How You Speak Reflects Who You Are: The Way We Talk Both Unites and Divides Us

Talking Concept

In her debut book How You Say It, UChicago psychologist Katherine D. Kinzler explores how we interpret language to divide the world into social groups.

In new book, Prof. Katherine D. Kinzler argues that how you speak reflects who you are.

Have you ever considered that the way you talk may determine who you’re friends with, the job you have, and how you see the world? Even if you don’t realize it, “how you speak is, in a very real way, a window into who you are and how other people see you.”

Professor Katherine Kinzler

Professor Katherine Kinzler. Credit: University of Chicago

That’s the argument University of Chicago psychologist Katherine D. Kinzler explores in her first book, How You Say It: Why You Talk the Way You Do—And What It Says About You, which was published on July 21. Described by one reviewer as “an articulate examination of an underrecognized aspect of human communication,” the book highlights the immense power of speech, and explores how speech underpins all facets of social life.

A leading developmental psychologist, Kinzler’s book analyzes speech from early childhood to adult life—especially how children think about language to divide the world into groups and find social meaning. “Language is so personal to people,” said Kinzler, a professor in UChicago’s Department of Psychology. “The way you speak can be such an essential part of your identity, so I wanted the book to reach people for whom it would really have impact, including beyond an academic impact.”

In the following Q&A, Kinzler talks more about the impact of speech in daily life and how discrimination based on speech acts as another form of prejudice.

You write in the book’s introduction that it’s not exactly what one says, but how they say it that gives immense power to speech. Do you think the way we speak determines how social life plays out?

I do. That was also a motivation for writing the book: that the way we speak is such a powerful force in our lives, and people are often unaware of that. It’s both so critical for the people we connect with, but then it also has tremendous power for those whom we don’t get along with and for people we are prejudiced against. I believe that at more societal and institutional levels there’s a bias against what’s perceived as non-standard speech that’s kind of baked in. People also aren’t aware of how hard it can be to feel marginalized based on their speech, and we need to become aware of this.

“The way you speak can be such an essential part of your identity, so I wanted the book to reach people for whom it would really have impact.”

— Prof. Katherine Kinzler

You also discuss racial discrimination based on speech—for example, the negative views of African American English. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Prejudice against speech is something that people aren’t always talking about, but it’s absolutely there. One arm of racism is saying that African American English isn’t as good as other dialects of American English, when no dialect of English is good or bad, or better or worse. That’s an example of how we don’t reflect on speech in our lives and the role of speech prejudice. I recommend checking out the profound work of Asst. Prof. Sharese King in the Department of Linguistics here at UChicago––she and I just published an op-ed together in the Los Angeles Times about the underappreciated role of speech in racial justice that people need to consider. If we’re having a broader conversation about understanding privilege and marginalization, speech should be part of the conversation.

Where does this kind of speech discrimination come from?

Parents and educators have a lot of impact on the categories that their kids learn. One example I talk about a bit in the book is the usage of gender categories. Even if it’s done in a seemingly benign way—like teachers saying “boys and girls line up” at school—if you take a look, you likely find that gender is labeled constantly to kids. Because it is being continually verbally marked and labeled, it can make kids think that gender is a bigger category than they would have thought otherwise. So, then from that, they say to themselves, “Oh, this is a really big deal. What is it about gender that is such a big deal?” Then they look into the world, and they observe a lot of gender stereotypes and can think that those stereotypes are causally responsible for gender categories. Likewise, at home, parents might say something like, “We like Muslims! Muslims are nice!” Something like that sounds positive, but in general when you’re referring to a whole category of people, it actually can backfire. It’s better when you can talk about people as individuals rather than massing over an entire category of people. It’s really easy for stereotypes to take off when you think about a group of people being all the same.

How You Say It Book Cover

In terms of the ways that our accents work, you can make these split-second judgments of someone when you meet them—even if you’re not necessarily aware. For instance, in Montreal in the 1960s, it was a time with social discord across linguistic groups, where English-speaking Canadians (as compared to French-speaking Canadians) held a lion’s share of the economic opportunity. Experimental linguistics studies would present people with voices, and from their evaluations you could measure their linguistic prejudice (even if they wouldn’t admit it explicitly). English Canadians would hear somebody speaking English and think, “Oh, that person sounds a lot smarter, taller, and nicer than the person speaking French,” but it was actually a bilingual voice recording both languages. Even French speakers would often say the English voices sounded higher in status.

So when you hear someone speak for even a split second, you may get information that may not be real about the individual, but are actually about cultural attitudes that have infused your evaluation. In this way, stereotypes about groups of people can easily lead to prejudice against individuals.

Part of your book discusses how teaching children from a very young age about multilingualism can expand our linguistic circles and help tear down these stereotypes about accents and language. Do you think this is the solution of reducing linguistic bias overall, or is it at least a step in the right direction?

It would be nice if it was a perfect solution, but there are plenty of places in the world that are both multilingual and have war and conflict. So this is not a panacea. That said, I also believe there is good evidence that being in a multilingual environment—and in an environment that has and values diversity more generally—has positive influences on kids’ development, and allows them to think from different perspectives and think outside the box. So in general, I do think exposure to linguistic diversity early on is a really big positive for kids.

“If we’re having a broader conversation about understanding privilege and marginalization, speech should be part of the conversation.”

 — Prof. Katherine Kinzler

How has speech discrimination factored into how different individuals have experienced the coronavirus pandemic?

Disparities in healthcare are a tremendous issue in our nation, based racial and ethnic lines. There is a study by my UChicago Psychology colleague Boaz Keysar and others showing miscommunications breakdowns in the health care context. In general, communication isn’t this perfect system; there is plenty of room for error. This can be especially challenging when people communicate across languages. Plus, there is research showing that people aren’t always aware when in a communicative context they shut down and stop listening because they don’t like the way someone speaks. Health care is so critical—particularly in the current moment––and we need to be really mindful and weary of miscommunication. So, I think recognizing language diversity in this context is extremely important.

Is your goal for the book to inspire those kinds of changes?

Absolutely. My goal is to get the social role of speech in our lives on our minds. We need a shift in our understanding of the prominence of language and its importance for a range of different social interactions. In the book, I talk about how there aren’t always sufficient employment protections for people who speak in non-standard ways. There’s also evidence for discrimination based on speech in housing markets. When we think about economic opportunities, there’s so much evidence that speaking in a way that’s considered non-native or non-standard can constrain the economic opportunities that people may have. So if we’re thinking about a recession in particular—and about jobs that require virtual communication, which can be harder than face-to-face communication—taking into consideration the social psychology of language is going to be important.

24 Comments on "How You Speak Reflects Who You Are: The Way We Talk Both Unites and Divides Us"

  1. The author states, “… no dialect of English is good or bad, or better or worse.” I disagree with that assertion. If the purpose of speech is communication, then a dialect that is grammatically correct, reducing the possibility of misinterpretation of the underlying thought or idea, then I would assert it is better than a dialect that routinely violates the rules of English grammar. English has many words in order to make fine distinctions in meaning, again with the goal of communicating ideas. If a dialect only uses a small subset of English vocabulary, or routinely substitutes slang for universally recognized words, I would suggest that the dialect is handicapped in achieving optimal communication. Thus, some dialects are not as good as others when the purpose is communication of complex ideas. All grunts are created equal, but not all English dialects!

    The author’s quoted assertion is currently politically correct, but I don’t think that it will withstand critical analysis by people not afflicted with political correctness.

    • Not all grammars are created equally! The modern English language originates in languages such as the Scots leid, which has its own grammatical nuances. Yet these were abandoned in the development of modern English.

      Those who still use aspects of the old Scots leid are using a grammar that modern English speakers might consider grammatically foreign, despite the fact that their own language has its roots within!

      Perhaps we Scots should be judging modern English speakers on their failure to adhere to the old tongue?!

      • John
        I’m not arguing that grammar should be judged by whether it is traditional. I’m arguing that grammar, or more completely, dialects, should be judged on the effectiveness or efficiency in communicating complicated and nuanced ideas.

      • Bless you, Mr. Campbell – think perhaps of this: in the UK, you’ve many dialects, and thus many colloquial expressions. This naturally requires some standard forms be used, so that all travelers, say, to London can understand what the travel centre staffer or the front desk clerk says. We need a lingua franca of some kind in order to cooperate in the marketplace. (By the way, dearly love Scotland, and Ireland – I have ancestry from each)

    • Christopher Stanton | August 23, 2020 at 8:24 am | Reply

      Thank you for cutting through the miasma of inoffensiveness. As a lecturer, I find communication skills to be critical for the speedy and accurate transfer of knowledge. Just as all people are not created precisely equal, neither are dialects. Pretending otherwise merely perpetuates the problem.

      • Surely people are not equal, but then no one can reliably sort them into better and worse. Same with languages and dialects – all of them can cope with any topic or complexity. ‘Politically correct’ is just a pejorative for ‘courtesy in using names and labels’. Pretending some dialect that is not yours is inferior is the problem.

  2. @Clyde Spencer
    Excellent comment.

  3. “Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter,
    Condemned by every syllable she utters
    By right she should be taken out and hung,
    For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.”

    “This verbal class distinction, by now,
    Should be antique. If you spoke as she does, sir,
    Instead of the way you do,
    Why, you might be selling flowers, too!”

    (“Why Can’t The English”, from My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe, 1956, based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”, 1912, which borrowed from Smollett &c)

    It’s a serious issue, worthy of discussion. Until quite recently, a primary argument for teaching an (arbitrary) form of Standard English was exactly because it would help students gain social status and lead to better life outcomes: That is, yes, many people know that the bias exists, and are, or were, acting to mitigate it. And no, I do not believe that Henry Higgins is a paradigm of virtue that we should emulate. But it is disingenuous, or lazy, to ignore history and pretend to a discovery that was very well understood not all that long ago.

    • Advanced societies spend a considerable amount of money to teach children the skills that educated people feel are necessary to be successful in life. If any and all English dialects are equal, then we could save a lot of tax money by just removing such tedious topics as grammar, vocabulary, and spelling. We could reduce all literature to reading just one book: “The Lord of the Flies.”

  4. She talks funny.

  5. A limited understanding of grammar leads readers like Clyde to devalue dialects despite the reality that linguistics is not politics.

    • I may not be a grammarian, but I know an ad hominem attack when I read it. Ad hominem’s are usually the resort of someone who doesn’t have a substantive response to something they don’t agree with.

      It may well be that “linguistics is not politics.” However, that doesn’t mean that what one says and how they say it is unimportant. A famous science fiction writer made the point that calling something “A bloody segment of muscle tissue from a castrated bull” evinces a very different emotional response than “A rare steak with a side of mushrooms.” It has long been a truism that “What one says is less important than how is is said.”

  6. I’m going to get straight to the heart of the issue which I feel as though she is tiptoeing around.

    There is a certain percentage of the black community in America who speak a very disto rted version of English. The distortion is a result of many distinct differences including: diction, tone, grammar, syntax, slang usage, VOLUME, etc.

    Very often, folks (myself included) struggle to understand this version of English.

    Through primary schooling, we were all instructed on how to best use the English language in writing and speech. From kindergarten all the way up to the first two years of college, English (or composition if collegiate education) is a primary subject taught in our schools. This version is the standard universal proper way to speak English. It is superior in fact, because it is universally understood by English speakers.

    Moreover, the way in which the English language is spoken says a lot about the education of the person. The distorted Black version of English inherently breaks many basic rules of English. We all remember the countless amount of lectures that we sat through where we were instructed on how to properly use English. When these basic rules are broken constantly it will inevitably give off the impression that the person is not very well educated because after all we were taught in grade school as children the basics. Our schools hold seven and eight-year-olds responsible for their grammar… So why should we not hold full grown adults responsible for their grammar?

    Word choice or vocabulary is also thrown by the wayside with the distorted English many black people use. Instead, you can anticipate a wide array slang words. The actual definition of these words replaced with something completely different. No surprise then that some folks cannot interpret the slapdash of words carelessly strewn together.

    The uncomfortable truth for some is that the large chunk of black people who uses this distorted and uneducated sounding language, which barely registers as English, they will always be viewed in a certain way by those of us who speak the proper/standard version of English.

    I respect this lady who sounds like a very nice woman for bringing up the subject. I fear, however, that she is being naive about the nature of this topic. If you are going in for an interview for a top executive spot in a company there is a certain way you should speak. If you go in there speaking the black distorted version of English you will never ever get the job.

    • Drew
      There is a very good reason that this academic didn’t write her book in the Ebonics dialect. She wanted to be taken seriously. Therefore, she implicitly denies her claim that all dialects are equal. Such is the quality of today’s academics.

  7. This is a vital topic, if for anything then for unrelated individuals or groups to understand each other.

    The *sound* of one’s voice is as meaningful as the words spoken as that represents emotion or state of mind. We can all agree that that is important. But what is equally important is not the range of feeling but the limits of our capacity to understand. The average person has difficulty knowing and remembering the meaning of all the words in a single language, never mind 2 or 3 languages.

    With those facts clearly stated, if it is true that we care to understand one another, then we must adhere to the notion or possibility of a common *global* language; something simple, rudimentary, easily spoken, not too many “big” words; a world dictionary, so to speak.

    Having such a tool would grow in time for greater expression and understanding. Of course, it would not (because it could not) replace seperate and distinct languages as those are an expression of local culture, ideas and environmental experience.

  8. As a woman with only a basis high school education, I was always taught that how well you speak and articulate your views will be the basis of how other people will treat you. If you respect yourself and speak well, then others will also respect you. Being poor and without the advantages of higher education I have passed these lessons onto my children. I wanted them to carry themselves, and speak well knowing that is how others will judge them. In our lives it has become fact, both my sons grew up to be well respected, one receiving a master’s degree in education, and the other an officer in the military.
    My point being that I truly agree with the author, that how you speak, and articulate your thoughts in a proper way, as well as the use of proper manners really reflects how others see you and interact with you. While an uneducated person can speak like a well mannered elite, also a well educated person can talk like trash. Our circumstances doesn’t have to define who we are, you can choose.

  9. Linda Douglas and Clyde Spencer have my attention. They are well spoken on the written page. If our goal is to communicate then we speak the language of the person to whom we speak. The problem with having a limited vocabulary and speech pattern is that you might be misunderstood. Of course, when teens and any person who feels their personal freedoms are being tested use code words it would be a good idea to find out what they are really saying.

    I am constantly trying to stay up with teen-speak but I have no problem with most American dialects as I worked as a nurse for 43 years old. You just have to not approach the language differences as a challenge to your own way of life. When I was very young I learned a phrase that is relevant, “To each their own.” Let them do what they feel they need to do. It speaks volumes to me. I speak Southern at home but I speak TV English at work. I assume that most people want to be understood and will meet you halfway if you smile and ask them to repeat something. Yes a command of the English Language will take you far but only if you want to go far. So many have decided to stand back and just drift along.

  10. robert alexander mccullough | August 24, 2020 at 12:11 am | Reply

    The Spanish speaking mother of my son tells me that Cubans speak a chopped off version of Spanish. Seems the dialect issue is universal. Since sound is something that fetuses hear in the 3rd trimester of gestation this issue starts very young.

  11. “virtual communication, which can be harder than face-to-face communication—”

    Even pre-covid, communication skills were considered a requirement for most professional jobs. In academia precision was critical in order to get published and vital in order to get cited. In writing grant proposals your funding level could vary by a factor of two depending on how you phrased your application. In a globalized economy,communicating clearly and well will continue to be vital for success even if it is degraded here in the US.

    I don’t think you are doing people a favor by encouraging them to view linguistic differences as another example of white racism and white privilege. In my experience, in commercial settings, the first time an employee responds to a request for clear english communication with a “I think you should check your white privilege” will be the beginning of the end for that employee in that organization.

    When I was first starting out I had to just about memorize “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. Nowadays that book’s advice on clear writing is attributed to systemic racism. Even more ominous, George Orwell, in his once famous essay “Politics and the English Language” argued that corruption of the language and the vocabulary was central to the establishment of totalitarian regimes. Perhaps that is the real goal of today’s leftist social justice warriors. If so they are doing a good job. Based on the description above, Kinzler’s book will be a good addition to the Gramsci/Alinsky/Orwell catechism.

  12. Tinashe Chimwariro | August 26, 2020 at 3:11 am | Reply

    Communication is important especially in Business.

  13. I was hoping her studies would help improve the awful state of communication between people. No help really. We already know of this problem. No news here…we all need help in communication.

  14. Mofo, yuz bez the dog. Get down wit da down low
    Dig wears eyz comin from Bro?

  15. Caught another misspell…
    “da”, not “the”
    blushing – misspelled “mispell”

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