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Communication Accommodation Theory and Intergroup Communication

Summary and Keywords

Group memberships provide a system of orientation for self-definition and self-reference in the process of relating to and managing social distance with others, and the use of language and communication serve central roles in the processes. In the nearly four decades since its inception as speech accommodation theory, communication accommodation theory has been used in multidisciplinary, multilingual, and multicultural contexts for understanding when, how, and why we, as speakers, accommodate to each other’s languages and styles of communication. In CAT’s theoretical domain, accommodation refers to the ability, willingness, and strategies to adjust, modify, or regulate individuals’ language use and communication behaviors. Specifically, approximation strategies such as convergence, divergence, maintenance, and complementarity are conceptualized in the earlier developmental stages of CAT, with other strategies such as interpretability, discourse management, and interpersonal control added to the list at later stages. With its strong intergroup features, CAT is a robust theory that offers explicit motivational analysis to account for intergroup communication behaviors and intergroup relations. Blossomed initially in a multilingual and multicultural context in Quebec, Canada in the 1970s, CAT connects well with other existing theories on cultural adaptation, intergroup contact, and intergroup relations. Yet, CAT distinguishes itself from other theories as it attends to the interactive communication acts and processes and relates them to other sociocultural constructs, while interpreting and predicting the social, relational, and identity outcomes.

Keywords: communication accommodation theory, intergroup communication, intergroup contact, intercultural communication, intergenerational communication, aging, health


Communication plays a central role in the construction of groups and attitudes toward groups. In essence, intergroup communication examines how communication and language use reflect and are affected by group memberships (Harwood & Giles, 2005). Yet, the process is a sweet and bitter one where individuals with different linguistic and sociocultural backgrounds experience, manage, and negotiate affection, bonding, and fulfillment in conjunction with uncertainty, anxiety, power differentials, stereotypes, and identity conflicts (Zhang & Giles, 2017). CAT is a general communication theory that explains the roles played by group membership salience and its cognitive and affective associations such as stereotypes, expectations, and attitudes that motivate, are embedded in, and influence the consequences of communication behaviors. Indeed, we do adhere to the same ways of communication across context, time, and conversation partners, but we make adjustments all the time for various motives (Giles, 2016; Soliz & Giles, 2014). The following example fundamentally illustrates how the assumptions we have about others influence the use of language and communication.


The airport scene of the 1998 movie Rush Hour depicts an initial interaction between Carter and Lee in two racially and culturally different groups. Essentially, without denying the influence of other factors, seeing Lee’s Asian face automatically activates Carter’s stereotypes and assumptions of Asians who do not speak English well. Hence, Carter not only asks rudely whether Lee speaks any English, he also inappropriately modifies his language features (e.g., uses simple vocabulary) and nonverbal behaviors (e.g., uses noticeably slower than normal speech rate, louder voice, clear enunciation, exaggerated hand gestures with widened eyes). Specifically, in long, loud, drawn-out syllables with both of his eyes wide open and index fingers pointing to his mouth Carter asks “Do-you-understand-the-words-that-are-coming-out-of-my-mouth?” In addition, Carter’s tone of voice is condescending, indicating Carter’s reluctance to welcome Lee’s arrival or consider Lee as an in-group member or a teammate. As dramatized and exaggerated as it is, this airport scene vividly depicts how the group-based assumptions Carter makes influence his subsequent communication adjustments in an interracial and intercultural context, thus exemplifying the power of cognitive and affective intergroup processes in guiding individuals’ communication behaviors. An Asian look does trigger certain expectations about where the person is from and whether or not the person speaks English. Expectations do not end here. Presumed group memberships then inform us how to communicatively behave and act with the person or how much we are willing to engage in communication with the person (Harwood, Giles, & Palomares, 2005). As such, CAT is systematic in explaining motivations behind individuals’ communication adjustments. Simply put, in CAT’s theoretical domain, language and communication modifications are important markers of group memberships and identities, and thus serve central functions to interpersonal and intergroup relationships.

The overarching goal of this chapter is to provide a systematic review of how CAT has contributed to our understanding of intergroup communication through synthesizing research and theorizing about communication accommodation. To accomplish this goal, we first present CAT’s major conceptualizations and premises, which are embedded in a brief account of the historical development and stages of CAT, thus revealing its generality, sophistication, and openness as an inherently communication theoretical framework. Second, we provide a general overview of CAT in terms of its heuristic value and the broad empirical support it has received. Third, we discuss CAT’s unique theoretical foci and power in relation to theories of social identity for a better understanding of intergroup relations. Finally, we compare CAT to intergroup contact theory to further demonstrate its connections with other existing theories and to highlight its unique contributions to intergroup communication research. Relevant literature and future research are addressed throughout these theoretical discussions. In the next section, we attend to a conceptual map of CAT’s development. Conceptual definitions of the major constructs and premises of CAT are offered mainly for readers less familiar with CAT. Specifically, CAT’s multilingual, multicultural, and multidisciplinary birthmark is addressed with the presentation of CAT’s major strategies and development stages.

CAT: Development and Major Accommodation Strategies

The key construct in CAT is communication adjustment or modification, which has been studied across a number of disciplines using slightly different terms such as audience or recipient design, mimicry, and linguistic matching. Among all, CAT is the most systematic and fully developed communication theory in accounting for how social and relational distance is created, managed, and negotiated through linguistic and paralinguistic moves/adjustments in interaction. As illustrated by the Carter–Lee example, these adjustments include both verbal (word choices) and nonverbal elements (intonation, speech rate, gestures, etc.). According to CAT, the assumptions about and our existing attitudes toward others, and the valence of historical and current intergroup relations, leave their footprints to communication. Specifically, these factors are determinants of our initial orientation (i.e., our interpersonal versus intergroup concerns), which affects our subsequent communicative acts and relational and identity processes (Gallois, Giles, Jones, Cargile, & Ota, 1995; Soliz & Giles, 2014). Adjusting appropriately to the communication practices of a conversation partner normally decreases the psychological distance, and thus enhances liking between the two. However, when we rely too much on our schematic information about group memberships, even though our motivation to adjust comes from good intentions, we often slip into inappropriate adjustments, whether that is over- or underaccommodation (Giles, 2008). For example, similar to the Carter–Lee example, people tend to talk louder, slower, and with simpler vocabularies when talking to older adults in general, which is often perceived as patronizing (Ryan, Hummert, & Boich, 1995).

That said, accommodation is not all about objective linguistic, normative, stylistic, or emotional appropriateness, as context-based intergroup power dynamics and interpretation of motives are at the core of evaluations of the speakers and their communication (Giles & Gasiorek, 2013). Hence, frequently, accommodative moves exist in subjective (i.e., perceived) rather than objective (i.e., actually happened or happening) ways (Thakerar, Giles, & Cheshire, 1982). On a positive note, we appreciate our conversation partners when they modify their verbal and/or nonverbal communication features to make us feel welcomed, comfortable, and happy and when their communication with us is person-centered. Giles, Coupland, and Coupland (1991) argue that “accommodation [. . .] can function to index and achieve solidarity with [. . .] a conversational partner reciprocally and dynamically” (p. 2). We are also frequently amazed by “smooth” communicators who possess a great deal of social sensitivity and skills in regulating social distance with others. Hence, the specific linguistic and paralinguistic moves of the speaker and the motivational factors underlying them convey not only referential, but also social, relational, and evaluative information (Dragojevic et al., 2016).

Communication studies as an academic field has gone through pivotal changes, and one of such is the view of communication as a transactional process. The transactional view of communication recognizes the importance of context and the overlap between communicators in the ongoing process of sharing and understanding meaning. The transactional perspective gained momentum in the early 1970s in the study of language, and this was the time CAT was born. CAT bridges both micro- and macrolevel factors in accounting for communication and its consequences and has become “one of the most influential behavioral theories of communication” that can enhance our understanding, prediction, and explanation of “. . . any situation where people from different groups and cultures come into contact” (Griffin, 2009, pp. 397–398). In fact, CAT considers communication and intergroup relations as a transactional process. On the one hand, CAT refers to group membership and its cognitive and affective associations as both predictors and mechanisms of communication. It also emphasizes the importance of communication in impacting and reshaping intergroup relations, on the other hand.

Since its inception, CAT and its satellite models have gone through some parsimonious and yet sophisticated, contextual and yet systematic, distinct and yet interdependent developmental stages (McGlone & Giles, 2011). CAT, which was created by Howard Giles, was labeled speech accommodation theory (SAT) in its early era (ca. 1971–), centering on speaker characteristics rather than context (Giles, 1973a, 1973b). Context-based shifts in speech features were attended to, but were primarily attributed to interpersonal accommodation processes. In this period, the first form of speech accommodation, convergence was conceptualized. Convergence refers to adjusting linguistic, paralinguistic, nonverbal, and even communication styles during interaction to be communicatively similar to and psychologically close to your conversation partners (Giles, 2008; Palomares, Giles, Soliz, & Gallois, 2016). Naturally, CAT’s early development included a move in its focus to receiver characteristics as an important consideration driving speakers’ stylistic shifts in both verbal and nonverbal ways. Hence, in the 1980s, the theory was relabeled as communication accommodation theory to embrace a wide variety of communicative adjustments in interaction.

Inspired by social identity theory (SIT: Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and self-categorization theory (SCT: Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987), the second stage of CAT’s development focused more on the role played by context and social identity (especially in identity-threatening situations) in communication accommodation. Hence, this stage, labeled as the intergroup/contextual phase (ca. 1977–), focused on divergence and nonaccommodation (Bourhis, 1979). Conceptually, divergence refers to adjusting communication to be dissimilar to others, thus accentuating differences in speech patterns and/or communication styles between conversation partners (Dragojevic et al., 2016; Gallois et al., 1995; Giles, 2008). According to CAT, when intergroup concerns become salient, for example, due to group members’ perceived identity conflict and stereotype threat, speakers tend to adapt their speech style and nonverbal behaviors to be different from their conversation partner. As such, divergence as a form of accommodation could demonstrate the speakers’ pride of their ethno-linguistic identity (see Bourhis & Giles, 1977), thus distancing themselves from others. In essence, divergence is perceived as a form of nonaccommodation. Nonaccommodation primarily happens when individuals maintain or continue their own communication behavior or their original communication style in interaction and, thereby, do not converge. In its later stage of CAT, nonaccommodation was further conceptualized and expanded to include broader aspects of communication deemed inappropriate. While other motives for speech accommodation in this stage (e.g., communication clarity) were discussed, divergence and non-accommodation were considered communicative forms of social differentiation, which are triggered by larger-scale social conditions (e.g., high or low group vitality). CAT’s development in this stage is heuristic, which led to the development of ethnolinguistic identity theory (Giles & Johnson, 1987), and in turn other intergroup models, including those of second language acquisition, acculturation, tourism, and multilingualism (Giles, Bonilla, & Speer, 2012; Giles & Byrne, 1982; Giles, Ota, & Foley, 2013; Sachdev, Giles, & Pauwels, 2012).

CAT’s contribution in the second stage in the domain of bilingual education was especially appealing. Theoretically, CAT conceptualized the learning and speaking of a second language to different degrees of native-like proficiency as being an accommodative move. For example, to native English speakers, nonnative English speaking immigrants’ willingness to speak English could be a form of convergence; meanwhile, speaking other languages or English with a distinct accent might be perceived of as a form of nonaccommodation and thus interpreted as incompetent, maladaptation, and less socially attractive (Imamura, Zhang, & Harwood, 2011; Kim, 2001; see also Dragojevic et al., 2016). For its utmost importance and pragmatics, CAT conceptualized the so-called “failure” to master a dominant culture’s language in more positive, “healthy,” or neutral terms, in that it indicated a desire not to assimilate but, rather, to tenaciously preserve a group’s linguistic culture (Zhang & Giles, 2017). Such a nonaccommodative stance by, say, an immigrant group (and particularly one with an increasingly perceived high vitality that maintains its own linguistic landscape) can often be seen as threatening by the host community (see Baker, Gallois, Driedger, & Santesso, 2011; Ruble & Zhang, 2012, 2013). Ultimately, spawned by this development, other satellite models in other intergroup contexts emerged, such as language contact between: speakers of different age groups (Fox & Giles, 1993); people with different physical abilities (Fox, Giles, Orne, & Bourhis, 2000), genders miscommunicating in the workplace (Boggs & Giles, 1999), and police–civilian interactions (Choi & Giles, 2012). In all of these, theoretical attention was afforded to how and why nonaccommodative language forms were fundamental to understanding when individuals define an interaction in more intergroup than interpersonal terms (see Dragojevic & Giles, 2014).

CAT has provided impetus to the majority of research using it in the quantitative realm as a result of its development in the third stage, a “subjectivist phase” (ca. 1982–). In this stage, the antecedent conditions under which accommodative/nonaccommodative acts surfaced. The relational and identity outcomes arising from these acts were better elaborated. Hence, the third stage saw CAT embrace propositional structures as a coherent, systematic, and sophisticated theory that explains and predicts the relationships between communication and intergroup relations. The major premise here was that speakers accommodate not to where others are in any objectively measurable sense, but rather to where they are believed or biasedly-heard to be communicatively. For example, in this period, the basic antecedents of and outcomes arising from accent and speech convergence were conceptualized. In this stage, both personal identity- and social identity-based motivations were considered driving forces for convergence, divergence, and nonaccommodation, and different forms of accommodative acts are associated with different relational, identity, and communicative consequences. For example, convergence was found to be positively associated with a desire for social approval, liking, attraction, similarity, trust, and a closer relational distance between the speakers. These correlates of convergence serve as either predictors or outcomes of convergence. Divergence and nonaccommodation, on the contrary, were associated with increased social distance between the speakers and negative evaluations of the speaker and the interaction.

Up until the third phase, nonaccommodation was conceptualized mainly as forms of maintaining and/or nonconverging. Conceptually, CAT embraced under- and overaccommodating moves in the fourth phase (ca. 1986–) in the contexts of intergenerational communication and health (Coupland, Coupland, & Giles, 1991; Harwood & Giles, 1996). With the emergence of the communicative predicament of aging model (CPA) (Ryan, Giles, Bartolucci, & Henwood, 1986), communication and aging research using CAT flourished in this era (Giles & Gasiorek, 2011). In general, findings in this body of work showed that young people, motivated by negative stereotypes of aging, tend to overaccommodate their elders by means of patronizing or secondary baby talk in ways that those socially and cognitively competent find demeaning and inappropriate. Older adults, on the other end, underaccommodate young people by talking too excessively about their own problems or overaccommodate young adults by being bossy superiors (Zhang & Hummert, 2001). Not only can these accommodative missteps lead to intergenerational dissatisfaction, avoidance, and conflict, but, for older people, can contribute to the social (and communicative) constructions of aging, fermenting lowered self-worth, depleting life satisfaction, and even accelerating demise (Giles, 1999; Giles, Davis, Gasiorek, & Giles, 2013; Zhang & Lin, 2009).

Intercultural scholars were fascinated by the development and utility of CAT and its satellite model CPA. The CAT-based cross-cultural communication research in this stage, for example, examined the influences of age, particular cultural values and age norms, and the interaction between age and culture on intergenerational communication from both young and older adults’ perspectives. Some of the studies, for example, examined samples from Asian cultures where the age-related norm of filial piety or xiao (e.g., respect for older adults) was upheld. Indeed, this work spawned a collaborative cross-cultural research program around the globe—especially across many South and East Asian nations, as well as in Australasia, Africa, and the Middle East. Research has provided support for the predicament of aging model (see McCann, Giles, & Ota, 2017), moved into the intergenerational workplace (e.g., McCann & Giles, 2006), and led to the development of the “communication ecology model of successful aging” (e.g., Gasiorek, Fowler, & Giles, 2016). Across these developments in this stage, culture not only served as a context, but also was studied as a key variable that influences communication accommodation and nonaccommodation (Zhang & Hummert, 2001) in intergenerational relationships, which could be easily generalized to studying communication between, but not limited to, members of different racial and cultural groups. As illustrated by the examples at the beginning of this chapter, the CPA model could be easily used in the context of interethnic, health, legal, and intercultural communication contexts for understanding the stereotype-based accommodative mismoves in interaction.

While the development of CAT in earlier stages focused on the multiple forms of convergence, divergence, and nonaccommodation, the holistic dimensions of communication adjustments were further extended in the fifth (ca. 1988–), “communicative breadth” phase (see Coupland et al., 1991). In this stage, CAT exceedingly blossomed as a general theory, moving beyond the adaptive use of accents, slangs, and languages to embracing different discourse styles and nonverbal practices (e.g., gait and dress styles) (see Denes, Gasiorek, & Giles, 2016). Convergence and divergence, for example, were conceived of as a couple of the many ways in which people accommodate or not (called “approximation strategies”). Attention in this stage was also paid to “interpretability strategies” where communicators took into account the shared knowledge each had on the conversational topic at hand as well as their communicative needs and relative social statuses, called “discourse management” and “interpersonal control strategies,” respectively. These developments led also to an acknowledgment of speakers’ ability to blend convergence and divergence simultaneously, albeit at different communicative levels, in order to fulfill complementary social and identity needs. In this sense, speakers could use divergence to maintain their status position but also simplify their grammar and avoid jargon terms, thereby taking the listeners’presumed and, in this case, limited knowledge base into account.

Most recent, but not the last, CAT’s theoretical advancement suggested a “mediating mechanism phase” (ca. 2006–) and coincided with Howard Giles’ police–civilian encounters as a result of his becoming a sworn law enforcement officer for 15 years (Choi & Giles, 2012). The theory was then directed towards how accommodations could trigger various emotions like irritation, pride, and joy, which then dictate particular evaluative and behavioral reactions from others (Dorjee, Giles, & Barker, 2011). In particular, this was the dawn of another large-scale international collaborative project (e.g., Hajek et al., 2008), including work in other sites, such as Russia, China, Bulgaria, Armenia, and Mongolia, that examined how people’s views of the accommodativeness of police officers led to feelings of trust which, in turn, enhanced reports of compliance with law enforcement (e.g., Barker et al., 2008). Additionally, attention was drawn to the ways in which attributed intent influenced listener’s reactions to accommodation (Gasiorek, 2015; Gasiorek & Giles, 2012). In this way, a nonaccommodative stance does not necessarily directly trigger negative evaluations of another’s attributes, but rather can be mediated by the negative (e.g., frustration and anger) or positive affect (e.g., perspective-taking) that it arouses (Myers, Giles, Reid, & Nabi, 2008). With the broadened theoretical scope and constructs, such as interpretability, discourse management, and interpersonal control strategies, CAT-based intercultural communication in this stage was conducted between Chinese international students and Australian host-nationals (Hornsey & Gallois, 1998), as well as between Americans and Japanese international students (Imamura et al., 2011). In general, findings in this area have demonstrated the utility of CAT in moving intergroup and intercultural research to a “mediating mechanism phase,” illustrating the roles played by the complex interplay between accommodative and nonaccommodative moves, initial orientations, status/power differentials, attribution of motives, and anxiety in interpersonal friendship formation and the reduction of intergroup prejudices.

These six, admittedly reconstructed, CAT phases are not mutually exclusive or successively contained developments. Instead, they are interdependent, and refinements can be seen as evolving in all of them. The inclusion of biological parameters to accommodative practices and the latter’s use in new communication technologies will certainly yield additional phases, indicating its openness for future extensions and refinements and its systematic nature and utility in accounting for communication adjustments, initial orientations, context, and intergroup relations. So far, we have demonstrated CAT’s major conceptualizations, its theoretical scope and developmental stages as a general communication theory, its heuristic value in generating research, and its multicultural and interdisciplinary utility. As a general theory, CAT explains an incredibly wide spectrum of communication related behaviors in multiple contexts.

CAT: Its Utility

Given its fully elaborated nature of communication adjustments, CAT has attracted, arguably, the most cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural scholarly attention among psychologists, sociologists, sociolinguists, and communication scholars for understanding communication and identity processes. Findings from a recent meta-analytic study of CAT published in Communication Yearbook 38 (Soliz & Giles, 2014) have demonstrated explicitly CAT’s utility in studying both micropersonal and macrocultural aspects in human interaction. These scholars quantitatively analyzed 149 articles published from 1973 to 2010 with empirical data that used CAT as a major theoretical framework. Results indicated that these studies appeared in 67 different journals across the disciplines, such as communication, psychology, linguistics, and sociology. In addition, more than 60% of the studies used non-U.S. samples from 35 countries. Furthermore, they also examined the contexts of the inquiry, the correlates and effects size of various accommodative behaviors in CAT-based quantitative research, and other methodological issues. Results indicated that more than half of the studies used CAT in cultural, ethnic, or ethnolinguistic (i.e., 40.9%) and intergenerational contexts. Other CAT-based studies with a notable increase were in family and legal contexts. Its heuristic value in generating research across disciplines is further attested by the fact that more than half (i.e., 53.69%) of the studies were published since 2000.

More empirical studies using CAT as a major theoretical framework have been published since 2010. Further, Soliz and Bergquist’s (2016) follow up meta-analytic study extended the time span to 2015 and focused on 177 quantitative empirical studies using CAT. On top of the contextual variability, these comprehensive meta-analytic studies also revealed methodological pluralism and a plethora of constructs and variables either as predictors or outcomes of accommodative behaviors in CAT-based research. Methodologically, CAT has been used by many scholars with an interpretive focus in qualitative research including thematic, textual, and conversational analytic approaches to studying language and communication. With its primary focus on prediction and explanation, unsurprisingly, the majority of the empirical studies in CAT-based research are quantitative, especially since the late 90s and the new millennium. Scholars with a post-positivistic focus in the logical-empirical realm have used CAT in research that adopts content-analytic, correlational, and experimental designs.

Altogether, the majority of the quantitative studies focused on the assessment of participants’ own accommodative behaviors and/or others’ accommodative behaviors directed toward them, and other related relational, identity, cognitive, psychological, and communication constructs. In CAT-based experimental studies, participants were also asked to evaluate either actual or hypothetical conversations from a third person perspective. These research procedures are consistent with the conceptual definition of accommodation, which could be actual or perceived, and could be participants’ own behaviors and/or behaviors directed toward them by others. Among various constructs used in CAT-based quantitative research, twelve major categories were identified, of which quality of contact, credibility, general evaluation of individuals and social groups, and relational solidarity appeared in close to 20% of the studies. Group salience, which is an important construct in intergroup theories in general, appeared in almost 10% of CAT-based research.

CAT’s utility has been demonstrated in the numerous books published on CAT (e.g., Giles, 2008, 2016), the extensive conceptual, narrative, and empirical work in multiple languages and cultures (Soliz & Bergquist, 2016), and recent entries in encyclopedias and dictionaries across social science (e.g., Abeyta & Giles, 2017; Dragojevic, Gasiorek, & Giles, 2016; Zhang & Giles, 2017). CAT as a communication theory has established its interpretive significance and predictive power in understanding the complexities of the cultural, relational, identity, and communication dynamics in encounters among members with different language (different dialects or accent within the same language), ethnic, political, and economic backgrounds. Above all, we argue in this chapter that CAT is an appealing and heuristic general communication theory due to its unique intergroup features. In the next section, we specifically feature CAT’s theoretical scope, fit, and power for understanding the socio- and psychocultural influences on the intergroup processes.

CAT as an Intergroup Communication Theory

Despite the long human history on conflict between nations, cultures, racial and ethnic groups, and religious groups across the world, intergroup communication is a relatively new field (Giles & Watson, 2008; Harwood & Giles, 2005). With its birthmark and later development in both communication and intergroup relations, CAT intersects with and yet distinguishes itself from the two master theories in intergroup processes, namely SIT (Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and SCT (Turner et al., 1987). SIT and SCT were developed in social psychology, outside the field of communication. In recent years, in tandem with the amazing developments of CAT, many communication scholars have begun to conceptualize and operationalize intergroup communication (Abeyta & Giles, 2017; Harwood et al., 2005; Palomares et al., 2016; Soliz & Giles, 2014). In contrast to other traditionally recognized communication subfields, such as interpersonal, intercultural, and mass communication, intergroup communication, which was evolved from studying intergroup relations, prejudice, and discrimination, has only recently gained its academic recognition and identity. For example, the intergroup communication interest group was officially recognized by the International Communication Association in 2003 (Giles & Reid, 2003). Group processes originated in social psychology, hence, intergroup communication scholars frequently examine the interplay of intergroup cognitive processes, illustrated in social identity and self-categorization, and communication behaviors, marked by communication accommodation and group vitality (Abeyta & Giles, 2017).

According to Harwood et al. (2005), intergroup communication occurs when either party in an interaction defines self or other in terms of group memberships (Harwood et al., 2005). When group membership is irrelevant, on the contrary, the interaction is recognized as primarily interpersonal. Once a conversation partner is categorized in a social group that is different from our own, the nature of communication shifts from interpersonal orientation to intergroup orientation. Interpersonal and intergroup orientations are usually conceptualized on a continuum, although an interaction can be simultaneously high or low on both interpersonal and intergroup orientations (Abeyta & Giles, 2017). For example, communication that is guided primarily by personal identities in which group membership is irrelevant to the situation, such as two old friends talking about a memorable trip, is considered interpersonal orientation.

Communication can also be guided or influenced primarily by social group membership and identities, such as an encounter between two individuals from two nations in conflict or the airport scene presented at the beginning of this chapter. Of course, there are also communication situations where both interpersonal and intergroup salience is simultaneously high or low. These classifications provide a heuristic conceptualization to understand the cognitive process and its influence on communication behaviors. According to CAT, interactions are dynamic and usually shift between these quadrants (i.e., high or low intergroup and interpersonal orientations) based on accommodative stance, group vitality, and discourse management. Nonetheless, appropriate accommodation (actual or perceived) enhances interpersonal solidarity and thus is associated positively with interpersonal salience (Shepard, Giles, & LePoire, 2001; Jones, Gallois, Callan, & Barker, 1999); communication that is perceived as intergroup in nature differentiates social groups, accentuates groups’ history and intergroup relations, and leads us to strategically acquire or not acquire the communication practices of other social groups, all of which distinguish who is in our in-groups and out-groups (Abeyta & Giles, 2017; Jones et al., 1999).

Social Identity Theory (Tajfel, 1978) is a versatile theory that broadly captures the relationship between the self-concept and one’s social group membership. SIT provides a framework for conceptualizing group status relations and the ways in which individuals are psychologically connected to the social structure (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). It is a useful framework for understanding intergroup communication (Giles & Watson, 2008; Harwood & Giles, 2005), and thus it scaffolds CAT. In its theoretical core, Tajfel (1978) proposed the basic assumption that our self-concept and self-esteem are influenced by the social groups we belong to and their status and power in society. In other words, social group comparison fosters positive views of ourselves if the group is well regarded in society, while it hinders such perceptions if the group is devalued in society. Simply put, SIT highlights the cognitive and motivational basis of intergroup differentiation and comparison. Based on the intergroup differentiation and comparison, communication adjustments are made in interactions when group memberships are accentuated.

It is typical for each social group to have some distinct communication practices, such as a language, accent, dialect, or slang. On the one hand, acquiring and practicing the communication behaviors accepted by a social group marks one’s membership to and/or identification with the group as illustrated by the convergence strategy delineated in CAT. For example, individuals frequently converge to the communication style of a higher status group for social approval, such as an interviewee tends to accommodate to interviewers. Furthermore, CAT describes how such accommodative behaviors are often appreciated and lead to positive and satisfying interpersonal and intergroup relationships (Giles, 2008). On the other hand, the strategy of divergence refers to a strategic refrain from acquiring or practicing certain communication behaviors accepted by a social group, which marks one’s disassociation and distance from the group and evokes identification with a group to which one currently belongs (Bourhis & Giles, 1977). Similarly, other strategies, such as discourse management and interpersonal control, also signal group membership, vitality, and status (Jones et al., 1999). Turn taking in a conversation, topic choice, and other nonverbal signals indicate some form and degree of power and status (Jones et al., 1999).

By analyzing interactions between different dyads (e.g., Chinese–Australian, female–male, or student–faculty), CAT-based research found that individuals’ choice of strategies was largely influenced by their social status and group membership (Hornsey & Gallois, 1998; Jones et al., 1999). For example, faculty members often used strategies to control or lead the conversation when communicating with students. Women would attune more in their nonverbal behavior or discourse management (e.g., back channeling or turn management) than men. These findings generally explicate how group memberships influence and are manifested in the communication process. Giles and colleagues applied employed CAT to the domain of police–civilian encounters and found that accommodation often led to an increase of trust, and trust was positively associated with civilians’ satisfaction with or attitude toward them in many countries (e.g., United States, China, and Taiwan: Hajek et al., 2008), indicating the indirect effects of accommodation on intergroup relations through trust.

By focusing on the accommodative act and relating it to other sociocultural constructs, CAT has become a powerful intergroup communication theory, while being faithful to the major principles of SIT (Giles & Watson, 2008). Neither SIT nor SCT offers explicit motivational analysis to account for intergroup behavior (Hornsey, 2008), while CAT, to a large extent, amends the gap by mapping out different type of strategies and mechanisms behind them to achieve different outcomes (Gasiorek, 2015). CAT, therefore, explains why individuals may purposefully use different communication styles in encountering a social group that is in conflict, comparison, or competition with one’s own group. Typically, accommodative acts achieve four primary goals (Palomares et al., 2016): First, communication accommodation improves comprehension and coherence between the communicators. By speaking more slowly or using simpler language, communicators may be able to increase comprehension. Second, accommodative acts can increase or decrease social and psychological distance within in-groups and between in- and out-groups. Third, social categories help us determine what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate levels and forms of accommodation. Finally, communication accommodation behaviors influence and are influenced by social group identity salience. Certain communicative behaviors reinforce group membership boundaries, while communication behaviors are shaped by perceived group membership of the conversation partner.

From a broader scope, Abeyta and Giles (2017) summarize five characteristics of intergroup communication by focusing on the functions of language and communication, each of which is a core principle of communication accommodation. First, language and communication modes serve as indicators of membership to social groups. Distinctive languages instantaneously designate who belongs to which social group and who does not. The boundary we draw based on the language extends to the use of dialect, slang, jargon, ethnic, or foreign accents. These communication modes are often the criteria for categorizing and organizing social identities and group memberships. For example, within the United States, accents divided by the geographical locations, such as the South, the Midwest, Boston, and Southern California, can categorize individuals into certain social groups tied, to some extent, with stereotypes specific to these regions.

Second, the relationship between the theories of social identity and CAT go beyond merely the use of distinct languages to the attitudes created by the use of language. On a more macro level, discursively created intergroup relations based on the histories and demographics between two social groups institutionalize the cultures of a social group. When two social groups compete against each other, individuals’ attitudes toward the out-group become more negative and the use of language to describe the out-group or events happening within the out-group becomes more biased and abstract. For example, Japanese media may use negatively connoted language to report and describe an issue in China due to a long historical conflict between these countries. In short, intergroup attitudes influence and are influenced by the use of language.

Third, communication practices can alter or refine intergroup relations. For example, a term that used to negatively describe a minority group (e.g., Queer) can be refined in its meaning to gain positive reinforcement of the group identity among the LGBTQ+ community. Similarly, ongoing research explores whether the use of gender-neutral language can promote gender equality compared to gender-specific languages, such as “he” and “she” pronouns. The refinement of the meaning of language negatively used by the out-group members is often strategically encouraged from the inside (i.e., in-group members) to gain a positive social identity.

Fourth, “accommodative chase” between the members of higher and lower status groups can be prolonged and abandoned because of its damaging effect on maintaining a positive social identity. This concept is bifold because accommodative acts need to be accepted as appropriate and effective by the perceivers, and these acts can bring a negative impact on the social identities of the lower status groups. The former concern describes a situation where our accommodative acts cannot surpass the group boundaries or where our accommodative acts are perceived as inappropriate. For example, a foreign individual who has acquired fluency in Japanese often experiences being spoken to in English by Japanese locals. Regardless of how fluent the speaker is in Japanese, the tenacious perception that “foreigners” cannot sufficiently acquire the Japanese language fails to break the intergroup boundaries because such perception has maintained the impermeable cultural identity in Japan. The latter concern describes a situation where a lower status group member’s accommodative acts to converge to the communication styles of the higher status group that can be considered as a form of social mobility. Those who hold strong identification with the lower status group can recognize such shifts in communication as cultural betrayal. Moreover, these shifts create expectations not only for communicative but also for perceptual and structural shifts from a lower status to a higher status, in other words a form of assimilation to the culture of the higher status group. These expectations further perpetuate negative evaluations of individuals, such that they are lazy, incompetent, and unmotivated, in a lower status group who do not assimilate to the mainstream culture.

Fifth and finally, the everyday discourse within a group establishes, maintains, and negotiates normativity, enabling its group members to recognize deviancy and discredit others. We frequently engage in “norm talk” that creates and conveys information about social standards and that distinguishes in-groups from out-groups. Such “norm talk” is an opportunity for individuals to gather information about social standards accepted within a group, while they hold multiple identities. For example, a mother may ask her son why he is wearing pink and tells him that it is not a gender-appropriate color for him. Similarly, the use of slurs affirms individuals for their belonging to the in-group because such slurs create a psychological distance between two social groups. In short, discourse controls our sense of social group affiliations by distinguishing “us” from “them.”

In this section, we have demonstrated how CAT, as an intergroup communication theory, is associated with and yet different from the master theories in intergroup relations such as SIT and SCT. We have also demonstrated how CAT possesses and addresses each of the five principles of intergroup communication. An important issue of any theory of communication is its relation and overlap with other theories in a similar domain (Zhang & Giles, 2017). Zhang and Giles (2017) have demonstrated how CAT is the only theory about interpersonal adaptation with intergroup features that is connected with models of cultural adaptation. The next section focuses on CAT’s connection with intergroup contact theory.

CAT and Intergroup Contact Theory

Allport (1954) suggested that direct contact between individuals from different social groups, particularly under certain conditions (e.g., equal status, institutional support, interdependent cooperation, and common goals) had the capacity to reduce intergroup biases. Clearly, Allport’s (1954) contact conditions are not necessarily intrinsic to the contact situation, but rather aspects that are perceived and experienced by people in a successful intergroup interaction. From that regard, application of the contact hypothesis to intergroup communication and the overlap/intersection between intergroup contact theory and CAT should not be ignored. In the past few decades, much research in intergroup relations is guided by the intergroup contact theory to examine the explaining mechanisms in the link between contact and attitudes. Strangely, while contact should be conceptualized as communicative dynamics, its operationalization has rarely focused on behavioral issues. For example, the majority of contact research has paid particular attention to the association between quantity and quality of contact and intergroup attitudes. In general, quantity of contact has been conceptualized and operationalized as frequency, quantity, or amount of contact that individuals have with out-group members. Findings in the contact literature have demonstrated a significant and positive role played by frequency or quality of contact, as defined as meeting the optimal conditions, in improving intergroup relations in general, especially between social groups within the same culture (Harwood et al., 2005; Islam & Hewstone, 1993). Previous literature suggests that intergroup contact could provide opportunities for the reduction of intergroup biases, as contact can reduce anxiety associated with out-groups simply by increasing their familiarity with the group. Consequently, contact can disconfirm stereotypes, increase knowledge about the out-group, and provide “practice” in how to effectively communication with “them.” However, certain studies found the opposite role of contact frequency in intergroup relations in cross-national contexts. For example, Shim, Zhang, and Harwood (2012) examined the relationship between both direct contact and mediated contact between Koreans and Americans and Korean participants’ attitudes toward Americans. They found that contact frequency had a negative association with behavioral attitudes toward Americans, especially in the direct contact condition. In other words, the more contact the Korean participants had with their American friends, the less likely they would engage Americans in general in their social circle in the future, indicating part of the negative nature of contact.

CAT could shed new light in explaining what might have gone wrong. First, CAT is a theory about language use and communication adjustments, stating that our initial orientation influences our subsequent communicative moves. In the cross-national context, cultural groups are often characterized by distinct languages and dialects within a language. The English language, however, has achieved power and status as the world’s lingua franca through globalization. In many intercultural encounters between people with different first languages, such as Koreans and Americans, English is expected to be the “correct” or “official” language to use. This means, from an ethnolinguistic vitality perspective, which is derived from CAT, native English speakers automatically gain language-based power, status, and authority in intergroup contact. Hence, for Koreans, communication with Americans can be a strenuous process. In most cases, Koreans are expected to accommodate their U.S. partner’s language needs during an interaction. Such pressure can function as a stressor and is likely to discourage them from engaging with Americans in diverse social contexts. From this regard, CAT contributes to our understanding of the interplay between our initial orientations, the broader intergroup relations, and communication that influence intergroup relations. Specifically, from CAT’s view, cross-group and cross-cultural linguistic convergence could be draining and depleting as it can threaten an individual’s face and sense of efficacy, resulting in embarrassment and performance anxiety (Giles & Johnson, 1987; Kim, 2001). Therefore, many minority, lower-status group members may try to avoid such stressful and anxiety-raising situations. From this regard, English has the potential to bring people together or the power to divide people into high- and low-status groups. In addition, immigrants and lower-status group members are also expected to accommodate to the social norms upheld by the mainstream culture. Unfamiliarity with the social norms is disadvantageous to adjusting individuals. Furthermore, for adjusting individuals, willingness to adapt to the mainstream culture and how accommodation is received constitute important factors for improved interpersonal and intergroup relations.

Much prior intergroup research has conceptualized quality of contact as qualitative interpersonal relationships reflected in friendships with out-group members (Pettigrew, 1998). In general, previous studies have consistently shown positive associations between contact quality and intergroup attitudes in various contexts, demonstrating the importance of interpersonal relationships, particularly friendships, across social and cultural group boundaries for improving intergroup attitudes. Development or maintenance of interpersonal relationships (e.g., friendships) as well as intergroup relations cannot be separated from communication processes. Despite the critical role of communication, prior research that has explored contact quality from a communication perspective is limited. As a communication theory about actual communicative moves, CAT contributes to the contact research not only through its robust intergroup features, but also by providing detailed conceptualizations and operationalization of the specific communicative behaviors used by group members with the status, vitality, and power differentials (Giles, 2016; Harwood et al., 2005). The majority of prior studies have paid attention almost exclusively to negative intervening factors, such as intergroup anxiety. They have generally found full or partial mediation effects of intergroup anxiety in the contact and attitude link. Intergroup contact theory (Pettigrew, 1998) states that “the contact condition must provide the participants with the opportunity to become friends” (p. 76) in order to improve intergroup relations, specifying the important mediating role of interpersonal relationships in the contact. Highlighting the importance of communication in intergroup relations, recent studies have considered communication accommodation as a proxy or a communicative manifestation of contact quality to enhance attitudes toward out-group members (Imamura et al., 2011, 2012; Soliz & Harwood, 2006).

In intercultural communication between sojourners and host-nationals, CAT-based research continues to grow more sophisticated. Accommodation was found to be associated with both personal- and group-level consequences. Propositional research has demonstrated that, in line with other CAT-based research in this stage, for example, American host nationals’ accommodative acts as perceived by Japanese international students were positively related to Japanese sojourners’ relational solidarity with Americans, which then was positively associated with group level attitudes (Imamura et al., 2011). Consistent with the theoretical delineation of communication accommodation as a signal of interpersonal solidarity (Shepard et al., 2001), Harwood et al. (2005) found that when age salience was high, communication nonaccommodation served as a significant mediator between the contact with grandparents and attitudes toward older adults. These studies in general have demonstrated the complex interplay between group salience, communication accommodation, and intergroup and intercultural relations, suggesting a new “mediating mechanism phase” of CAT in intergroup contact research. Hence, CAT provides a more powerful theoretical mechanism that explains the contact-attitude link in cross-national contexts. As the linguistic and cultural barriers in communication are leading factors of hindered communication quality, language competency, and specific accommodative acts should be paid more attention in the future in contact research from both the dominant and subordinate cultural perspectives.

CAT provides a concrete theoretical framework that will enhance intergroup contact research to go further, beyond the basic idea specified in intergroup contact theory that positive contact experiences improve intergroup attitudes. Specifically, for example, convergence, divergence, accommodative and nonaccommodative acts could serve as proxies of contact quality. In addition, both accommodative acts and the outcomes of accommodation (e.g., relational solidarity) could serve as explaining mechanisms between the contact and attitude link (Imamura et al., 2011, 2012). In communicating with the cultural stranger, the specific accommodation acts from each side can function to index and achieve relational solidarity between them. Relational solidarity with specific group members, which can be built from appropriate communication accommodation in an intercultural context, has high potential to enhance intergroup relations.


The rapid acceleration of globalization in the last two decades has increased the opportunities for intergroup and intercultural encounters. It has also created a world in which communication is no longer restricted by group, cultural, and geographic boundaries. In fact, an increasing number of sojourners, immigrants, and refugees are coming across group and national boundaries in almost every country (e.g., Homeland Security, 2014), indicating the increased contact opportunities between people with different cultural heritages, linguistic traditions, and power differentials. Hence, there is a need for more sophisticated, yet parsimonious, theories of communication like CAT. CAT provides a solid general theoretical framework for examining the relational, functional, and identity processes where communicators create commonality, solidarity, or distance through strategic use of language and management of nonverbal codes in interactions. CAT is systematic in explaining motivations behind individuals’ communication adjustments in response to their initial orientations (interpersonal or intergroup considerations), values and social norms, self-systems (stereotypes and existing attitudes), perceptions of the conversation partner’s interpretive ability and emotional needs, and the communication situation. In a nutshell, CAT is a theory of interpersonal, intergroup, and intercultural communication, which is most powerful in identifying, understanding, predicting, and explaining how we manage and negotiate our social distance, identification, and/or disassociation with others by modifying our language use and interaction patterns as a response to our communication partner, the communication situation, cultural values and norms, and the underlying motivations. Future research will continue to explore how specific forms of communication accommodation and nonaccommodation are mediated by other explaining mechanisms, such as interpretation of motives, relational outcomes, social norms, and group salience in influencing intergroup biases and stereotypes.

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