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

This article was updated by Ladders Staff on May 26, 2020.

What we wear and buy are status symbols we can purchase to show off our economic success in the workplace. But a new study shows that there are other parts of us that give away our social backgrounds, no matter which purses, clothes, and cars we buy.

For Perspectives on Psychological Science, researchers from the University of California-San Francisco and Yale University conducted experiments on the verbal and nonverbal signs of social class we signal in interactions. They recruited participants to look at 20 Facebook photographs, watch a 60-second video of participants interacting with others, and listen to seven spoken words from participants to see how well strangers can accurately guess where you stand on the social ladder.

What they found was that more than pictures and videos of us, our speech is the most accurate indicator of our economic backgrounds.

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

It doesn’t have to be speech that makes sense in context. The researchers split the speakers into different social classes based on their educational attainment and their occupation. The researchers then had observers listen to these speakers say seven words out of context  — “and,” “from,” “thought,” “beautiful,” “imagine,” “yellow,” and “the.”

From those seven isolated words alone, the observers could guess the participants’ social class at a rate that was higher than chance.

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

We’ve known for decades that our voices are linked to our social status. For the speech study, the researchers cited a famous 1972 study that found that New York City store clerks in big-name department stores will self-consciously pronounce the “r” in words more. These clerks subconsciously recognized how status would be signaled when they said “fawth flaw” over “fourth floor.”

The seven-word experiment has broader implications for economic mobility, which has become more constricted than ever in America. The researchers suggested that speech signaling will make it harder to cross social economic boundaries because “similarity enhances liking,” and we tend to interact and network more with people like us.

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

If you can be judged rapidly, frequently, and accurately based on your words alone, that’s one more barrier that makes it harder to escape class boundaries.

Hiring Bias

A similar study by Yale further cements the notion that class bias can be formed within just a few seconds of speech. The study provided evidence that interviewees are judged based on their social status mere seconds into uttering a few words.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that people can survey a stranger’s socioeconomic position — income, education, and occupation status — based on brief speech patterns alone. This shows that these quick perceptions sway hiring managers’ decision in favor job of applicants from higher social classes.

“If we want to move to a more equitable society, then we must contend with these ingrained psychological processes,” said Michael Kraus, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management.

There may be a way to beat this unfair system using non-verbal communication cues. Especially with the global pandemic, and even before it, companies are thinking a lot about how to give more remote work options. During your next interview, capitalize on body language hacks to exert confidence. This includes, sitting up straight, maintaining eye contact and keeping your arms uncrossed.

While hiring bias is unfortunately an innate misfortune of our predispositions, there are ways to combat it to win respect and turn the interview in your favor. This unfair this biological complex doesn’t have to cost you your next job; trying some of these communication cues over video chat may cancel out any assumption the hiring manager makes upon first hearing you speak.

You might also enjoy…