Objective: In a professional context, speaking with a local dialect is usually interpreted ambiguously. It is well established that people use their language as an impression-management strategy in the workspace. One country in which the psychobiological effects of language use can be investigated in a highly standard way is Switzerland. Swiss Germans speak at least two languages: their local dialect and High German. Our aim was to test whether speaking High German increases psychobiological stress in the context of a psychosocial stressor.
Methods: We used the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) as a psychosocial stressor. This paradigm combines a mock interview and mental arithmetic task and reliably induces a psychobiological stress response. Sixty-three healthy native Swiss German speakers were randomly allocated to two different conditions: performing the TSST in High German vs. Swiss German. Stress and anxiety levels, heart rate, salivary alpha-amylase and cortisol were assessed at multiple time points.
Results: Participants speaking High German did not differ from those speaking Swiss German in terms of stress (p = .128) and anxiety responses (p = .433). No differences became apparent regarding heart rate (p = .352) and alpha-amylase (p = .974). Participants speaking High German showed significantly higher cortisol responses (p = .039).
Discussion: Speaking High German was not associated with a more pronounced psychological stress response. However it specifically increased cortisol responses. The aim not to show one's local dialect may thus implicitly aggravate the aspects of perceived performance pressure and social evaluation that are typical of psychosocial stressors.