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Communication Accommodation Theory

Communication Accommodation Theory focuses on the role of conversations in our lives. The theory has been incorporated in a number of different studies. For instance, accommodation has been studied in the mass media (Bell, 1991), with families (Fox, 1999), with Chinese students (Hornsey & Gallois, 1998), with the elderly (Harwood, 2002), on the job (McCroskey & Richmond, 2000), in interviews (Willemyns, Gallois, Callan, & Pittam, 1997), and even with messages left on telephone answering machines (Buzzanell, Burrell, Stafford, & Berkowitz, 1996) (see our Research Note).

There is no doubt that the theory is heuristic. The theory is expansive enough to be very complete, and it has been supported by research from diverse authors. In addition, the theory's core processes of convergence and divergence make it relatively easy to understand, underscoring the simplicity of the theory.

The strengths of the theory may be quite significant because the theory has elicited little scholarly criticism. Still, a few shortcomings of the theory merit attention. Judee Burgoon, Leesa Dillman, and Lesa Stern (1993), for example, question the convergence-divergence frame advanced by Giles. They believe that conversations are too complex to be reduced simply to these processes. They also challenge the notion that people's accommodation can be explained by just these two practices. For instance, what occurs if people both converge and diverge in conversations? Are there consequences for the speaker? The listener? What influence—if any—does race or ethnicity play in this simultaneous process? One might also question whether the theory relies too heavily on a rational way of communicating. That is, although the theory acknowledges conflict between communicators, it also rests on a reasonable standard of conflict. Perhaps you have been in conflicts that are downright nasty and with people who have no sense of reason. It appears that the theory ignores this possible dark side of communication (see Chapter 1).

In his earlier writings on the theory, Giles challenged researchers to apply Communication Accommodation Theory across the life span and in different cultural settings. For the most part, his suggestions have been heeded. His research has broadened our understanding of why conversations are so complex. Through convergence, Giles sheds light on why people adapt to others in their interactions. Through divergence, we can understand why people choose to ignore adapting strategies. He has pioneered a theory that has helped us better understand the culture and diversity around us.

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