Recently, Hillary Clinton made what was ostensibly an ordinary campaign stop in Columbia, South Carolina. Or, perhaps I should say — as Clinton herself did at one point — South Carolahnah. Clinton, as a few reporters immediately noted, at some points during her speech slipped into the faintest hints of a Southern accent; you can mostly hear it in the softening of the vowel i: retirement became retahrment, I sounded more like Ah.
Here’s a short clip from her appearance:
Clinton is far from the only politician to be accused of putting on a fake accent in order to pander to the voting public, but she’s been in the public eye for so many years at this point that we’ve had decades to observe the way her accent comes and goes. (Recently, Bloomberg produced an ambitious video that claims to catalogue the former secretary of State’s accent evolution over the years — it’s fascinating.)
On the one hand: Clinton is married to a Southerner, and spent many years in the South. On the other, Clinton (or someone on her team) surely knows what she’s doing when she slides into the folksy accent. More than a decade of research on speech alignment, the academic term for this kind of copy-cattery, has shown that people like you more when you start to talk like them. “When people are imitated, they are more likely to like the person they’re interacting with — they’re more likely to rate the interaction as successful,” said Lawrence D. Rosenblum, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, who has studied speech imitation.
There’s also evidence that people mimic speech and behavior patterns when they’re trying to convey a particular message (please vote for me, y’all). In one experiment Rosenblum described, researchers observed interactions between pairs, one of whom was meant to give instructions to the other. They found that the person doing the explaining was more likely to imitate the other person’s speech and body language than the listener, suggesting that this is something people do when they’re trying to make a point (as opposed to communicating more generally).
It’s something that appears to increase understanding between the speaker and the listener, in other words, providing a potential explanation of the fake accent phenomenon that’s, in many ways, the opposite of cynical. At just hours old, newborn babies imitate the facial expressions and mouth movements of the adults who care for them. It’s thought to be one of the ways babies start to learn how to speak, and it’s something people never really stop doing, to some extent. “It could be a byproduct of the fact that when we’re listening to speech, one way we’re able to decipher it is to use our own representation of our production of speech,” Rosenblum said. As you’re listening to someone talk, as one linguistic theory goes, you may be simultaneously priming your own speech muscles — the jaw, lips, tongue — in order to help you understand what the other person is saying. “And if that’s the case — if you’re accessing your speech production mechanism when you’re listening — it makes sense that the next speech you produce would be influenced by the speech you’ve just heard,” Rosenblum said.
Not only does speech mimicry help people literally understand each other, in that it seems to help listeners decipher the words the speakers’ mouths are forming — there’s also some evidence that imitation may be a sign of increased emotional understanding. One 1999 New York University study found that the people who imitated others the most tended to be more empathetic than those who imitated less often.
“This really is something all of us do, all of the time,” Rosenblum said. I, for one, am often guilty of accidentally picking up the accents I hear around me. Last year, my Australian best friend got married, and her bridal party consisted of me and two other American girls, plus her four Aussie sisters. By the end of the long weekend, all three of us American bridesmaids were ending every supposed declarative statement with a very Australian, “yeah?”
In Clinton’s case, Rosenblum acknowledges, “It could be, to some degree, that she is trying to ingratiate herself,” he said. “But it could also be she does it because she happens to be a pretty empathetic person. It’s not something I would ever really criticize anybody on.”