British conversation is changing: Why people speak more alike today


People in a corporate office sitting on tall stools at a high table discussing ideas

People from the corporate world and higher education sectors are increasingly adopting each other’s speech patterns to be more socially inclusive, according to new research published today by Lancaster University.

We may not always notice it, but we frequently imitate each other in conversation, using similar gestures, accents, and facial expressions. We also often re-use the words of the people we speak with.

Over time, this form of engagement, known as resonance, has increased mostly among people in higher social grades, including people in leading managerial positions in the corporate world, doctors, university lecturers and politicians, researchers have found.

The study, led by Dr Vittorio Tantucci, a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at Lancaster University, showed that over a 20-year period people from these sectors changed their behaviour - resonating with one another significantly more than they used to and gearing towards a more engaging style. We talk like others to be more inclusive and resonate’ with them.

This might, suggest the researchers, be due to the dramatic change in corporate communication and higher education in the 2000s, involving an institutional turn towards corporate social responsibility (CSR), and ideologies such as Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI).

“This plausibly affected not only the system of values of those communities but also their interactional behaviour, now increasingly geared towards overt acknowledgement of other people ’s talk,” said Dr Tantucci. “This increase is not found in workplaces where these ideologies are not institutionalised and routinely encouraged.”

The paper, ’, is published in the Applied Linguistics Journal today (June 25).

Researchers made the discovery after analysing resonance’ in natural and spontaneous conversations among British speakers in demographically sampled spoken sections of the British National Corpora BNC 1994 and the BNC 2014.

More than 1600 British English conversations were examined for the study.

The corpora are multi-million-word datasets of contemporary spoken British English developed at Lancaster University and the most recent/up-to-date data of its kind.

This paper centres on how interaction among certain classes of British speakers changed between 1994 and 2014.

Resonance is an important indicator of social inclusion because it shows, on a large scale, that what is said by the other speaker is treated relevant for the continuation of the ongoing conversation: when we resonate with someone, we make them feel heard’, a way to show that what they say is important to us.

It also found:

A significant change in the way British people structurally interact with one another and how this is reflected in different social groups.

British interaction appears to be geared towards an increasingly engaging style.

A consistent absence of resonance indicates interactional detachment’ and a marked lack of engagement (this is distinctive in Autism speech).

Social grades involving manual labour and communities excluded from CSR and higher education ideologies did not show a significant increase in how they resonate with the language of their peers.

People tend to engage with their peers especially when they (re)use their language and make it relevant for the continuation of the interaction.

“When words and expressions are creatively re-used in conversation, speakers are more engaged with each other's speech, showing a more inclusive stance towards what has just been said by the other party,” explains Dr Tantucci, who worked on the research with Dr Aiqing Wang, from the University of Liverpool.

“They make the other person's speech sound 'more important', just like a 'real-time citation'. This phenomenon C resonance - has become more prominent across higher social grades of British Society than in lower ones.

“This shows a significant change in how British people interact with one another and how this is reflected in different social classes.”

Dr Tantucci gives this example.

“If someone says to you February was our busiest month this year’ and you respond with Definitely’ the conversation isn’t very engaging at all. There is no resonance’ with the initial comment.

“If, instead, you responded with something like It was the busiest - even more hectic than January’ you would show interest in what the speaker actually said.

“You would re-use the words was’ and busiest,’ you would replace February’ with’ January’, and, again, busiest with more hectic’.

“That would be perceived as a stronger effort to show that what they said was important’ to you.

“This kind of linguistic effort is more distinctive of higher social classes today in Britain, especially ones that belong to the corporate and higher education sectors.”

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