Strangers know your social class in the first seven words you say

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This article was updated by Ladders Staff on June 29, 2021.

What we wear and buy are status symbols that we can buy to show our economic success in the workplace. But study shows that there are other parts of us that betray our social origins, no matter what handbags, clothes, and cars we buy.

For Perspectives on Psychological Science, the researchers conducted experiments on the verbal and non-verbal social class cues that we signal in interactions. They recruited participants to view 20 Facebook photographs, watch a 60-second video of participants interacting with others, and listen to seven words spoken by participants to see how accurately strangers can guess where you are on the social ladder.

What they discovered was that more than photos and videos of us, our speech is the most accurate indicator of our economic history.

The first seven words you say can reveal if you have a college degree

It doesn’t have to be a speech that makes sense in the context. The researchers divided the speakers into different social classes based on their level of education and occupation. The researchers then asked observers to listen to these speakers say seven words out of context – “and”, “of”, “thought”, “beautiful”, “imagine”, “yellow” and “the”.

From these seven isolated words, observers were able to guess the social class of the participants at a rate greater than chance.

The seven-word study builds on previous studies that found that social class signals are everywhere, even written on our faces. One study found that people could accurately determine whether people were rich or poor just based on their faces.

We have known for decades that our voices are tied to our social status. For the study of speech, the researchers cited a famous 1972 study this revealed that New York City store workers at big name department stores are more consciously pronouncing the “r” in words. These clerks subconsciously recognized how the status would be reported when they said “lack of faith” above the “fourth floor”.

The Seven Word Experience has broader implications for economic mobility, which has become more restricted than ever in America. Researchers have suggested that voice signaling will make it harder to cross socio-economic boundaries, as “likeness increases taste” and we tend to interact and network more with people like us.

“When individuals accurately report and perceive social class in interactions with others, the signals that communicate social class differences are likely to create barriers to relationship formation across class boundaries,” the ‘study.

If you can be judged quickly, frequently, and accurately on the basis of your words alone, that’s one more obstacle that makes it harder to escape the confines of the classroom.

Hiring bias

A similar study from Yale reinforces the idea that class bias can form within seconds of speech. The study provided evidence that respondents are judged on their social status within seconds of saying a few words.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that people can assess the socio-economic position of a foreigner – income, education and professional status – based only on short speech models. This shows that these rapid perceptions influence the decision of hiring managers in favor of employing applicants from upper social classes.

“If we want to move to a more equitable society, then we have to fight against these entrenched psychological processes,” said Michael kraus, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management.

There may be a way to defeat this unfair system by using non-verbal communication cues. Especially with the global pandemic, and even before, companies are thinking a lot about how to offer more remote working options. During your next interview, capitalize on body language tips to gain self-confidence. This includes sitting up straight, maintaining eye contact, and not crossing your arms.

While hiring bias is unfortunately an innate misfortune of our predispositions, there are ways to combat it to gain respect and turn the interview in your favor. This unfair biological complex doesn’t have to cost you your next job; trying some of these video chat communication signals may override any assumptions made by the hiring manager at your first audition.


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