It appears that I am turning into my girlfriend. I've known this was happening for a while, but I didn't really admit it to myself until a few weeks ago. She and I were walking to get a coffee one morning when I realized we were in matching black hoodies and nearly identical square-framed glasses, both of which she began wearing before I did. I would have chalked it up as a coincidence, but then that word came out of my mouth, the one that she uses all the time. "Totally," I said, affirming whatever it was that she had just said.
If that wasn't enough, I soon noticed that I've adopted at least one of her vowel sounds. She places a slightly Chicagoan twang over her short "a" – even though she's from the Beaches in Toronto – and now I do, too. It sounds alien to me whenever I hear her accent slanting words like "can" and "plan" as they leave my lips, and yet there seems to be nothing I can do to stop it.
Ever since a video called "[stuff]girls say" went viral late last year, girlspeak has been roundly mocked and defended across the Internet. But the fact is, whether we like it or not, we all end up talking like teenage girls in the end. At least, this is the conclusion of a handful of linguists interviewed in The New York Times last week. Young women, according to one specialist, are half a generation ahead of the men when it comes to using new phrases – like, "like", for instance – or pushing new ways of speaking. The latest girl-led trend has been called a "vocal fry" – a lengthened, croaking end to the last word of a sentence, signifying boredom.
I know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I've always felt that I'm supposed to stay true to who I am. I suppose that's what I've always been told a real man does. As it turns out, according to experts who study mimicry, there's actually a host of reasons to not fear sounding like a girl – or like your girlfriend.
"For many decades, mimicry has been linked with prosociality," says Tanya Chartrand, a social psychologist who has been studying the phenomenon at Duke University since the 1990s. Not only do people subconsciously mimic other people they like, she says, but studies have also shown that when a person is mimicked – as long as it's subtle enough that they don't think they're being mocked or manipulated – they feel better about themselves.
This means that every time I say "totally," my girlfriend's self-esteem rises. In fact, when I use her favourite phrases, it makes her a better human being in general. "The effect goes beyond the dyad," Dr. Chartrand says. "People who are mimicked more become more interdependent overall and are willing to help people more in general."
On the other hand, if I stop speaking in my girlfriend's faux-Midwestern accent, there will be negative consequences. Since I'm the person she spends the most time with, she subconsciously expects me to imitate her to a fair degree. If that doesn't happen, it puts a strain on her at a core level.
"When we're mimicked less than we expect, we pig out more on junk food, procrastinate more and have less fine motor skills," Dr. Chartrand warns.
If I'd known all this last month, I never would have worried. Still, Dr. Chartrand says my resistance makes sense. "Women have been shown to mimic more overall," she says, speculating that men are more apt to be annoyed when they notice they're doing it and thus, curb the behaviour.
As I surveyed other men in my life, however, all of them easily admitted that they too are turning into the women in their lives. Acceptance was the general consensus. "It doesn't bother me at all – it's just part of a relationship," a friend tweeted.
Another friend took his acceptance even further. He told me that the affectionate term for his girlfriend is "Squeezy–woo." That by itself is odd - as our pet names for each other tend to be - but what's even odder is the term's origin: "An ex-girlfriend of mine had an ex-boyfriend who had a cat that he called Squeezy-woo," he continued. When he was dating the ex-girlfriend, she used the term of endearment with him. When they broke up, he instinctively carried it over and applied it to his current girlfriend.
"And now," he says, "she uses it with me, too!"
His story made me realize that I might not be turning into my girlfriend after all. I'm turning into somebody, but I can't know for sure who it is. The fact is, we probably both share our accent with some mysterious teenage lingual trendsetter, a young woman walking along Lake Michigan in a black hoodie. Anyways, I'm done trying to protect my uniqueness. I'm over it – totally.