Ever been talking to a friend or colleague from Texas and realized you’ve suddenly picked up their twang?
Don’t feel bad, linguists say. Lots of us unintentionally pick up other people’s accents. Even Oprah’s been called out for copying the way her guests’ speak.
“There was an Oprah show where she had mimicked a Southern accent and somebody took offense so they went back and combed through the archives and basically she does it all the time,” says Arika Okrent, a Philadelphia-based linguistics expert and author of “In the Land of Invented Languages.” “When she’s talking to her guests, she’ll mimic the accent back to them.”
Okrent says copying or mirroring people’s accents – or body posture or behavior – is a natural human trait, prevalent in some people more than others.
“There have been studies that show it’s sort of social greasing,” she says. “It’s like greasing the social wheels.”
Which ain’t such a bad thing and can actually be quite beneficial, you hear?
Studies suggest mimicry increases empathy, liking and rapport. One recent study even found “participants who had been mimicked were more helpful and generous toward other people than were non-mimicked participants.”
Mirror your date and you’ll come off as more attractive (although picking up their Brooklyn accent if you’re from Nebraska may get you kicked to the curb). Copy a business associate’s mannerisms and you may just be able to negotiate a better deal. Verbally mimic the way a customer talks (and the exact phrases they use) and you’ll likely get a bigger tip.
While researchers believe most mimicry is automatic — mirror neurons may have something to do with it — Okrent says some people do it consciously.
Remember when Detroit native Madonna put on a fake British accent while she was married to director Guy Ritchie? Now that she’s back in N.Y. the phony posh has gone the way of her marriage.
Politicians often assume accents to “signal that they’re in your social group,” says Okrent.
“When [Bill] Clinton was in Arkansas, he would adjust his speech and [George] Bush did this all the time to signal his Texas-ness. Although I’m sure at those Skull and Bones reunions, his speech would change.”
Of course, there are limits to the effectiveness of mirroring accents.
“No one’s going to believe Sarah Palin adapting an upper eastside or New York accent,” says Okrent. “It would backfire.”
Are you an accent mimic? What’s the strangest accent you’ve ever copied?