Psycho Babble

Freshman, Meet Your Roommates

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Prepare to share toothpaste—and dialects

By Jessica Love


 

A month from now, millions of Americans will head to Target to buy their first and only set of Twin XL bedding. Among the many new experiences awaiting the class of 2017, there is one rarely memorialized in the bawdy, nostalgic genre that is the college movie. Freshman, be warned: you may soon, for the first time, be living with someone who doesn’t talk the way you do.

My own freshman roommates included a number of Clevelanders. Cleveland is just four hours from my native Cincinnati, but unlike Cincinnati, it has undergone a dialectical sound change called the Northern Cities Shift. (The sound change is worthy of its own post, but in the mean time check out linguist Julie Sedivy’s description of this “free-for-all game of musical chairs involving vowels.”) Suffice it to say, in our dorm suite, pets were “putts,” putts “pots,” pots “pats,” and pats something like “pee-ats.”

Living with these otherwise delightful Clevelanders took a toll on my own speech. I was soon asking how much “kee-ash” I’d need to buy a “cafee”—and it weirded me out. What a phony I must be, I thought, talking like someone I wasn’t?

I would have appreciated knowing that my experience was not unique. A 2012 study led by researcher Jennifer Pardo followed pairs of randomly assigned freshman roommates at Columbia University. At four points during the school year—once before the roommates met, once in October, once in December, and a final time after the holidays—the roommates were recorded independently as they read from a list of sentences.

The recordings were then played to a second group of students tasked with deciding which of two versions of a sentence spoken by Roommate A most closely resembled that same sentence spoken by Roommate B. The researchers wondered: would speech recorded later in the school year be judged more similar to a roommate’s speech than speech recorded before the pair had ever met? For all but one of the roommate pairs, the answer was yes, suggesting that the roomies sounded more alike after bunking together at Columbia. (It didn’t seem to be the case that the pairs were simply adopting a single New York City accent.) Moreover, the extent to which Roommate A’s speech converged on Roommate B’s seemed to depend on how close Roommate A felt to Roommate B.

One enormous caveat: only five pairs of roommates participated in the study, and only four actually completed the whole thing. This makes it more convincing than my anecdote, but far from ironclad. Still, the results map easily onto other research suggesting that we adopt the speech patterns of the people with whom we interact—probably unconsciously, and especially when we are favorably disposed to them. (Less scientifically, it also maps onto a myriad of other anecdotes, many of which involve my mother and the Jersey Shore.)

So take note, freshman. Should your new roomie differ from you in regional background, class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—or maybe she just rocks a different social scene—you might find her speech irresistible.

Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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