Doctor-Directed Speech, and Me

My first memory of a sociophonetic experience that led to an actual research project was when I was about seventeen years old. I was seeing a new doctor in my hometown (Flagstaff, Arizona), and I was surprised to hear myself speaking to the doctor with a very fronted /u/ vowel. I don’t remember hearing the same vowel in my doctor’s speech (I have no idea where they were from), so it was an instance of style-shifting for social purposes rather than phonetic convergence; for some reason, I had acquired a fronted /u/ as part of my doctor-directed speaking style. My post-hoc intuition was that the fronted vowel indexed politeness, deference, and respect (although of course when I was 17 I didn’t use the word indexed). Anyway, I went off to college and then, for a term paper in Natasha’s Warner’s class, I did a little project on /u/-fronting in Flagstaff, Arizona. It turned into my first PhD Qualifying Paper, and my only NWAV proceedings paper.

Fast-forward nearly twenty years, to today, when I was again seeing a new doctor. I’ve had some minor but persistent health struggles for the past few years and was meeting with someone new for an initial, half-hour consultation. I’m not entirely sure where the doctor is from; all his education was in England, and he has been in Edinburgh for at least 25 years, and has no strong regional markers. (To be honest, my sociophonetic ‘ears’ were ‘off’ during the consultation because I was just trying to explain my medical situation and I wasn’t paying attention. I know some phoneticians are always ‘on’ but I’m not one of them.) Anyway, we were talking for about 10-15 minutes when this happened:

Me:  “…since I’m American…”
Him:  “Oh, you’re American?”
Me:  “Yes.”
Him:  “Hm, I didn’t pick up on that. You don’t sound it.”

Let me clear: this is definitely the first time this has happened to me. That is, this is the first time that a British person has thought that I was British, and said so. I’ve blogged before (though awhile ago now; early 2010) about how my accent hasn’t been changing and isn’t/wasn’t likely to change, but how my inner voice was already starting to ‘sound’ more British, even after only a few months. And how each time I noticed it, it took me by surprise. So here I am, surprised again.

Not that my accent is changing, though. An overall change in accent is very different from the acquisition of a new speech style. I had a good friend visiting from the US for the month July who noted that I style-shift when talking to (at least some) British friends.* After hanging out awhile, either just the two of us or in the company of other Americans, we had lunch with someone born and raised in Edinburgh. After lunch she pointed out that I’d style-shifted, and just like today, I totally hadn’t noticed it. It’s a bit like the experience of having a very fronted /u/ came out of my mouth twenty years ago, except back then I’d noticed the shift on my own, whereas nowadays I seem to need someone else to point it out.

Presumably both the lunch with the friend and the doctor’s office today were cases of some sort of phonetic convergence toward the friend’s or the doctor’s own speaking styles. But my intuition is that this was actually a secondary factor, at least today. If the motivation were solely about alignment with the doctor’s own style then alignment would’ve been gradually building over the conversation such that my Americanness would’ve been clear from my initial speech. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this was a consultation with a new doctor. I think there’s something specific to being a new patient with a new doctor that elicits my most accommodative styles. Maybe something about the adoption of a deferential stance, combined with the drive to establish a kind of please-understand-my-problem solidarity.

And coincidentally, a fronted /u/ is appropriate for both dialect contexts.

Okay, so, this last time it took about five years between the first instance of the phenomenon (the fronted /u/) and the related research project, so who knows, maybe in five years’ time I’ll be working on second dialect acquisition (although my collaborator Jennifer Nycz already has a great head start on that). Talk about blatant mesearch! (But then again, what’s a blog, if not that?)

*Including my daughter, but that’s a story for another day!

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