People know your social class within a few seconds of speech – and it can really hurt your job search

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It’s said that your words betray you – but so do your speech patterns and the way you pronounce words, which reveals your social class within seconds, according to a new Yale University study.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that people can discern each other’s social class (measured by income, education, occupation status) based on our speech patterns with quick precision. As a result, this ability to judge also seeps into the job search, where hiring managers can make the same determination. The study found that those in positions of hiring often prefer applicants from higher social classes.

“Our study shows that even during the briefest interactions, a person’s speech patterns shape the way people perceive them, include assessing their competence and fitness for a job,” said Michael Kraus, PhD, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, in a release. “While most hiring managers would deny that a job candidate’s social class matters, in reality, the socioeconomic position of an application or their parents is being assessed within the first seconds they speak – a circumstance that limits economic mobility and perpetuates inequality.”

The researchers conducted five experiments. The first four looked at how people could accurately determine social class based on just 15 to 20 seconds of speech. Hearing seven random words recited was enough, it turned out, to give people the opportunity to perceive the speaker’s social class with accuracy above-chance (meaning, more than 50% of the time.) (The words: “and,” “from,” “thought,” “beautiful,” “imagine,” “yellow,” and “the”.)

The fifth experiment looked at how these speech patterns – also called pronunciation cues – impact hiring. Twenty job candidates from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds were recruited to interview for an entry-level manager position at Yale. Before their job interview, the candidates each recorded a conversation. Next, a sample of 274 people with hiring experience either listened to the conversation or read a transcript of it. Those hiring managers were then asked to appraise the candidates’ overall professional qualities, starting salary, signing bonus, and perceived social class – all based on the conversation they had either heard or read a transcript of.

The hiring managers who had listened to the audio recordings of the conversations were more likely to accurately appraise socioeconomic status than those who read transcripts. Unfortunately, this also led to a more biased hiring process: they perceived candidates from higher social classes to be more competent and better for the job, and assigned the candidates from higher social classes better salaries and signing bonuses than those from lower classes.

“We rarely talk explicitly about social class, and yet, people with hiring experience infer competence and fitness based on socioeconomic position estimated from a few seconds of an applicant’s speech,” Kraus said. “Despite what these hiring tendencies may suggest, talent is not found solely among those born to rich or well-educated families.”

Michael Kraus co-authored the paper with graduate students Brittany Torrez and Jun Won Park, and research associate Fariba Ghayebi.