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Interpersonal Barriers to Social Class Mobility

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Yale University 

THE AMERICAN DREAM IS A POPULAR MASTER NARRATIVE in the US that permeates many sectors of society (Reeves, 2017; Syed, 2016). Works of fiction romanticize the idea that people determine their future success through effort, and popular media sensationalizes stories of individuals beating the odds through hard work. These narratives even find their way into the stories we tell our children at bedtime. Meritocratic narratives are fundamental, and they contribute to a willful ignorance about the actual structure of American society. In reality, the US is far less mobile and meritocratic than these narratives would suggest (Kraus & Tan, 2015). And this pattern is particularly true for Black, Latinx, and Native Americans in comparison to Whites (Chetty et al., 2014). Despite our collective optimism, social class, which I define for the purpose of this essay as one’s overall societal status, and measured by indices of income, educational attainment, and occupation status, is remarkably stable across time and generation.


The research I will present for this conference called Reverberations of Inequality, will examine how we diverge from our meritocratic narratives even in the subtle interpersonal spaces that we informally engage in. The primary drivers of inequality and a lack of mobility in society are historic and contemporary structures of racism and classism (e.g., Massey & Denton, 1998). However, the same forms of discrimination that occur in the context of societal structures play out, albeit sometimes more subtly and informally, in interpersonal space. Specifically, I will contend that social class is reproduced through subtle cues expressed in brief speech. This is work that builds on research on thin slicing which suggests that people tend to, intentionally or otherwise, pursue interactions that assist both targets and perceivers in making sense of the behaviors of the people they interact with (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1992). In this sense-making process, accurate perception of people’s societal status occurs during brief perceptions of dynamic behavior, and can help perceivers make decisions about resource sharing, cooperation, and the general economic needs of interaction partners. Given historic economic inequality, accurate perception of social class cues, even if that accuracy is only minimally better than random chance, may be especially critical in brief interactions where early impressions crystallize (Ridgeway & Fiske, 2012).


Although social class cues are communicated across a broad variety of behaviors, speech patterns are among the most powerful means of social class perception (Labov, 1972). Speech is significantly socialized at home, in schools, and society (e.g., formal and informal elocution instruction). These socialization processes lead some forms of speech to be associated with more desirable social characteristics than others (Bernstein, 1971; Labov, 1972), and give off cues about a person’s social class background.


In this fashion, perceivers can use culturally socialized speech patterns to make inferences about societal status by comparing these patterns to some ideal standard that is communicated by educational and cultural norms. Critically, we expect adherence to speech standards to elicit accurate judgments of high social class whereas deviations from those standards will elicit accurate judgments of lower social class. Moreover, given widespread beliefs in meritocracy in American society (Kraus & Tan, 2015), we expect that these inferences of social class will be accompanied by attributions of specific skill-based competence and fit for a particular job among higher social class speakers, and lower job fit and competence among lower social class speakers. We argue that class cues are used as a proxy for merit and we predict that these patterns will bias hiring decisions against lower social class job seekers who are pursuing personal economic advancement.


In our analysis of social class cues, we make a distinction between spoken and written language. Though both spoken and written language carry content and meaning of words that have the potential to communicate social class (e.g., a casual remark about where you went to college), verbal speech has additional channels where speech standards are communicated. Beyond the meaning of written language, verbal speech includes linguistic data—tone, rhythm, and importantly, variation in pronunciation—that allows a perceiver to judge speech against normative standards, and to do so during the earliest moments of person perception. In essence, though all modes of behavior carry social class cues, speech has the potential to more immediately deliver those cues through the expression and evaluation of, in particular, the pronunciation of specific words. This expectation is derived from research indicating that what people say is more highly controlled than how they speak (Kraus, 2017), and thus, cues of social class are likely to leak out more immediately from how speech deviates from some standard than through speech content. Importantly, speech content should communicate social class over sufficient time as more information about a person’s background is expressed organically over the course of an interaction, or solicited by a specific line of questioning during a job interview (Rivera, 2016).


At the conference I will present a series of five experiments that illustrate how we create barriers to mobility in our informal social interactions. In these experiments we find that people make relatively accurate inferences of social class from exceedingly brief exposure to the speech of strangers. Importantly the speech need not be meaningful to elicit accurate social class perceptions and these perceptions that occur in brief speech achieve greater accuracy than do transcripts of speech that hold the identical meaning and content. Finally, in the last of the experiments I will illustrate that this tendency to perceive social class in brief speech has implications for job applicants that reproduce inequality. Specifically, applicants judged as lower in social class are judged as lower in competence and as a poor fit for jobs relative to higher social class applicants.


To conclude I will note that such a basic and fundamental process of social perception through speech, leveraged automatically to form initial impressions of others, can simultaneously work to reproduce inequality in society. In terms of policy, the studies highlight the persistent need for organizational oversight to combat these biases in hiring decisions. As firms look to create more equitable hiring practices, constraining the ways in which informal interview settings can perpetuate inequalities by standardizing or avoiding the use of interviews is a domain of future inquiry (Dana, Dawes, & Peterson, 2013), although these policy proposals would not eliminate the ways that bias enters into hiring practices at other stages of the process (Kang, DeCelles, Tilcsik, & Jun, 2016).


One alternative approach highlighted by the challenges identified in this work is the proactive identification of lower status identities, based in class or race, as a deliberate tool for promoting diversity in job candidates. In this fashion, hiring managers could flag candidates who appear, during initial screening interviews, to come from nontraditional career paths and lower socioeconomic backgrounds to select for and promote the hiring of these candidates. However, if this procedure were to be effective, the direct linkage between judgments of social class and specific judgments of fit or competence must be undone in the minds of managers and in everyday people more broadly. It is these associations between fit, competence, and social class that present a significant obstacle to mobility and opportunity.

Michael Kraus will speak at the Reverberations of Inequality Opening Conference, Panel 2: Barriers to Mobility, September 20, 11:00 am-12:40 pm, 3501 Sansom Street. Click here to register.


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