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It's laughter and it's loving I disdain

by anna at 07:56 AM on May 19, 2004

My family grew up different. We lived in a sprawling restaurant. My parents worked all the time. Every so often we had to clear all the furniture out of our makeshift living room to make room for a banquet. We three kids were often left to fend for ourselves.

So in the 2nd grade I was being hassled by some other kids for acting different. I asked me sister what to do. She said to take some time, observe how others act and then imitate them. When you lack a personality of your own, just adopt that of others. This advise has served me pretty well through the years. In fact, I lurked here for six months, observing y'all, before I ever typed a word. Imagine that.

But there is an unfortunate side-effect. When I am speaking with someone new, I tend to subconsciously alter my speech pattern to resemble what I imagine theirs might be like. With black people I add a little street jive. (Think P. Diddy.) With west coast people I try to sound laid back. (Think Stephen Wright.) With southerners I throw in a slight drawl. (Think Jeff Foxworthy.) And with Hispanic people I try to sound just a little bit Latin. (Think George Lopez.) I have no idea why I do this. Maybe my pathetic stab at relating to people.

So I am standing there in my yard. A Latin-looking guy is busily washing out his boat. It is huge and impressive. "Hey, man, nice boat," I say in my faux Spanish voice, "where you take it?" The guy smiles and in that impeccable ultra-white guy voice that Richard Pryor invented and Chris Rock perfected says, "Why, thank you. I take it out to the Potomac River. My kids love it. By the way, I am Jose. It is nice to meet you." We shake hands and exchange mundane pleasantries. Before long we're carrying on a real conversation and making plans to do things. He's telling me how he plans to buy an even bigger boat but first he needs a more powerful truck to pull it. I've long since dropped the phony accent. We're getting along swimmingly.

But still I'm kicking myself for having been such a presumptious prick. Sometimes I give myself the creeps.

Jose is probably posting about his laughable encounter with me on his blog.

comments (13)

Stupid cancel button. I had an ex- that used to try to mimic accents -- with him it was a conscious thing, and I found he sounded condescending/patronizing when he did it. Some people do it subsconsiously, though -- my dad has said when he used to go on business trips where he'd be surrounded by people with a different accent, he'd end up adopting that accent as time passed. It wasn't a concerted effort on his part, it just happened. :)

by Jen at May 19, 2004 9:31 AM

I'm ok in person, though after a conversation I can usually mimic someone pretty well. However, I've been informed that I can't seem to watch TV in reserved silence. I have a tendency to silently mimic people's facial expressions and then during commercials I do the voices. Since having this pointed out to me, I've noticed it's true, like a strange compulsion. Thing is, it's strikes me as an empathetic response. Or maybe it's just like music, sometimes you hear it and some part fo your body has to move in sympathy.

by chris at May 19, 2004 12:07 PM

I do that too. One of my good friends at work is truly a southern bell, from Columbus, GA. After I have spent any amount of time talking to her I can't shake the drawl for a couple of hours. Joseph thinks I'm crazy.

by Shannon at May 19, 2004 12:14 PM

I definitely adapt to the person I'm talking to. Here in Wisconsin, I sometimes drop an "Oh yah?" or an "Oah Geez."

When I was living in Germany, I managed to subconsciously change my accent to just barely American (the "r"s were pretty flat) and picked up an Irish cadence when I was talking. Weird. Guess I didn't want to be mistaken as a dumb American tourist. That, and my friends were mostly German, British and Irish.

by Leaffin at May 19, 2004 12:49 PM

I did the same thing in Wisconsin Leaffin. I even started sayone my Os like they do. Scary stuff.

Also, when I was in the Army I lost my southern accent completely. I went home and everyone said I was talking funny but I was thinking the same thing about them. Where I live now isn't much different. Of course, everyone here is from somewhere else. The only time my accent comes out is when I'm drunk. I wonder why that is?

by Ezy at May 19, 2004 1:24 PM

I spent 7 years in southern VA, which Ezy will tell you is a totally different world than up here in the DC area. I'd come home and my parents could barely carry on a conversation with me. I sounded like a hillbilly.

I also dated a Hispanic girl (Latina?) I started doing the same thing I did with Jose until she told me it sounded patronizing and to knock it off.

by anna at May 19, 2004 6:29 PM

A good friend is from southern Virginia. I went to school with him in an accentless panacea, and to me, he has little, if no accent. Though when his sister came to visit, she had a HEAVY southern virginia accent (she still lives there, with the fam). It's just one of those things that you can't entirely wipe out, but can mostly get rid of in a hurry. Like the clap.

Also in a strange parallel, I pick up people's laughs really fast. It's accidental, but by the end of some time hanging around me, my laugh picks up the intonations, or rhythms of others and I've never really been sure why. I think it goes back to Anna's comments about acceptance.

Nice analysis on that one.

by lajoie at May 19, 2004 11:40 PM

"Like the clap." Nice metaphor on that one.

by anna at May 20, 2004 7:46 AM

I'm a facial-expression mimicker, too. When I watch tv, I'll often emulate the facial expressions of the people who are on, especially if it's a really odd one.

I also pick up my friends' and coworkers' habits and so on -- I have various faces or ways of saying things that originate from someone else. Not so much with accents, though; despite being able to speak French fluently, I can't do a French accent. Go figure.

by Jen at May 20, 2004 9:56 AM

Jen, you're Canadian not French. That's probably why ;-)

I think that any culture or group you're immersed in will rub off on you. If you spend enough time in any place you will, eventually, pick up their dialect. Amy is from Nebraska but she lived in NYC for three years and sometimes she reverts to that accent. Weird shit.

by Ezy at May 20, 2004 6:21 PM

You do that music thing, too, Chris? Wow, that's something I've always done but never talked to anyone about.

I pick up accents, too, and when I'm around people who don't speak English well I speak with really simple grammar. But I grew up around people who didn't speak English well, and if you mind all your P's and Q's, use "whom", and don't split your infinitives, no one will understand you. Including Mom :)

I was in Central Illinois for two days last week, and by the end I was working that Midwestern twang real well. I hope people didn't think I was wierd.

by jean at May 27, 2004 1:59 AM

Jean, Chris, I do what your calling the music thing too. I think I wrote about it here once, but I'm too lazy to bother looking for it (). Its interesting that so many people pick up other people's accents, but yet people like Arnold Schwarzensomething, Antonio Banderas, and Henry Kissinger (not to mention all the people who live in my neighborhood) can't lose their thick accents even after decades being around English.

by mg at May 27, 2004 3:29 PM

I grew up in Northern Virginia, and i never sounded like a Yankee. But the natives of Northern Virginia speak like Virginians. I think there is such an influx of people from out of state in the D.C. area you'd be hard pressed to find any true Virginians there.

However, I think the South as a whole are losing the southern accents.

by Meade Skelton at October 26, 2004 7:38 AM

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