“Don’t Patronize Me!”
We all try to adjust our way of speaking to the recipient and the environment. In other Newsletters I have talked about the Lombard Effect (Newsletter #019: “The White Crowned Sparrow”; #087: “Christmas Parties”). It states that all creatures need to be heard. That includes humans. If the background noise rises we adapt. We speak louder and slower. We articulated more clearly and use our body and facial expressions more. This all takes place subconsciously.
But what happens if we get the accommodation wrong? What if we over adjust when talking to an older person. If a server misunderstands the signals of age and adopts the “Lombard” speech, they come across as patronizing. This can annoy the recipient since it implies they are old and decrepit. It can have other effects. It can trigger that stereotype we all hold within us. That stereotype that is much worse than reality. Once triggered it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (Newsletter #017 “The Enemy Within”). That over-accommodation becomes ageist, even if it was not intended to be.
In a recent study respondents were asked to take a visual ability test. The task was the matching of patterns on bricks. The computer pre-recorded instructions came in two forms. One employed normal speech. The second moved into Lombard or patronizing speech. There were old and young respondents. As part of the manipulation respondents were asked to input their age and name. They were told that the computer would then select the appropriate instructions. This was designed to suggest to the older respondent that the computer had been chosen the introduction to fit their age. In fact the process was random.
The results were perhaps now predictable. The style of presentation of the instructions made no difference to the test results of the young group. With an older group the “patronizing speech” generated a much lower test score. The stereotype within had taken over and supressed cognitive ability.
What was interesting about this particular study is that the respondents also completed two other questionnaires. One was about their positive and negative attitudes to ageing. The other, the frequency and quality of their interactions with older/younger people. Both had little to no effect on younger respondents. For the older group both mitigated the impact of the patronizing speech. People who were positive about ageing were less sensitive. Those who had good quality contact with the young were less sensitive. The amount of contact had no impact, it was the quality that mattered.
Patronizing everyday speech can be ageist, even if unintended. It can be triggered subconsciously by an ageist stereotype. It can in turn trigger the “Enemy Within”. It can affect cognitive performance and reinforce the perceived problems of being old. It can become a vicious circle.
Elderspeak is a far more dangerous “animal”. It is a language that lives in care settings. It is adopted by care givers of all kinds. They can be care home workers or nurses, physiotherapists and doctors. It adds to the Lombard speech a more nurturing voice and the use of diminutives such as “sweetie”. It uses simplified language. Finally it adopts the plural “We need to get dressed now..” In mirrors how we would talk to a baby or infant. It has been found in many settings and is another example of over accommodation. It is triggered unconsciously by an ageing stereotype. Elderspeak is typically adopted by those caring for older adults with nothing but positive intentions. They are trying to convey comfort, encourage cooperation, and enhance comprehension.
Care and comfort are signalled through the use of diminutives. Some researchers suggest that the switch to “We need to…” mode is a mixture of care and control. These are usually purposeful interactions instigated by the “carer”. They need to achieve something. The use of simpler words and syntax is designed to improve communication.
Elderspeak is almost universally regarded as patronizing by the recipients. They react to the implication that they are more infirm than they believe. The “carer” in trying to adapt to the receiver and is getting it wrong. (For a limited number of “patients” the adaptation works. They find that communication is easier. They take comfort from the style of the communication.)
The most powerful reactions have been found with people suffering from dementia. Elderspeak seems to trigger a resistance to treatment. It can provoked fighting or withdrawal. In one study subsequent staff training on avoiding Elderspeak reduced the incidence of restiveness. It went down by over fifteen percent in a German care home.
Elderspeak is an international language
The underlying communication might be in English, German or Swedish but the modifications are common. It also depends on age. Older people do not adopt Elderspeak when talking to other older people. Younger people do. We seem to learn older speak when we are children. Grandparents express less affection for those grandchildren who adopt it when talking to them.
Things get worse if the recipient has a cognitive or functional impairment. Experiments with people pretending dementia show it is a trigger for accommodation. Even older people will adopt Elderspeak, if talking to a fellow old person showing signs of dementia.
Elderspeak comes from a desire to be helpful and caring. It seems that it backfires. The “tone” actually stops communication. Studies have shown that simpler words and syntax alone result in increased communication. Adding the changes to tone, loudness and signs of “comfort” reverses the value.
A Postscript for Newsletter #096
“I am old but not an Idiot!” This was the rallying call of Carlos San Juan. Last year he started an on-line petition to stop Spanish banks excluding older customers by closing branches and moving vital transactions on line. He secured 650,000 signatures and the banks conceded. They put together a government approved Plan. This included the banks promising to:
- Maintain bank branches
- Repair ATM’s within 2 days,
- Provide a dedicated older persons phone line at no incremental cost
- Simplify the ease of use of the web-site.