverted and quiet self, want to shrink back into my shell with shame.

“What the hell, what’s that about? You don’t sound American!”

“Yeah, why’re you trying to sound like us?!”

“It’s kind of rude.”

They went on with the interrogation for a bit displaying various demanding looks of outrage. I was initially dumbfounded; not only at the situation, but with the way it was received.

“Wait, no! I didn’t realize that I was doing that! I’m not trying to be a jerk or anything, it just sort of happened. I’m sorry!” All the while, not sure if I should be, or even was, sounding southern. Then I was saved by an aerialist.

“It’s okay. This happens to me a lot, it’s just your subconscious mimicking your surroundings. I think it’s a survival mechanism or something, it’s totally fine.” She smiled reassuringly at me. “Besides, you sounded pretty good so I guess we should be proud of you.”

After a brief interlude of awkwardness, this explanation seemed to work on the pack Aussies and I was joyfully accepted into the fold as their new acolyte. We theater-ed on, merrily ever after, for the next 6 months of that contract, exchanging an assortment of knowledge over beverages, grilled cheese with Vegemite, and classic Australian idioms that made absolutely no sense to me at the time, yet still attempted to emulate for the greater understanding of humanity.


So, whatever it was, it worked right? But is this really a thing that people know about? Turns out, yes it is and it’s something that’s intrigued me for many years as I have observed it not only in myself, but in rare instances, others as well. I would guess that anyone who has worked in a multicultural environment, like on a cruise ship or touring show, has probably experienced this in some way, as they are melting pots for nationalities and dialects.

After a brief bit of research, I discovered a 1999 meta-study published by The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology [see below], where The Chameleon Effect refers to “…nonconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, facial expressions, and other behaviors of one’s interaction partners, such that one’s behavior passively and unintentionally changes to match that of others in one’s current social environment.”

Read here.

Now, while I couldn’t find in this meta-study a reference to accents specifically, as it seems that all of the participants were likely from the same regions respectively, I would postulate that it is very likely that the behavior and mannerisms affected would be those that are most obviously different. So in a multicultural group sharing a common language, that would be intonation, syntax and speech pattern. Accents.

To be clear, none of this should be confused with Foreign Accent Syndrome, which is a legitimate medical condition and a huge rabbit hole all on its own. Nor should it be confused for the ‘fake accent’ used by impersonators whose obvious goal is to intentionally sound a different way. The Chameleon Effect is a natural human response to the need for adaptation and the desire to belong, not to stick out like a sore thumb.

It seemed that mimicry was a way for individuals to create rapports and increase likability and smoothness of social interactions. And if you are an outsider in a new world, fitting in and getting along no doubt are crucial aspects to your survival in the new environment.

In the studies, the Chameleon Effect was only effective when the subjects had no obvious goal in mind; when it was truly a subconscious reaction and not something based on stereotypes. However, when the mirroring of behavior was forced, it was typically received with negative reactions. Like you showing up in Montego Bay and saying — “Ya mon, mi irie.” — right as you walk off the boat and are very clearly not Jamaican. No, you sound ridiculous and have just announced yourself as an outsider.

The weird truth is, I’m actually terrible with accents — at least those that I’m not actively listening to. There have been several instances when folks have asked me to do a British accent, (which we all know is a can of worms regardless of one’s skills), and what pops out is typically a hodgepodge string of random Commonwealth sounds and colloquialisms that have no correlation to one another; resulting in me embarrassing myself and my country. Though somehow when I’m traveling, I end up sounding accidentally very native and not at all like a tourist; and while it’s not something that do on purpose, I have learned to recognize it and it’s possible advantages.

It could be that this attribute has helped me communicate ideas and concepts with people from all over the world. I noticed that my tones and speech patterns have a particular plasticity depending on the group I am with. It has been brought to my attention by friends and colleagues alike. When I am speaking with those who struggle with English, I speak in a slow, neutral tone, use hand gestures and easy to interpret facial expressions. When I’m with all those French-Canadians, I become rather Québécois. And when I’m at the pub with the nerds discussing astrophysics and the meaning of life, my vocabulary exponentially increases relative to my twang and gesticulations (different depending on the dominant group accent).

I posit that this has helped me to acclimate to new situations, to fly slightly under the radar and make others a bit more at ease as I respectfully displaying a unique aspect of understanding and empathy with those around me, though in a rather unusual manner. Just a guess. Further observation is required.

So, has this ever happened to you? Have you ever found yourself in a group of people and realized that you don’t exactly sound like you used to? Have you returned home recently and got stopped at customs for a second time because you sound overly Italian? Have discovered that you are using phrases that no one recognizes?

Perhaps in your wanderings you’ll notice the perception – behavior link is actually a thing that helps individuals blend with the herd. Or perhaps this is all in my head and just a symptom of being from Florida as so many things are.

Talk amongst yourselves.

Also by Anna Tompkins:

Thank You Letter: Looking Towards 2021

A Technician’s Purchasing Experience

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