Speech and social class perception

Speech and social class perception

Speech patterns are among the most significant means of social class perception. Using audio of speakers collected from the International Dialects of English Archive, researchers explored whether hearing only speech allowed strangers to identify social class accurately.

When 229 participants listened to 27 speakers uttering 7 words, the listeners accurately predicted the speaker’s age, gender, race, and social class more than 50% of the time, which is the random guess rate. However, social class judgments were less accurate than judgments of the other categories.

The authors also asked 302 participants to predict the social class of 35 speakers after listening to or reading a transcript of each speaker’s self-description. Speaker social class was correlated positively with predicted social class in the speech condition, and participants made more accurate predictions after hearing speech than reading an identical transcript.

In a separate experiment, 274 participants with hiring experience listened to answers to preinterview questions from 20 prospective job candidates who varied in social class and were recruited from the broader New Haven, Connecticut, community.

Participants judged the competence, fit, starting salary, and signing bonus of the candidates in favor of those from higher social class backgrounds, compared with those from lower social class backgrounds.

The findings suggest that speech patterns may perpetuate social inequality, according to the authors.