We gravitate toward people like us; it's human nature. Race, class, and gender shape our social identities, and thus who we perceive as "like us" or "not like us". But one overlooked factor can be even more powerful: the way we speak.
As the pioneering psychologist Katherine Kinzler reveals in How You Say It: Why You Talk the Way You Do - And What It Says About You (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), the way we talk is central to our social identity because our speech largely reflects the voices we heard as children. We can change how we speak to some extent, whether by "code-switching" between dialects or learning a new language; over time, your speech even changes to reflect your evolving social identity and aspirations.
But for the most part, we are forever marked by our native tongue and are hardwired to prejudge others by theirs, often with serious consequences. Your accent alone can determine the economic opportunity or discrimination you encounter in life, making speech one of the most urgent social-justice issues of our day.
Our linguistic differences present challenges, Kinzler shows, but they also can be a force for good. Humans can benefit from being exposed to multiple languages—a paradox that should inspire us to master this ancient source of tribalism, and rethink the role that speech plays in our society.
Katherine Kinzler is a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago
Matthew Jordan is a university instructor, funk musician, and clear writing enthusiast. He studies the history of science and technology, driven by the belief that we must understand the past in order to improve the future.