Study Finds Perceptions of Speech Lead to Class Bias in Hiring

The narrative of the American Dream — of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps — is a popular mythology in the U.S., but a recent Yale study found another roadblock in achieving this upward mobility: perceptions of social class based on speech during the hiring process.

This study, “Evidence for the reproduction of social class in brief speech” is by Michael W. Kraus, Brittany Torrez, Jun Won Park, and Fariba Ghayebi of the Yale School of Management. The authors found that people are able to guess with remarkable accuracy someone’s social class, race, age and gender by hearing just 15-20 seconds’ worth of out-of-context speech. They also found when it comes to social class — which the researchers defined through educational attainment, income and occupation status — hiring managers can make perceptions and snap judgments based on a subject’s speaking patterns, which could lead them to believe a person is less competent or less deserving of a higher salary.

The researchers drew their conclusions from five separate studies. The first four measured participants’ abilities to detect social class through speech. The researchers found the recitation of seven random words is enough for people to guess a person’s social class with above-chance accuracy. They also found and coded measures for “ideal” English speech based on social standards for pitch and pronunciation as well as digital examples of “ideal” speech exemplified through tech products like Siri and Amazon Alexa. Similarity to “ideal” speech is connected to both actual and perceived higher class. Additionally, the study shows the pronunciation of words plays a larger role in the perception of social class than word choice itself.

The fifth study applied the implications of these perceptions to the hiring process. The researchers brought in 20 job candidates from the New Haven, Conn., area to interview for an entry-level lab position at Yale. Before the formal interview, candidates recorded a conversation in which they briefly described themselves. A sample of 274 subjects with hiring experience listened to the recordings or read transcripts of the recordings before meeting with the candidates. The hiring managers then assessed the candidates’ professional qualities, starting salary, signing bonus and perceived social class based solely on these recordings and transcripts without reviewing the applicants’ job interview responses or résumés.

The hiring managers who listened to recordings were more likely to accurately guess a person’s social class than those who read transcripts. The hiring managers judged candidates from higher social classes as a better fit for the job and more competent than those from lower social classes. Therefore, those from higher social classes were more likely to be assigned higher salaries and signing bonuses.

The implications of this study are important. Not only are speaking patterns and pitch subject to judgment, but also this judgment perpetuates class stratification because those already in higher social classes are given the positions and higher salaries.

The researchers acknowledged further research could look into how class perceptions contribute to racial inequality and race perceptions contribute to social inequality.

Different dialects of English — like African American Vernacular English (AAVE) — could play into class perception as well. Regardless, accent or dialect do not always delineate intelligence. The human ability to combine words together to create meaning is an advanced skill throughout all languages and forms of languages. There is no link between dialect and intelligence from a linguistic and anthropological point of view.

Code-switching — or changing between one form of a language to another based on context and situation — is a skill most humans utilize. People don’t typically talk to their siblings the same way they speak to their bosses. But pressure to code-switch to fit into a professional environment can place a burden on people of lower classes or minority races.

Related Story: Code Switching Defined

This study shows the way people speak and how that speech fits into the mold of perceived affluence can affect their job prospects, perpetuating classism and preventing the upward mobility long dreamed about in the U.S.


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