Americans quickly judge social class

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The plot of the famous musical My beautiful lady is based on the idea that the way we speak determines our position in society. The main character, Eliza Doolittle, becomes the unwitting target of a bet between two specialists in phonetics, one of whom (Henry Higgins) boasts of being able to convince strangers that Doolittle is a duchess by training her to speak as such. . In reality, it is the poor girl of a garbage collector who speaks with a big Cockney accent. By the end of the musical, Doolittle is able to utter all of his words like a member of Britain’s elite, fooling everyone at an Embassy ball about his true origins.

Based on a new set of scientific studies, it looks like Higgins might be right: People can determine our social class by the way we speak. Michael Kraus and his colleagues at Yale University recently published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA titled “Evidence for the Reproduction of Social Class in Brief Discourse”. The article presents evidence from five studies showing that people can accurately judge a person’s social status from that person’s speech, and that people use those judgments to discriminate against candidates for a lower-class position.

It’s hard to imagine a version of My beautiful lady in the United States because, unlike the British, Americans seem either unwilling or unable to honestly recognize their own social class. A 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center found that the majority of Americans consider themselves to be a “middle class,” whether they earn less than $ 30,000 or more than $ 100,000 a year. But as the new research shows, Americans find it easy to make distinctions about the social class of others just by listening to them speak.

In one study, Kraus and colleagues asked 229 people to listen to 27 different speakers who varied in age, race, gender, and social class. Study participants heard each speaker speak a total of seven different words. Based on this short audio, participants were able to correctly identify speakers with a university education 55% of the time, more than one might expect by chance. A major limitation of this study, however, was that it used college education as an indicator of social class. Additionally, the researchers wanted to examine the hypothesis that people infer social class from the style of speaking rather than the content of what is said.

Therefore, in another study, they conducted an experiment where 302 participants were asked to listen to or read 90-second transcriptions of recorded speech in which the speakers spoke to themselves without explicitly mentioning anything about it. their social class (for example, their job title). Participants were asked to rate what they believed to be the social classes of speakers using a 10-point ascending scale of increase in income, education, and professional status. They found that participants who heard the audio recordings were more accurate in judging where the speakers stood in terms of social status. This result suggests that we are inferring people’s social class largely from how they speak rather than what they say.

To demonstrate whether these inferences have real-world consequences, Kraus and his colleagues conducted another experiment in the form of a mock hiring scenario. They recruited 20 potential candidates from a pool of 110 candidates to train for interviewing a laboratory manager position requiring a wide range of technical and interpersonal skills. The 20 applicants were chosen because they represented the greatest disparity between upper and lower social classes in the entire applicant pool. Each candidate was videotaped answering the question “How would you describe yourself?” The researchers recruited 274 participants, all of whom had previous hiring experience, to listen to the audio of these videos or read a transcript of the content. The results showed that the participants were able to accurately judge the social class of the candidates and that this effect was stronger for the participants who had heard the audio recordings. Additionally, participants rated higher-class applicants as more skilled, better suited to the job, and more likely to be hired. They also gave them a higher starting salary and a higher enrollment bonus.

Overall, this research suggests that despite our unease on the subject, Americans are able to easily detect each other’s social class from small snippets of speech. In addition, we use this information to discriminate against people who appear to belong to a lower social class. Most of us are aware that employment laws protect us from unfair discrimination for characteristics beyond our control, such as gender or race. This research identifies social class as another potential way for employers to discriminate against applicants, perhaps without even realizing it.

To be sure, there is still a lot of research to be done before any definitive conclusions can be drawn about the impact of social class on discrimination. For example, it would be helpful to understand how stable people’s speech patterns are over time and after exposure to different situations. In addition, researchers could test whether educating hiring managers about social class biases changes their judgment of applicants. Hopefully, this article will inspire more scientists to pay attention to how speech plays a fundamental role in creating and sustaining social inequalities.


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