Politically Speaking: How Speaking Style Affects Voter Opinion

Jacob I. Ricks

Two New York Times reporters in 2012 claimed that presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s formal speaking style was “polite, formal and at times anachronistic,” which hindered his ability to “sell himself to the American electorate.” In contrast, American politicians like George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump seem to revel in common speech, using lower speaking styles to appeal to voters. Speaking in different ways to increase political appeal isn’t limited to Americans. Former UK Chancellor George Osborne attempted to adopt the cockney accent, and Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte frequently uses slurs and cursing in his speeches. Some politicians even abandon the lingua franca in order to use ethnic tongues, like former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s use of Minnan. While we have an intuitive sense that such changes in speech patterns do have an impact on voters, the degree and effect is up for empirical testing. In other words, does it matter how a politician speaks?

I tackle this question through the use of a survey experiment in Northeast Thailand. Thailand provides an excellent opportunity to evaluate the impact of different speaking styles on voter opinion as the Thai language embodies a set of hierarchical linguistic registers. Each level contains its own vocabulary, with formal styles having been historic symbols of education, refinement, and high social status. Beyond these clearly differentiated types of speech, Thailand is also home to a diverse set of ethnic languages, which have been integrated into the country’s linguistic hierarchy, including the third of Thai people who are native Lao speakers concentrated in Northeast Thailand. Thus, Northeast Thailand’s linguistic environment grants us leverage to test the effect of three different types of speaking: a formal metropole language, an informal version of the metropole tongue, and an ethnic tongue.

In January, 2016, I conducted a survey experiment with 750 respondents split into three groups. Each of the three groups heard a different translation of a clip from a political speech, spoken by the same speaker. In one version, he spoke in the formal register of Standard Thai; in the second, he spoke in the informal register of Standard Thai; and in the third, he relayed the message in the local (Lao) language. The respondents were then asked to answer a set of questions about the speaker.

The results of the surveys showed distinct differences in the way that respondents perceived the potential political candidate. Respondents who heard the speech in formal Standard Thai ranked the speaker higher on questions related to his education level and his preparedness for national office. At the same time, though, the formal speech tended to create social distance between them and the candidate. They also gave the lowest level of responses as to whether they would vote for the candidate. Respondents who heard both informal Standard Thai and Isan both ranked the speaker much lower in terms of education and preparedness for office but much more highly in terms of kinship, with Isan showing the strongest effect. Among those surveyed, the Isan clip also elicited the strongest level of electoral support.

These results show that speech does shape voter opinions. In short, people who heard the formal speech felt the candidate was prepared to lead the country, but they didn’t want to vote for him. People who heard the lower register of speech felt much more kinship to the speaker. And finally, respondents who heard the ethnic language felt like the candidate was not prepared to lead, but they were more likely to say they would vote for him. Among the three types of speech, the ethnic tongue had the most forceful effect on political opinions. In sum, politicians, by using different speaking patterns, influence people’s opinions and can shape support for their candidacy.

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