I grew up in Atlanta, the great melting pot of the South. It was really a suburb of Atlanta just outside of the perimeter to the northeast, a little town called Tucker, but we did spend a good bit of time in and out of the city as I was growing up. My mom grew up in southwest Virginia in the heart of Appalachia, literally on the Appalachian Trail in her early years in Damascus, and moved her hillbilly heritage to Atlanta as a young adult, along with her family. Dad was a true cracker, born in Clarkston, a bit further off the eventual perimeter, into a poor farming family. Clarkston isn’t too far from Tucker, and his brother and sister and their families stayed close, as well. It may not sound like I had what you would call varying cultural influences, I mean it’s all the South, but the accents that surrounded me were actually quite different.
When you grow up in proximity to a big city, you get exposed to a lot of different people, and therefore, a lot of different dialects. That exposure can’t help but to soften out the edges of whatever tongue you were born into, even if those roots run deep. Dad’s job at Delta Airlines also put us in a position of traveling often to areas, and accents, very different from ours. You could say that my dialect is a bit like a river stone, smoothed and rounded by a flow of sounds that left me with few hard edges to the way I speak. I’m not suggesting that that is a good or bad thing, it simply is. Once, when traveling in the middle of nowhere in Maine, a local older man commented in conversation that I didn’t sound like I was from Atlanta, but I realized it is specifically because I’m from Atlanta that I don’t usually sound like I’m from the South.
Until I get around someone who does talk southern, that is.
I used to know someone who would make fun of me every time he heard me on the phone with a true southern talker. He’d be in the background saying, “Hey Aunt Bee, how’s Barney doin’?” faking the most redneck accent you can imagine, picking on the fact that I would talk differently with some people than he was used to hearing. I really started to notice this tendency in myself when I was in college. It was like the cadence and language existed deep in my soul, a rut that my mind would steer towards when I was reminded by the sound of someone else’s habits. But, it turns out that there is a deep psychological groove that is not just about what one might unknowingly find comfortable, but instead about a subconscious desire to create a comfortable dialogue with someone with whom you enjoy engaging.
It can make you feel a bit like you are being fake, like you are acting a part or pantomiming the person you’re engaging with if you think about it too hard, but there is a definite cue in our psyche to pick up words, accents and gestures from others in conversation. It is called mirroring, and it has long been recognized as a method by which we build rapport with each other, and we often aren’t even aware that we are doing it. If you feel that you are “jiving” with someone you are speaking with, you subconsciously want to show that you feel in sync, and so you start to become in sync. I happened upon this really interesting description of this process in an article on LinkedIn by Megan McClain. She said, “In a recent article, I talked about the importance of being a blank canvas when you first meet someone. The brain immediately classifies a new acquaintance as part of the “Them” group, and the goal of a first impression is to shuttle you over to the “Us” side as quickly as possible. Once a person establishes that you’re trustworthy and then competent, their brain does whatever it can to pick out supporting information to keep you on that “Us” side (confirmation bias). One very effective way to advance this process is called “mirroring.”
Have you ever noticed yourself doing this? Some friends and I were talking about it at last weekend’s Rome International Film Festival. One of the things that I love about that event is the opportunity to meet people from all around the world, and engage with very different backgrounds and habits from my own. As I thought about the group’s shared tendency to speak along with the people they are engaging with, I thought about how lovely it is that we are literally wired to develop communion with others. We are pushing against that tendency pretty hard these days, aren’t we? As you are reading this, the election results have likely settled and you are likely sad, happy or indifferent about the outcome on a lot of topics that we have been very attached to debating over the last several months. While those debates are likely to continue for the foreseeable future regardless of yesterday’s results, can we just take a minute to breath and to get back in touch with our instinctive tendency toward finding common ground with others?
I know, there are a lot of you reading this who think I am a downright Pollyanna for my constant call for cooperation, but I truly believe that the best path forward, in spite of our obvious differences, is to find a way to work together. I’m not saying I always get it right, goodness no. But together I truly believe we can heal the rifts and move forward as a community united. Let’s mirror a little bit of kindness in each other and see what happens.