Oprah Winfrey has a reputation for imitating the dialect of the people she's addressing. And politicians including Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are known to do the same thing. But these celebrities are not unique in this way. We all imitate speaking styles. And while most of us aren't caught on tape doing it in a noticeable way, we subtly imitate the people with whom we're talking much of the time.

Usually, we're not conscious of this imitation. But you may sometimes be aware of your own Oprah tendencies. Most of us have had the embarrassing experience of talking with someone with a foreign accent, and noticing that we've inadvertently taken on a bit of that accent ourselves.

Besides unintentionally imitating accents, research shows that we partially imitate the speech rate and intonation of the people we talk to. To some degree, we also mimic word choice and word order (syntax). Perhaps most impressive is how we imitate the fine-grain aspects of speech. For example, we unconsciously shift the timing between our vocal cord vibrations and lip-opening (for the ‘p' in ‘pat') as little as one two-hundredth of a second to mimic that of another person. There is no way we could intentionally produce a timing shift by just that much. It's just too subtle. This means that our inadvertent speech imitation imparts more fine-grain control over our articulators than we can, volitionally.

Finally, a recent finding from my own lab shows that we unintentionally imitate the speech style of individuals we lipread, even without having formal lipreading experience. In this sense, our inadvertent speech imitation can make us sound like people whose voices we've never heard.

So, why do we unintentionally imitate each other's speech styles? There are probably many reasons ranging from a fine-tuning of speech perception, to a basis for our language acquisition. Speech imitation might also be partly a by-product of a speech function in which perception and production are intimately linked. But it could very well be that our imitation serves a social function, easing our interactions.

In fact, there is substantial research showing how nonverbal imitation can facilitate our interactions. When our mannerisms are subtly imitated by someone, we rate the interaction as more successful, and tend to become more engaged and even generous. When we're put in a context where our social success is more important, we tend to perform more imitating mannerisms ourselves. And there is some evidence that the social relationship between individuals influences the degree to which they imitate speech styles. This may be why the conspicuous examples of Oprah and Bill Clinton's imitation occurred in front of live or TV audiences.

Engaging John Travolta

As stated, our imitation of each other's speech styles is usually pretty subtle. However, it's not so subtle that we're unaware of imitation in other people's conversations. We are sensitive to the imitation performed by other people as they talk to each other. In fact, when it's missing, the dialogue sounds unnatural.

This turns out to be a major problem for the production of animated films. Most modern voice acting for animated features involves recording the actors separately. This is one of the appealing aspects of voice acting for stars who can perform his part on their own time, without needing to coordinate their schedule with other actors.

But recording the actors individually poses a technical problem for the director and sound editor of the film. Essentially, they need to create compelling dialogue between actors who've never actually talked with each other. This was conveyed to me by Chris Williams, the director of the animated film "Bolt", the 2008 film starring the voices of John Travolta and Susie Essman. For the film, John Travolta (who voiced the dog ‘Bolt') recorded his lines months before Susie Essman (who voiced ‘Mittens', Bolt's feline sidekick) recorded hers, despite the fact that their characters had multiple dialogues together. Further, each of these actors performed their lines without hearing recordings of the other actor's performance. Of course, actors who must produce lines of dialogue without actually hearing one-other would be incapable of the speech imitation we all naturally perform. And it seems that when this subtle speech imitation is absent from dialogue, it can sound distractingly unnatural to the audience.

"A good portion of my time working on Bolt was spent in the editing room piecing together bits of dialogue so that the characters sounded like they were talking together", Chris Williams recalls. "As I was directing, I had the actors perform each of their lines 10 to 30 times with different speeds, inflections - I tried to get a wide spectrum to select from. Once all the dialogue was recorded [and before animation began], we spent many late nights putting the lines together. For every piece of dialogue we'd listen to each of the 30 line readings again, and again, and again to make sure we chose the one that sounded right with the other characters' lines. If you put lines together that don't sound natural, it's very jarring and apparent." In fact, the voice actors in the more recent film "Fantastic Mr. Fox" were recorded together on set, to avoid this very problem. This suggests that not only do we subtly imitate the people we talk with, we're also aware when this imitation is missing from the dialogue of others.

So don't fault Oprah, Bill Clinton, or Tony Blair for changing their speech depending on whom they're talking to. While perhaps more conspicuous, their imitation is the same type all of us perform all the time. It's a natural part of how we talk and function as social animals. And when it's missing, we notice.

This piece, like all of the entries in the Sensory Superpowers blog, has been adapted from the new book, See What I'm Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses (Norton, 2010).

Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A., (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception-behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 76, 893-910.

Giles, H., Coupland, J., & Coupland, N. (1991). Accommodation theory: Communication, context, and consequences. In H. Giles, J. Coupland, & N. Coupland (Eds.), Contexts of accommodation: Developments in applied sociolinguistics (pp. 1-68). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goldinger, S. D. (1998). Echoes of echoes? An episodic theory of lexical access. Psychological Review, 105, 251-279.

Miller, R.M., Sanchez, K., & Rosenblum, L.D. (2010). Alignment to Visual Speech Information. Attention, Perception, & Performance, 72, 1614-1625.

Pardo, J. S. (2006). On phonetic convergence during conversational interaction. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 119, 2382-2393.

Sancier, M. L., & Fowler, C. A. (1997). Gestural drift in a bilingual speaker of Brazilian Portuguese and English. Journal of Phonetics, 25, 421-436.

Shockley, K., Santana, M. V., & Fowler, C. A. (2003). Mutual interpersonal postural constraints are involved in cooperative conversation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 29(2), 326-332.

Recent Posts in Sensory Superpowers

Imitating Oprah

We imitate each other’s speaking styles. Just ask Oprah.

Blind Baseball

Rich sound information helps the blind play baseball.

Lipreading for the FBI

We all read lips. Our brains can’t help it.

Painting By Touch

Blindness allows ‘visual’ brain areas to enhance the sense of touch.

I Want to Hold Your Zombie Hand

Your brain is so sensitive to faces, that quasi-realistic faces look eerie.

Silent But Deadly

Accident data shows that the quietness of hybrid cars is a danger to pedestrians