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Lecture Notes for the course Seeing and Saying Things in English, convenor Patrick Boylan,
Faculty of the Humanities, University of Rome III, Rome, Italy

They have been published in a revised form as Accommodation Theory Revisited Again, in
Fatigante M., Mariottini L., Sciubba M.E. (Eds.),
Lingua e società. Rome, FrancoAngeli, 2009
(partially available on line here: www.tinyurl.com/boylan32-published).


Patrick Boylan

University of Rome III (Italy)

For the printable .doc version of these Lecture Notes, click here.


The term “accommodation,” introduced by Giles (1973) and developed by Giles and St. Clair (1979), indicates the move to make one's way of communicating converge with that of one's interlocutors: one tries to meet them on their expressive grounds by consciously or unconsciously adopting features of their pronunciation, turn-taking practices, topic conventions, etc.

According to Coupland et al. (1991), communication improves when at least one of the parties in a conversational dyad accommodates to the other, even minimally [1]. This improved relational state may be called entente [2].

These Lecture Notes, a reworking of a presentation given at the VI European Convention of the Association for Business Communication (Catholic University of Milan, 20-22 May, 2004), widen the notion of accommodation to include internalizing an interlocutor's (hypothesized) cultural world view or Weltanschauung. In this perspective, effective accommodation is not mere mimicry of one's interlocutors but rather identification with their way of “seeing and saying things.This wider perspective derives in turn from a new view of natural human languages, seen primarily as “volitional matrices” and only secondarily as “semiotic systems.” It is because language is primarily a volitional state (a “will to mean) that adopting an interlocutor's expressive traits in a way that produces entente requires, first of all, identifying with (introjecting) the existential values that inform their cultural meaning.

These Lecture Notes theorize the concept of optimal accommodation. Levels 3 or 4 on the Boylan Accommodation Scale (Appendix A), in fact, are not always preferable to Level 1. Moreover, accommodation is always local. This means that one should not try to converge toward an existential/behavioral model defined a priori as optimal for a given category of interlocutor, but rather toward the most favorable model in the mind of a specific interlocutor in a specific interaction conducted for a specific purpose. This model can be inferred, provisionally, from the interlocutor's value system and Weltanschauung, which one can grasp intuitively through empathetic questioning or hypothesize rationally through ethnographic inquiry. (A mix of both practices works best.)

Accommodation means “convergence” (originally speech convergence)

In their seminal work, Giles (1973) and Giles and St. Clair (1979) defined speech accommodation as the convergence of speakers' delivery features (see also Thakerar et al., 1982). These were, at first, purely linguistic features: pronunciation, intonation, dialect, register, etc.

For example, Coupland (1980) described how a shop assistant in a Cardiff travel agency instinctively varied her pronunciation to match that of her clients, some of whom spoke educated Standard English and some of whom spoke the local variety of English (diglossic switching):

Standard English
(high prestige)
spoken with the
R. P.
(Received Pronunciation)

Dialectal Variety
(low prestige)
spoken with the
Cardiffian accent

initial h pronounced
intervocalic /t/
velar /ŋ/

initial h dropped
intervocalic /δ/
alveolar /n/

What effect does accommodation produce? When it consists of diglossic convergence, as in the case just described, it obviously creates among the interactants a common linguistic identity (Schiffman, 1997) and thus affinity, one of the two discriminants of entente, according to the working hypothesis explained in Note 1. By adopting high prestige English to match that of her upper-class clients, the shop assistant presented herself as – and was undoubtedly perceived by them as – a fellow-member of the “educated class” in Britain. But convergence of delivery can be accomplished through less obvious means and so produce more subtle effects. Kelly and Toshiyuki (1993), simulating conditions of vocal convergence (accommodation) and divergence (non accommodation), found that their subjects had more positive feelings toward speakers whose voice volume was similar to their own. The subjects, undergraduate college students (n=286) half of whom were soft-voiced and half loud-voiced, listened to recordings of loud- and soft-voiced speakers while ticking a list of descriptive adjectives; most tended to describe voices with a volume similar to theirs (convergent delivery) as "credible," "sincere," etc. and voices of people who spoke more loudly or softly than they did (non-convergent delivery) as "unpleasant," "uninteresting," etc. In other words, accommodation seems to produce affective warmth, the other discriminant of entente.

An extension of the notion of accommodation

At the end of the 1980's, Coupland and Giles (1988) proposed substituting the notion of “speech accommodation” with that of "communication accommodation,” which includes non-verbal expressivity as well as psychological traits (Thakerar et al., 1982). These Lecture Notes refine the Communication Accommodation Theory they developed (henceforth, CAT) by distinguishing two Saussurian-like categories of convergence, each with corresponding subcategories:

  1. convergence of expression (i. e., convergence of the interactants' way of communicating, verbal or otherwise behavioral); this produces what will be called formal accommodation; and

  2. convergence of intentionality (i. e., convergence of the interactants' will to mean, deriving from their culturally-determined will to be); this produces what will be called substantial accommodation.

Convergence of expression

Expressive convergence may be divided into two subcategories:

To accommodate successfully, interactants do not have to adapt in all of these subcategories. Indeed, entente can be created (or at least attempted) by adapting in only a certain number of them and only minimally in each (Giles and Smith, 1979). Janicki (1986) compares this to tweaking the equalizer on one's stereo system: to create a sound more consonant with the setting and the kind of music to be heard, not all levers need to be moved and, usually, none to the maximum.

An example will clarify this concept. One area where one would expect to find a high degree of expressive accommodation is in giving street directions to non-native speakers; native speakers presumably try to adapt their language to that of their interlocutor (Ross and Shortreed, 1990: 135-136). To do so they should, in theory, modify their habitual delivery features (speed, emphasis, utterance length), functions (more instrumental, less interactional or personal), interpretive strategies (high frequency vocabulary, repetition, high explicitness), and so on – something akin to what language teachers try to do with students in difficulty [3].

In point of fact, phoneticians such as Smith (2007) and Scarborough et al. (2007) have found that, while people do indeed modify their speech when giving instructions to non-native speakers, they do not always do so optimally; in other words, effective Foreigner Talk is not easy to realize. For example, Smith's French native speakers used greater segmental emphasis and a greater F0 range in giving street directions to non-native speakers (i. e., they used the sing-song intonation that many adults adopt when speaking to little children), but they failed to modify their speech rate or utterance duration. The American native speakers studied by Scarborough et al. accommodated much less in giving street instructions to real life non-native speakers than they did when asked what they would say to an imaginary non-native speaker, thus suggesting that people think they accommodate more than they actually do in practice. On the other hand Terrell (1990), studying how poorly educated native speakers accommodate to a non-native, discovered cases of highly successful expressive accommodation. The delivery and functional features of Terrell's speakers converged very little, as in the cases mentioned previously; but their pragmatic convergence was extensive and this enabled them to establish a high degree of affinity and warmth with their non-native interlocutor. Instead of “keeping their distance” or being patronizing, as educated speakers tend to do, they “related” to their interlocutor as equals, thereby producing a feeling of (real or imagined) entente. Clearly, there is a lesson to be learned here.

To conclude, convergence of expression means, as in standard CAT, that "We and our interlocutor say things (to some degree) in the same way" since our communicative styles share important features. Note that this does not mean “We say the same things. One can disagree totally with an interlocutor and yet converge expressively with her/him in order to establish entente and thus be as persuasive as possible.

Conversion of expression produces purely formal accommodation or “mimicry” if it is unaccompanied by the effective internalization of an interlocutor's cultural value system (see “convergence of intentionality” ahead). When a Westerner bows low upon encountering Japanese interlocutors, without any knowledge of or feeling for the bowing ritual in Japanese culture but simply because s/he has seen Japanese people bow low in films, s/he is accommodating formally. Purely formal accommodation is obviously dangerous: one runs a high risk of seeming quaint at best, patronizing, ridiculous or even offensive at worse.

Convergence of intentionality

The present Lecture Notes add to traditional CAT the notion of “convergence of intentionality: one seeks to make one's implicit and professed values converge with those held by one's interlocutor(s). Note that “converge” does not mean “make equal” nor even necessarily “make similar”, but rather “make consonant”. When one accommodates one's intentionality, one plays in tune, not necessarily in unison nor even in harmony. Note, too, that convergence must be with an interlocutors' cultural values, i. e., those s/he shares with the other members of her/his speech community of reference and which define that community ethnographically. Optionally it can be with her/his idiosyncratic values – those specific to her/him. For convergence of intentionality requires sharing meanings and thus rules of language and of behavior (whether to observe them or to violate them). Such rules are necessarily cultural, not idiosyncratic, constructs.[4].

By intentionality is meant not just what an interactant wants to attain, but also how s/he wants to attain it, for what reasons, and so on. It can be divided into three subcategories, two conscious and one unconscious:

whether culturally-determined or idiosyncratic (Gudykunst, 1991).

There is also a third subcategory, root intentionality (the basic drives), that will be treated in a future paper.

Contingent intentionality derives, albeit not linearly, from a subject's constant intentionality. The latter, if known, makes a subject (to some extent) predictable. It is the constant value system that we manage to grasp when we feel we can claim to “truly know” an individual or “finally understand” a foreign culture.

Converging with an interlocutor's contingent goals is not always desirable – for example, in a zero-sum negotiation or in dealing with criminal suspects – and in any case can easily become “over accommodation” (it is what yes-men do). But it is always possible to converge intentionally with one's interlocutor by internalizing her/his constant value system and (re)interpreting it as circumstances dictate, i. e., in light of the specific (and even divergent) contingent goals to attain. Substantial accommodation may therefore be defined as convergence with an interlocutor's constant intentionality, in particular with the culturally-determined values underlying that intentionality, but not with an interlocutor's contingent intent nor even necessarily with the idiosyncratic values underlying her/his constant intentionality. Skillful diplomats manage just this feat; this enables them to “relate” to their counterpart's political or social cause without betraying their original mandate. (This distinction will be treated more fully further ahead.)

Three theses

The first thesis of extended Communication Accommodation Theory (henceforth, eCAT), as just outlined, is that effective communication – i. e., communication producing ententerequires substantial accommodation. At least one of the interactants in an encounter must “decenter” her/himself, modifying her/his cultural value system in order to share momentarily that of her/his interlocutor. This creates a common communicative terrain on which both can make themselves fully understood. Corollaries: (a.) In a negotiation, the communicative advantage – and thus the competitive advantage as well – belongs to the interlocutor who accepts to decenter her/himself. (b.) If both interlocutors accept to decenter themselves, they will form an intermediate Third Space, as theorized in Kelly et al. (2001), and this will facilitate win-win outcomes. (c.) If neither interlocutor does, the risk of misunderstandings – and of loose-loose outcomes – will be high.

The second thesis is that formal accommodation follows substantial accommodation automatically, at least to some extent, and need not be pursued as a goal in itself, provided one has a minimal knowledge of the major dos and don'ts in the host culture. In other words, interactants who manage to decenter themselves will spontaneously and instinctively converge pragmatically with their interlocutor's expressive style and, to some extent, with the more salient delivery, genre and functional features of that style as well. Corollary: If, to maximize one's communicative advantage, one decides to learn the language of prospective foreign interlocutors, one should, in any case, dedicate more time to learning intonation and phraseology than to learning pronunciation and grammar since, in creating entente, pragmatic convergence is generally much more effective than linguistic convergence – and more easily learned in a foreign language (when taught).

The third thesis, already mentioned, is that interactants who converge expressively with their interlocutors without first having converged intentionally with them, accommodate merely formally and risk appearing false. Corollaries: (a.) If an interactant is unable to converge intentionally with an interlocutor (due to, for example, insufficient preparation for the encounter and insufficient initial “familiarization time”), the best temporary option may be Level 0 (no accommodation – see Appendix A), save for a few token gestures to indicate good-will toward the interlocutor's culture. (b.) The recurrent inability of an interactant to converge intentionally with culturally-diverse interlocutors, in spite of adequate training and familiarization time, is usually due to dysfunctional identity defense mechanisms, often compounded by an incapacity to empathize in general [5]. (c.) In such cases training has to be therapeutic and not simply instructional.

The three theses will be discussed in the remainder of these notes; the corollaries, in a future study. Being a position statement, these notes will not attempt to prove the three theses but only explain their implications.

Intercultural communication studies and eCAT

Contemporary intercultural communication (IC) studies have investigated accommodation between culturally-different interactants since the landmark paper by Gallois et al. In 1988 [6]. While still in their infancy as a discipline, IC studies continue to offer an ideal terrain for validating theses such as the three just listed.

The members of associations like SIETAR (Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research, http://www.sietar-europa.org) and IAIR (International Academy for Intercultural Research, http://www.interculturalacademy.org) focus, in fact, much of their research on accommodation strategies useful in multicultural encounters such as international business meetings or multi-ethnic team building. The members of associations like IALIC (International Association for Language and Intercultural Communication: http://www3.unileon.es/grupos/ialic) and IACCP (International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology, http://www.iaccp.org/), study accommodation occasionally as well, not as the practice of specific techniques but as an achievement, i. e., as a possible outcome of encounters with multiple cultures. Finally, scholars of second-language (henceforth L2) learning in an intercultural perspective have also started to study accommodation – both as a practice (enabling one to use one's L2 more effectively) and as an achievement (i. e., as an indicator of cross-cultural competence in the L2, whether in conversing, translating, negotiating, etc.). See for example the research presented in Cultus – The Journal of Intercultural Mediation and Communication, (http://www.cultusjournal.com), the contributions of Mike Kelly in Kelly et al. (2001), and the conference proceedings on IC of the numerous international associations of language teachers (for a partial listing of such associations, see http://www.fiplv.org).

Indeed, given that all communication is in a sense “intercultural” (since no two interactants have identical erlebnisse or existential frames of reference), these notes propose extending the field of IC studies to embrace accommodation between interactants whose cultural diversity is of any kind: ethnic, gender, social class, generational, etc. The theoretical justification is the observation (Boylan, 1983; Agar, 1994) that using an L2 abroad or using one's native language in the family, both require accommodating one's world view to that of one's interlocutors. This is in fact one of the first things that babies teach themselves to do, in learning how to speak [7].

This new perspective permits us to interpret as an intercultural encounter Coupland's description of service exchanges in a Cardiff travel agency. For the shop assistant may have been doing much more than simply accommodating her pronunciation features to those of her clients. When using educated Standard English with like-speaking clients, she may have been unconsciously trying to bridge a cultural gap, by becoming momentarily like one of them. No audio-video recording was made of the event, but we can surmise that her vocabulary and syntax also became more formal and her posture more erect, especially with posh R. P. speakers; if she had been chewing gum while conversing in Welsh English with clients before, she may conceivably have taken the gum out of her mouth, excusing herself. Changes like these, had they been filmed, would have convincingly indicated that the shop assistant was doing more than changing her pronunciation (formal accommodation); she was assuming a different existential stance to match that of her interlocutors (substantial accommodation). In doing so, she was acting as a bilingual and bi-cultural inhabitant of the world defined by a linguistic and political Atlas of the British Isles, capable not only of code-switching, but also of identity-shifting.

These notes hold that accommodating interculturally in international settings is no different in kind from what the Cardiff shop assistant did spontaneously with her clients. To be sure, the magnitude of the cultural differences to ajust to, is much greater in international encounters than it was in the Cardiff shop. But the magnitude of the purely linguistic differences to adjust to, is not necessarily greater. This is because in an increasing number of international settings, negotiators use, instead of translators, a lingua franca in which they are all more or less competent. Thus, European Union negotiators typically hold bilateral meetings with their E.U. partners using English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) and, in doing so, automatically adjust their ELF to each interlocutor with no greater effort than it took the Cardiff shop assistant to pass from Cardiffian to R.P. to Estuary English (Seidlhofer et al., 2006). The same applies to a French-speaking diplomat who adjusts her French to that of the various West African dignitaries she encounters, or a Russian-speaking diplomat who, in visit to the various former Soviet Republics, continually adjusts her Russian to that of her hosts.

But if accommodating effectively in international settings does not necessarily require enormous linguistic flexibility to achieve formal accommodation, it does, in any case, require enormous cultural flexibility to achieve substantial accommodation, i. e., convergence of intentionality. How is the latter accomplished? There are no simplified grammars of foreign cultures to make assimilating them quick and painless. This explains why IC studies have, since their inception in the United States as a spin-off of Kennedy's Peace Corps Program in 1961, concentrated on finding ways to make cultural differences readily understandable and easily learnable.

In their pioneering work in this field, Hall (1956) and Hofstede (1980a) studied national cultures and described their stereotypical intentionalities in terms of "bipolar dimensions." For example, to explain why typical communication in some cultures is allusive and in others explicit, Hall proposed a cultural dimension describing two opposing intentionalities:

Let the context clarify (high context)----------|----------Don't rely on context (low context)

and situated national cultures along this continuum. Hall positioned the Japanese on the left of the continuum, the French in the middle and the Dutch and Americans on the right. This means that, in dealing with a (stereotypical) Japanese interlocutor, a French speaker, in whatever language s/he chooses for the occasion (French, Japanese, ELF), should tend to allude to things – more than s/he would normally do when speaking to a French person. On the contrary, s/he should speak more directly than usual when addressing (stereotypical) Dutch or American interlocutors, since they dislike allusiveness.

Hofstede (1980b), too, used bi-polar continua to illustrate the cultural differences he managed to quantify on the basis of a world-wide survey conducted between 1967 and 1973. Among the five different continua he devised are the PDI and IDV dimensions, the first measuring people's tendency to maximize or minimize hierarchical distance and the second their tendency to see themselves as individuals or as a community. Here, for example, is how Hofstede placed Guatemalans, Australians and Israelis:

Respect hierarchy (high power distance)-----|-----Reduce hierarchy (low power distance)
Guatemalans ------------------------------ Australians --------------------------------- Israelis

Community first (collectivism)----------------|----------------Individuals first (individualism)

Guatemalans ------------------------------ Israelis --------------------------------- Australians

Thus, according to Hofstede's data, when dealing with a (stereotypical) Guatemalan negotiator, one should converge with her need to give importance to titles as well as to decide as a group, for example by obsequiously calling her by her title and by allowing for ample intervals for phone consultations with the home office. On the other hand, when accommodating to a (stereotypical) Australian negotiator, one should be ready to jettison titles after a while and to decide things on the spot as an autonomous agent.

Unsurprisingly, Hall's and especially Hofstede's work have been criticized as simplistic (Gooderham and Nordhaug, 2003: 139-140). Fixed, bi-polar schemes and sociometric interviews cannot possibly define the intricacy of cultures; they simply document stereotypical constants, often the reflection of the researcher's own ethnocentrism. To date, however, no other attempt at a comprehensive descriptive framework of world cultures – or simply a generalizable descriptive framework of culture per se – has managed to establish itself. IC studies are still awaiting their Saussure.

Premises for an epistemology of IC (and thus eCAT) studies

As a contribution to founding epistemologically IC and eCAT studies, let us now take a second look at some of the concepts expressed so far, to analyze their validity in explaining how one can know mindsets (Weltanschauungen) different from one's own, simply by redirecting one's volition.

The intellectual roots of the considerations that follow lie in the Continental Anti-Hegelian philosophers and their successors – in particular Dilthey, Kierkegaard, Marx, Husserl, Gadamer – as well as in the anthropological and ethnolinguistic work of Boas, Sapir, Whorf, Malinowski and Hymes; in the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure's conception of language as a system of differentiations; in the Italian linguist Tullio De Mauro's re-elaboration of the vitalist vision of the Sicilian philologist Antonino Pagliaro [8]; in the British linguist M.A.K. Halliday's concept of language as social semiotic; and in the phenomenologically-inspired sociolinguistic work of the ethnomethodologist Harold Garfinkel.

The key concept in the explanation presented so far is the notion of meaning-making: it is claimed to be essentially a volitional act, which becomes cognitive only post-hoc. Let us therefore begin our epistemology by examining the concept of communicative intentionality.

I. These notes define communicative intentionality as a will to mean which derives from the will to be embodied in the collective mindset (or, more precisely, Weltanschauung) of a given culture and which, in fact, defines that culture essentially. Sapir's and Whorf's writings, it could be argued, say precisely this: a people's existential stance (volitional state) shapes their mindset (cognitive and affective states) through their language (their states of willing to mean in particular ways, and the various semiotic systems, both verbal and non verbal, that they devise to represent those states). Conceptual thoughts are a specification of particular states of intentionality to which particular states of consciousness have been assigned; the latter consist of mental images associated with various acoustic/graphemic images (i. e., words or other symbols). Note that thoughts do not exist until an entire web of words is spun into place; note, too, that no word and no bit of web mean anything by themselves, only as parts of “patternments.” (Whorf's neologism shows his debt to Saussure – Lee, 1996:35). And the conscious verbal patternments exist only as (pale) reflections of unconscious stratified states of articulated intentionality, their “meaning” [9].

Real-life communicative acts – i. e., the will to mean something in particular ways in concrete communicative events – produce in fact, over time, a disposition to express oneself in those ways on future occasions. This disposition is what 'language' is: an intentional matrix (a stratified sedimentation of specific, culturally-connoted wills to mean in specific ways), both in the mind of individual interactants and in the collective mind of their community (Boylan, 2003, 2008).

Precisely because that intentional matrix consists of acts of willing to mean (and not simply of their subsequent, imperfect mental representations, i. e., words and concepts), both language and culture defy analytic empirical description, although many excellent attempts have been made. Two examples are:

Analytic empirical descriptions are difficult to achieve because the will to mean we call language, deriving from the will to be that we call culture, is fundamentally alogical, as Wittgenstein asserted. It is something akin, to use his image, to the city centers of ancient capitals, tangled criss-crossings of streets that stop and end and change names in seemingly arbitrary ways, as opposed to the logical (and largely geometrical) criss-crossing of streets in the city centers of typical Midwestern American towns. The former are alogical, not illogical; their sense lies in the history of the historical accidents that produced them – the history of clashing and emerging wills – not in any predefined conceptual framework. The latter are products of the geometrical mindset of U.S. Army or railroad surveyors who often laid out, at one fell swoop, entire city centers.

II. Given the volitive nature of language and meaning, it is clear that, for accommodation to be successful, convergence of intentionality must take place, otherwise one only simulates entente, like little children reciting a prayer or singing an anthem without really understanding the words. One achieves convergence with an “alien” mindset by first seeking to grasp it empathetically and then relating to its external manifestions, i. e., the implicit or professed beliefs, concepts, tastes, affects, wants revealed by particular expressive behavior. Relating is achieved by introspectively discovering the seeds of the “alien” values within ourselves (we are all polymorphous) and nurturing them back to life again with exercises similar to those that American actors call “the Method” and that were initially devised by the Russian stage director Stanislavsky a century ago.

If I am successful in redirecting my volition to make it similar to yours, then what is real for you becomes real for me: "We see the same things" (although not necessarily in the same way). This implies that I notice, name and react affectively and volitionally to the same objects, although not necessarily to the same degree or even in the same way that you do. Thus I may dislike and refuse things that you strive for and enjoy; but if I do so, it is as you could, in other circumstances, or as a given member of your culture might, i. e., without finding your tastes “strange”.


III. The following imaginary example clarifies the relationship between intentional and expressive convergence. It illustrates how a particular will to mean, deriving from a particular Weltanschauung, is expressed verbally in a concrete communicative act involving subjects who:

Situation: Two young brothers, speakers of General American, are in their bedroom. One is at a desk reading, his back to the other boy who, across the room, is looking out the window. Separating the two boys are their twin beds and a night table. The boy at the window notices something interesting outside.

Communicative intent of Boy at Window: To get his brother to come see.

Possible utterances: The following are two expressions that the boy at the window could use. Both are grammatical. One accommodates to the cultural mindset of his brother; the other does not.

A. Non-Accommodating utterance

Come to the window!

B. Accommodating utterance

Come on over here to the window!

The speakers would not normally say this, although most French or Italian speakers of English would, because of their Latin Weltanschauung: I commands you to change you's current spatial relation with window. In English, this sounds formal, even peremptory, because the speaker seems interested only in specifying relations among entities: I, you, window. The default form in French and Italian is, in fact:

Viens à la fenêtre!

Vieni alla finestra!

This is an example of Anglo (and Germanic) Weltanschauung. Physical reality -- the desks separating you from window ("over") and the precise position of I ("here") -- is noticed and felt as worth specifying. This perspective foregrounds the material (technical) aspect of carrying out the order (which is hedged as an exhortation by means of on -- option also made possible by the use of over). In French or Italian saying all this would sound too explicit, even demeaning, stilted and by no means idiomatic.

*Viens donc jusqu'ici à la fenêtre!

*Vieni, sù, fin qui alla finestra!

Given his linguistic-cultural background, the boy at the window obviously chooses expression “B”.

Now let us imagine that the boy at the window is a foreign-born adoptive brother from France or Italy. In this case, he might not "see" as worth mentioning (because of his upbringing in the foreign language and culture) the beds separating him from his brother at the desk. He might therefore limit himself to saying "Come to the window" and this formal, peremptory order, due to a divergence of intentionalities (or non-accommodation of world views), might produce a communicative breakdown: the brother at the desk might feel irritated and react by saying: "Shut up, I'm reading!"

Likewise, if the two boys (both once more imagined to be American-born) were to participate in a "year abroad" program in a Parisian lyceum, after having "learned" French at school formally (as purely verbal expression), they might not "see" as real many of the things that are real for their Parisian classmates: for example, "mind as esprit" (wit). The boys might therefore dismiss as frivolous the constant paradoxical bantering (boutades) of their classmates, while their classmates, for whom shrewdness and skepticism are the hallmarks of intelligence, might find the boys dull if not stupid and their down-to-earth conversations as prosaic, although expressed in grammatically perfect and pragmatically appropriate French. This would be another example of a communicative breakdown due to a failure to accommodate substantially (through intentional convergence).

Of course, to have acquired this competence before their trip, the boys would have to have studied French at school as a new existential stance, from which particular ways of saying things derive. No amount of “French civilization” lessons, added to a traditional language curriculum, would have sufficed: the language classes themselves would have to have been conducted differently, i. e., as the acquisition of new intentionalities.

This did not happen and so the boys not only fail to “say” things that appear real to their classmates, they also "see" as real things that are not real for many Parisians they encounter. Take, for example, the local baker, who simply hands them, unwrapped, the bread loaf they request. The boys might "see" (or feel they see) "impurities" passing from the palm of the baker to the unwrapped bread loaf and complain about it.

Boys: Cela n'est pas propre!

That's not very clean!

Baker: C'est pas propre? J'suis pas propre, moi? Mais foutez-moi la paix, vous deux!

Not clean? So, like, I'm not clean? Com'on, get the f__k out of here, you two!

[Communication breakdown.]

While in all cultures "clean" means generically "free from dirt," each culture determines what "dirt" consists of and how much must be removed for an object to be "clean." Substantial accommodation thus means "seeing" as clean what the target population, on the whole, sees as clean: the boys did not do so and this produced yet another communicative breakdown.

Let us quickly add that accommodating to French discourse would not oblige the boys to give up their aversion to eating food touched by others. It would, however, mean seeing as "propre" (although not necessarily as "clean") a well-washed human hand that handles bread directly in a bakery, and speaking as a consequence.

Moreover once the boys learn to accommodate (by going through an acculturation process), they could, without creating a communicative breakdown, criticize the baker's habits (as many French people have done in trying to get a law passed obliging bakers to wear gloves or wrap their bread). They could do so by expressing themselves differently – for example, by speaking of hygiène, not cleanliness. This shift would be instinctive and immediate once they had acculturated to the French mindset (Weltanschauung), and would be an example of a communication breakthrough, due to successful intentional convergence (substantial accommodation).

IV. Our two-tier definition of accommodation offers multiple advantages. For one thing it guarantees genuine intercultural understanding. In addition it promotes authenticity in relationships. It makes cultures easy to understand: adaptive behavior, being willed, is immediately meaningful. It also offers greater flexibility: one need not learn to use specific expressive forms, like those in “guide books to foreign cultures”; one only needs to seek intentional convergence with the host culture and then take one's cues from one's interlocutors. This admittedly requires excellent ethnographic observation capabilities but, in any case, the task is inherently simpler.

From a pedagogical standpoint, the two-tier definition provides us with a better framework for teaching others to accommodate. The invitation to enter into another cultural mindset, first by playacting and then by conviction, is both entertaining and instructive at any age. This constructivist pedagogy constitutes a valid platform for:

1. "communicative-cultural" language teaching,

2. "intercultural communication training," as well as for

3. "communicative-cultural" translation courses where translating is taught as a double cultural immersion (or double accommodation) [10].

Finally, the two-tier definition of accommodation gives us the insight needed to resolve the paradoxes of communication accommodation theory. Let us examine two, as the conclusion of this discussion.

a. Minimal/maximal versus optimal accommodation.

Accommodation to stereotypical Japanese interlocutors can appear paradoxical since these subjects do not seem to want foreigners to accommodate to them; they want foreigners to stay in their place and act like foreigners, not like the Japanese (Miller, 1982) [11]. But does this mean that the only way to accommodate to them is by not accommodating at all?

This apparent paradox can be resolved by considering accommodation to be above all intentional and not merely expressive, as the present notes have attempted to show. Thus the solution lies in redirecting one's will to converge with Japanese intentionality and thereby seeing oneself as a particular kind of foreigner and wanting to act like one – which means neither acting like the Japanese nor acting entirely the way one acts spontaneously back home. If one is, for example, American, one will neither bow low upon meeting one's Japanese host nor give her/him American-style pats on the back, but rather act and speak as the Japanese think (well-bred) Americans act and speak. This means that one can both speak animatedly (a trait one's host will surely expect) and yet tolerate long silences (not an American trait but one which will not appear Japanese to one's hosts, who will see it as no more than normal). In other words, one will neither “be oneself” nor “go Japanese” but, instead, feel as right what one's interlocutors feel as right... for a foreigner to do. This includes the way one speaks Japanese, which should be correct (respectful of tradition), but not overly idiomatic or colloquial (which would be invading a Japanese interlocutors' private sphere). Observing such a distinction would be a staggering task if one had to remember lists of rules, but a simple task if one cultivates, instead, a Japanese sensitivity. For in this case one has only to say what comes naturally.

In short, the paradox is resolved by viewing it, not as non-accommodation, but as a perfect, albeit uncustomary, example of Level 3 accommodation on the Boylan Accommodation Scale (Appendix A). For convergence does not simply mean conforming to the behavior of one's interlocutor; convergence is locally determined, case by case, according to the world view of one's interlocutor, the circumstances, and one's objectives.

b. Distinction between “world view” and “personal agenda.”

Internalizing an interlocutor's world view, particularly if one is a diplomat engaged in a win/loose negotiation, may appear at odds with maintaining one's “personal agenda” composed of one's bedrock values (political, professional, ethical or whatever) and non-negotiable beliefs and goals. But such is seldom the case in practice. Studies show, in fact, that decentering affords one a wider perspective in which to defend better one's basic objectives (Berton et al, 1999; Brett, 2001); other studies show that adopting the cultural style of an opponent can actually serve to disarm her/him (Francis, 1991; Harnett and Cummings, 1980) [12].

The point to keep in mind, however, is another one. Neither cultures nor individuals are monolithic and contain, within them, non-dominant and atypical variants with whom one may identify perfectly well while maintaining one's personal agenda [13].

For example, a U.N. negotiator sent to Cyprus to soften the autonomist positions of the Turkish Cypriots could espouse their world view and feel as hers their concerns for maintaining their identity and the land seized during the 1974 invasion, without ceding to the temptation to betray her mandate of neutrality. For there are in fact many non-stereotypical Turkish Cypriots, loyal to their cultural identity but perfectly at ease with the thought of a pan-Cypriot nationality, who do in fact hold views compatible with the observer's mandate. Thus, by choosing to identify with them, the observer could gain the communicative effectiveness of a person able to speak to her Turkish Cypriot interlocutors from within their world view, and yet respect her mandate. See Hambrick et al. (1998) on the strategy of conserving divergences initially (Creation), promoting convergences (Calculation), and only then eliminating incompatible divergences (Execution).


Revisiting accommodation theory calls for reconsidering what actually takes place when people accommodate successfully. (“Successfully” means that attempts at convergence effectively augment entente among interlocutors, as reported by them.) These notes have described a two-tier convergence, expressive and intentional, and has claimed that it is the latter that should generate the former if accommodation is to produce genuine entente. Simulating convergences to obtain the impression of entente is always possible, of course, but at the risk of being unmasked as an actor or worse. The Level to which one should accommodate is locally determined by the expectations of one's interlocutor (grasped through ethnographic questioning and empathy), by the communicative situation and by the goals to attain. For example, one can paradoxically accommodate best by accommodating least, if that is what the sensibilities of one's interlocutor require. Likewise one can accommodate completely with an interlocutor's intentionality and yet not abandon one's personal agenda (whether ethical or dictated by one's mission) since accommodation, to be complete, requires convergence of constant (not contingent or idiosyncratic) intentionality.

This extension of Communication Accommodation Theory (eCAT) derives from reconsidering as well what language is and what it means to communicate. Communication is not the encoding-transmission-decoding of messages; it is the ongoing search for a common code by two or more interlocutors, through attempts at co-constructing shared meanings (Boylan, 2001). What guides the interlocutors in their search is what guides the child in learning her/his mother tongue: the will to mean something – or to respond to someone's will to meanin concrete communicative events, i. e., the will to influence the outcome of those events by “signifying one's will” or by interpreting someone else's apparently intentional behavior. The ensuing gratification (or frustration) confirms (or quashes) the attempt to attribute meaning to the verbal/non-verbal constructs used, themselves bricolages of like constructs perceived previously in like communicative events.

This volitional view of communication also applies to languagewhether from the standpoint of the “actual production of discourse in real situations” (Saussure's parole) or of the “system used to produce that discourse” (Saussure's langue). In both cases language is, essentially, a highly articulated state of volition. Insofar as language is an instance of real discourse (parole), it is a specific state of articulated volition in a specific individual that vents itself on a specific communicative event. Insofar as language is a system (langue), it is historically the sedimentation, in single and collective minds, of countless past acts of willing to mean; that sedimentation becomes, in the members of the speech community, a disposition to will to mean in similar ways in like circumstances, which is then theorized as grammar, rhetoric, stylistics. Parole therefore precedes langue ontologically – it is what is, primarily, while langue is but its skeletal shadow, the collection of verbal/conceptual constructs made to tag and hold moments of articulated volition in memory for future re-elaboration.

This perspective sheds a new light on the endless debate over the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It is not thought that produces language, as Nativists would have it; nor is it language that, alone, produces thought, as Relativists claim; for language is not simply an arbitrary bundle of words+syntax nor an inventory of concepts+semantic_restrictions. Language is the will to mean in specific ways, which is embedded in specific communicative situations, as well as the mental sedimentation of such states of volition. Thus “naming” these states or rather their sedimented residue, by uniting into mental constructs (“lexemes”) their fading image together with a largely arbitrary acoustic image (the signifier and signified), is already a translation of those states into a derived system of representation (De Mauro, 2005). More correctly, it is a commutation (a mapping between constructs different in kind) of highly articulated volitional “messages” – i. e., intentional states created by our primary (or “inner”) language, pre-conscious and thus felt but not seen – into a verbal/conceptual code that is consciously perceived and thus manipulable, although oftentimes only the pale reflection of the initial wills to mean.

It is by referring to the richness of our primary (inner) language that, for example, we judge whether a given letter that we write and rewrite is finally acceptable: we compare each successive verbal/conceptual construct we scribble down on paper with the keenly (albeit obscurely) felt volitional construct already articulated within us. The same happens when we have a word on the tip our tongue, not yet verbalized/conceptualized: we use this volitional entity to measure the appropriateness of the verbal/conceptual construct (lexeme) that we finally choose as its approximation.

In the final analysis, then, Whorfian relativism is more radical than even its detractors imagine. For in suggesting that language is not determined by thought (except for derivational uses) but rather the other way around, Whorf also made the point that language is not determined by “reality” either. It does not reflect a “real,” “objective,” world, but rather the world we wish to see, urged on by our culturally determined impulses – at least until an undefinable “something out there” (a wall of silence, a mother's slap, the failure of an experiment meant to prove a pet scientific theory) forces us to rein in those impulses and redirect them. This redirection is what learning our native language/culture entailed when we were children and it is what learning a second language/culture should entail (but usually doesn't) in our schools and universities.

It is also what accommodation entails: redirecting momentarily our culturally determined impulses and thusly our inner language, in order to see what we were not able to perceive previously and to say what we would not have otherwise found the words to utter. This enables us to create entente with interlocutors of a diverse language and culture and to “make sense” to them through our words and behavior.


Appendix A

5-Level Accommodation Scale (Boylan, 2009)
The higher the number, the greater the (joint) effort to converge.

Level 0.

Using your L1 (mother tongue) idiomatically (degree zero; no accommodation)

Level 1.

Using your L1 carefully (e. g., foreigner talk)

Level 2.

Using your L1 conventionally (e. g., Brits making the effort to speak ELF)

Using an L2 conventionally (what you can do with an L2 learned at school)
N.B. If the L2 is not your interlocutor's L1, it is your common “lingua franca.”

Level 3.

Using an L2 authentically (what you can do after learning the L2 as a mindset)
N.B. In this case, the L2 is your interlocutor's L1. (See Level 4 for other cases.)

Level 4.

Using an L2 authentically (what you can do after learning the L2 as a mindset)
N.B. The L2 is an L2 for your interlocutor, too, who has learned it authentically.
This is the case of vehicular national languages like English in Singapore.
It was once the case of court French throughout Europe, spoken as at Versailles.

Level 5.

As in 2, 3, or 4, but you and the other party use your L1 or L2 to create a creole” pet language and a common culture ("third space"), for reasons of intimacy (lovers' pet talk), secrecy (thieves' cant), cultural independence (street slang; Ebonics, too, is a willful badge of divergence, besides being a dialect) or simply to avoid naming necessarily conflictual real-life events (Edgar Snow's and Mao Zedong's extensive use of poetic language and allusions to poetry).

Other options, used mostly in international business encounters:


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1Minimal accommodation corresponds to Level 1 of the 5-level Accommodation Scale (Boylan, 2009) found in Appendix A.

2The French word “ententemeans “reciprocal understanding,” even “affinity of intent,” just like the English word “chemistry” in the sentence “There was a certain chemistry (une certaine entente) between the vocalist and the band.” The Trésor de la langue française (1971, http://atilf.atilf.fr) defines entente as the “fait de s'accorder en raison d'une communauté de vues, d'une conformité de sentiments(accord deriving from a community of views and a conformity of sentiments). As a working hypothesis, these notes consider entente to exist in a communicative act when the parties subjectively report reciprocal understanding (real or illusory) plus two discriminants: affinity and warmth.

3For a description of Foreigner Talk, see Orletti, 2000; for differences between Foreigner Talk and Language Teacher Talk, see Terrell 1990.

4The same applies to convergence of expression: the Cardiff shop assistant might instinctively accommodate to an upper class client with a peculiar (idiosyncratic) drawl by acquiring one herself to sound equally posh; but, in any case, she would of necessity speak with an R.P. accent. There would in fact be no gain from imitating just the drawl, which in Britain sounds posh only if one's other linguistic features are those of upper class R. P. speakers. In addition, there is always the risk that mimicking an interlocutor's purely idiosyncratic traits, such as a drawl or a lisp, can sound like a parody and thus alienate her/him. In conclusion, both expressive and intentional convergence involve essentially cultural traits, and only occasionally idiosyncratic ones.

5Dysfunctional identity defense mechanisms”, or “mental rigidity” as a personality disorder, are behaviors that block the integration of new and potentially useful information into one's ego structure, because of the irrational fear that altering that structure could endanger one's mental equilibrium (Rokeach, 1948, 1960). In these notes the term indicates a refusal to relativize one's native value system and Weltanschauung, precondition for internalizing an interlocutor's culture, out of fear that to do so would betray (endanger) the values and beliefs constituting one's personal (and community) identity; this fear is often masked by an aggressive stance: “Why should I change my way of thinking? Let the other side take the first step by adapting to my language and culture!” This disorder can also characterize the behavior of entire organizations (Brown and Starkey, 2000) as well as, alas, the foreign policy of nations.

6Also see Giles and Noels (1998); the basic concepts, without the CAT framework, can be found in Boylan (1983).

7Citing research by Sachs and Devin and by Ramge, Tenbrink (1997:16) notes that babies “are capable of adjusting their speech to different listeners such as adult, peer, baby, and baby doll." This is not mimicking; it is substantial accommodation, as their behavior shows: "Even before the age of three or four, children start developing their role taking abilities... they manage to take the role of a baby by changing and simplifying their speech.” To use the terminology of these notes, a child internalizes the language and the way of being (the existential stance) of an interlocutor and then lives both out in role playing. “Acquisition of language is nearly impossible without... symbolic role taking."

8The following passage gives Pagliaro's views on language as an existential phenomenon:

Language, which is energeia (individual activity) is also nomos, because every individual is also nomos. [...] Language exists insofar as someone speaks it, infuses into it and expresses through it the feelings, the thoughts, the will that are him. [...] Language is therefore not a 'means' which man can use as he pleases; language is in him because it is him and finds its determination through him -- that is why it is nomos, as Plato observed. An individual speaks in a particular language and in una particular way because he is that particular historically-determined individual. Thus, to speak a foreign language, to really speak it, means to manage to put oneself in the place of people who speak it from when they first uttered words, and who grasp all the resonances and all the nuances that it holds for them because they are who they are (Pagliaro, 1993: 100-101) [translation mine].

9For Whorf, of course, what is reflected is social, not volitional as in this theorization; nevertheless it is clear that societies are not groups of unrelated individuals, but communities of intent, welded together by law and custom. Cf. the notion of polis in Ancient Greek. For an excellent account of what Sapir and Whorf “really meant,” see in Gentner et al. (2003) the Introduction, Tomasello's position statement and Levinson's critique of Chomsky's and Pinker's nativism. As for the nature of linguistic relativity, these notes share (and build on) Tomasello's developmental hypothesis (p. 53):

The specific developmental hypothesis is this. As the young child internalizes a linguistic symbol or construction -- as she culturally learns the human perspective embodied in that symbol or construction -- she cognitively represents not just the perceptual or motoric aspects of a situation, but also one way, among other ways of which she is also aware, that the current situation may be attentionally construed by "us," the users of the symbol. The intersubjective and perspectival nature of linguistic symbols thus creates a clear break with straightforward perception or sensorimotor cognitive representations. It removes them to a very large extent from the perceptual situation at hand, and in ways much more profound than the fact that they can stand for physically absent objects and events.

The present notes are, in fact, an attempt to enquire into these “profound ways”. See also Gumperz and Levinson's Rethinking Linguistic Relativity (1996). Experimental psychology stimulates a rethinking, too, for example Kyriacou and Brugger (2004).

10Communicative translation is, in fact, (a.) an initial immersion into the mindset that produced the work to be translated – the mindset being, not the author's, but that of the “source culture reading public” that reacted positively to the text – and then (b.) an immersion into the mindset of the probable future readership of the translated text, in order to find the wording capable of producing an equivalent reaction on that public (Boylan, 2003). Translators who do not accommodate (mentally) to these two imaginary publics, risk misreading the text assigned to them (by their failure to accommodate to the source public) and producing a translated text that “works” only on themselves (because of their failure to accommodate to the probable target public).

11Schiffman (1996: 201-202) attests the same reaction by speakers of Tamil in India. Miller's proof of the Japanese defensive attitude has been contested over the years since it is only anecdotal. Nonetheless, his critics fail to offer rigorous empirical evidence to the contrary, as Ross and Shortreed (1990) and Azuma (2001) point out in presenting their research. Ironically, their empirical data do not invalidate Miller's ethnographic claims either, for the authors study particular audiences in artificial conditions. Clinical results such as theirs, however valid, cannot be generalized into claims about an ethos; only demographically validated field work can do that. While Miller's study lacks demographic validation, it does offer the breadth typical of ethnographies.

12While there is widespread agreement on the usefulness of decentering, there is lack of agreement over the superiority of emic versus etic approaches for grasping an interlocutor's world view, and intuitive versus rationalist approaches for employing that knowledge to decenter oneself. These notes give priority to the emic+intuitive approach. For a defense of the etic+rationalist approach, see for example Galinsky et al. (2008). For a compromise solution (“dynamic constructivism”), see Morris and Fu (2001).

13Thanasoulas (1999) speaks of convergence through divergence (or complementary convergence). Nonconformists in any culture are, in fact, the complementary image of that culture and thus belong to it. Identifying with them enables one to establish communicative entente with a mainstream interlocutor while, at the same time, rejecting her/his mainstream values – provided one does so in the way that the accepted nonconformists do within her/his culture. Thus there is no excuse for multinational company managers to refuse assignment to a given country simply because they reject the dominant values there; they can always integrate perfectly well by living the values of one of the sub-cultures in the country – the one that is closest to theirs (provided this does not jeopardize their mission). The same applies to police officers who claim they cannot enter into the mentality of the drug addicts they must deal with, for that would pit them against the law. On the contrary. The most effective social workers in that field are perhaps the ex-addicts who know and feel the drug culture intimately and who thereby gain acceptance by its members as quasi-insiders. Police officers, too, could accommodate to the addicts' world as “nonconformist”quasi-insiders, and in that stance establish better communicative entente with the regular members .