The way we speak shows who we are. The people we’re speaking to come to certain conclusions about our gender, age, ethnicity, geographical region, level of education, and personality, even if we don’t intend to communicate these facts about ourselves.
Most people are sensitive to very real social pressures that lead us to adjust the way we speak, to fit in with others, to signal solidarity with others, and even (sometimes) to appeal to particular stereotypes. Like it or not, some groups have more power and prestige in society than others, and it would be foolish of us to ignore that. Just as we don’t continue to speak like children all our lives, most people learn to adjust how “masculine” or “feminine” they sound to reap the appropriate awards in different situations, and many people who speak stigmatized regional and/or ethnic dialects learn to be bidialectal, so they can also switch as needed. Contrary to what you have been taught, there is no “default,” “accentless,” “right” way to speak — every way of speaking conveys social information.
Identity is interaction. In addition to individual quirks, most people will define your identity by the different groups you belong to. The way you speak will signal that you are either embracing membership in particular groups, or denying affiliation with them. If you appear to be pushing away a particular group, members of that group are likely to respond in kind. Embracing membership in a group gains you solidarity with other group members, but will also create distance between you and those outside the group.
Most people deliberately manipulate identity variables (at least on some occasions) to send social messages: for example, they might increase the use of a certain identity marker to signal solidarity and fit in with others who share that identity, or increase gender signals if they are flirting (or have another reason to appeal to gender stereotypes). Someone who “relaxes” from a more standard variety into a more regionally or ethnically marked dialect may be sending a social signal that they feel comfortable with you, more willing to connect on a personal level. Of course, people may also emphasize aspects of their identity that are not shared with you if they wish to distance themselves from you. (It is important to consider such shifts in conjunction with expressions of attitude and emotion.) In fact, many linguists consider that all of our stylistic shifts in language spring from underlying awareness of and appeals to different group identities.
The fact that we are not always aware of which identities we are projecting can be harmful when we find ourselves sending messages we didn’t intend. For example, if a teenager speaks in a manner more typical of an older age group, other teenagers may assume that he believes himself more mature or otherwise superior, and that he doesn’t want to be part of their peer group. Likewise, someone who speaks in a very standard variety when all around are speaking with a regional or ethnic dialect may be seen as deliberately rejecting the peer group, acting superior. (People with social communication challenges often pride themselves on speaking “correctly” – but almost by definition, since “correctness” is determined by “the Man” (the establishment, the powers that be), young people and minorities seldom do.)
We have not attempted to describe all the types of identities that people may signal through their use of language. Social class (upper class vs. middle class vs. working class) is certainly reflected in our language use — but in many cases how this is signalled and perceived depends on region and ethnicity (that is, different social classes use more or fewer dialect features), and so this question is discussed in passing in the dialects section. Sexual orientation and non-traditional gender identity is a hot topic in sociolinguistics right now, but since it often relies on knowledge of traditional gender stereotypes, we deal with this as a subtopic of gender.
Learning to recognize identity signals in people’s speech gives you useful social information about who they are and how they want you to interact with them. You can analyze your own speech patterns to give you information about how you appear to other people. Once you can recognize some of the more stable aspects of identity signals, you can begin to become aware of when these are being manipulated in a more purposeful way to send social signals.