An objective standard

An objective standard for making good decisions

How does Linguistic Profiling hurt businesses and teams?

Read time: 7 minutes

To speak a language is to speak a version of that language or a dialect. For example, the English language alone has about 160 dialects spoken worldwide, with over fifty-five territories and countries that consider English their official language. But not all dialects of English are treated the same.

Did you know that the style, or dialect of English that you speak can influence your chances of getting hired, or even getting considered for an apartment? (Purnell, T., Idsardi, W., & Baugh, J., 1999)

Study Results: Renowned linguistics expert Dr. John Baugh and colleagues set out to perform a study on how one’s language-use can affect the ways others treat them; and in this study, they made various calls inquiring about a property for rent, using either African-American, Chicano or Standard English dialects. They referred to these different dialects as linguistic guises. However, when using a non-standard English guise, such as African-American or Chicano, they were told that the property listed was no longer available, which conflicted with what they were told when they called using the standard English guise.

What’s more, a 2019 study found that your dialect of English can also determine how likely it is that a jury will give you a guilty verdict in a court case. 

We’re talking about a phenomenon called linguistic profiling, and we all do it. 

The truth is there are stereotypes, or predetermined social qualities attached to dialects of English — which are perpetuated by sources such as media representations — and these predetermined qualities we attach to a person’s way of speaking can and do affect how we treat a person. Here are some more examples of linguistic profiling that are happening around us all the time.

Example 1: Teachers have been found to lower their expectations for educational achievement with students who speak a dialect outside the standard English dialect, for example, students who speak with the African American Vernacular dialect. 

Harmful Outcome: Even a teacher with the best of intentions may be harming a student by holding them to lower standards.

According to Entwisle and Alexander,

“When teachers have low expectations or a deficit view of children from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, teacher-student interaction is reduced to the management of behavior, which contributes little to the improvement of academic performance. The negative attitudes and beliefs of teachers also can impact the type of literacy instruction that students receive.”

Example 2: As another example, employers and hiring managers have openly admitted to not hiring individuals based on their dialects of English, for example a native English speaker from India or Nigeria. 

According to a 2021 BBC article by Christine Ro: 

“Cognitively, it takes more work to understand a less familiar accent. The extra brainpower involved, as well as warmer feelings toward members of one’s own group, can lead to negative attitudes toward a person speaking a different type of English.”

Ro also argues that we tend to see people as “less truthful, less intelligent and less competent” when they speak a different style of English than we do, and we lend them less credibility as a result.

Harmful Outcome: Highly skilled individuals who speak English as a first language are discriminated against due to their English dialect being outside what is considered the standard dialect.

So what is considered standard or correct English?

Merriam-Webster defines Standard English as: 

“the English that with respect to spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary is substantially uniform though not devoid of regional differences, that is well established by usage in the formal and informal speech and writing of the educated, and that is widely recognized as acceptable wherever English is spoken and understood.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of Standard English is a bit more simple: 

“the form of the English language widely accepted as the usual correct form.”

We argue that a person’s dialect does not indicate their education level or their ability to do a job well. In fact, organizations are not only discriminating and breaking legal boundaries by excluding people, but they are also missing out on potentially highly valuable individuals by limiting themselves based on a person’s dialect. 

The bottom line

We need to re-think what we consider to be “good” English because we’re missing out on valuable people due to arbitrary negative associations.

Linguistics professor and author Dr. Valerie Fridland wrote the following in a 2020 article for Psychology Today:

“The problem is not really with the speech itself, but with the attitudes we hold about the speakers of these dialects.”

— Dr. Valerie Fridland


Understanding and overcoming your unconscious biases around language-use can be an empowering and advantageous experience. You may just begin to see what you’ve been missing out on.

Consider these 3 tips for building awareness around your own unconscious biases:

1. Think critically about your beliefs and expectations concerning people who speak a dialect outside the standard English dialect.

2. Personal bias that can cause us to exclude others does not go away because someone says it is wrong. Therefore, you need to work actively on NEUTRALIZING PERSONAL BIAS.

3. Be aware of hidden bias that FILTERS what you observe. Neutralize by asking: What would I expect to see if my belief and expectation about the dialect were false?

For more tips and exercises, schedule a webinar or online course on Unconscious Bias for yourself or your team, or contact us to get your questions answered.

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Outsmarting Prejudice

Whether subtle or serious, prejudice gone awry can have harmful consequences.

I recently learned about a simple strategy for disrupting prejudice, which involves appealing to the power of your reasoning skills. I learned about this strategy from a TED Talk I watched, titled Can Prejudice ever be a good thing?

The speaker, Paul Bloom, starts his talk by introducing the concept of prejudice as a naturally occurring process. He presents a quote by the great philosopher William Hazlitt in his essay, On Prejudice:

“Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room; nor know how to conduct myself in any circumstances, nor what to feel in any relation of life.”

William Hazlitt (1778–1830), On Prejudice

In other words, if I can’t prejudge my experience with something, how can I anticipate any consequences of my future actions? How can I learn from a mistake, or from something that harmed me? Our ability to prejudge things, then, is necessary for our survival. The problem comes when our tendency to prejudge something – or someone – goes awry. 

To demonstrate the idea of prejudice gone awry, Dr. Bloom presents the results from a 2015 study on racial bias, in which the researchers found that products sold on Ebay, such as baseball cards, received higher bids when the images in their ads showed the baseball cards being held by White hands, compared to ads where the same products were held by Black hands. 

To demonstrate a more serious, even life-threatening consequence of prejudice gone awry, Dr. Bloom presents the findings from a study done at Stanford University, again on racial bias. In this study, researchers found that individuals who identify as Black, who were found guilty of the murder of a White person, were more likely to be given the death penalty if they appeared more “prototypically Black”. 

“It turns out, holding everything else constant, you are considerably more likely to be executed if you look like the man on the right than the man on the left, and this is in large part because the man on the right looks more prototypically black, more prototypically African-American, and this apparently influences people’s decisions over what to do about him.”
-Dr. Paul Bloom

Whether subtle or serious, you can see that prejudice gone awry can have harmful consequences. Dr. Bloom presents two ways to disable the effects of prejudice.

So what does Dr. Bloom mean when he says you can break the habit of prejudging others by appealing to the power of reason?

The first strategy is to appeal to the power of your empathy. This strategy is described in detail in our article titled, The Power of Empathy.

The second strategy presented by Dr. Bloom involves appealing to the power of your reason.

Dr. Bloom argues that although you may have heard the phrases, “love thy neighbour” or “love thy enemy”, these goals are not realistic. Do we really love these people? Many people don’t even like their neighbour, let alone love them, but that doesn’t mean you want to cause them harm. You feel a certain obligation to treat them and their property with respect, because you understand that their life and their property are as important to them as yours is to you. You use reason to guide your behaviour toward others, not love. 

You can bind yourself to certain rules that will disable you from prejudging an individual based on irrelevant characteristics.

You can bind yourself to certain rules that will disable you from prejudging an individual based on irrelevant characteristics. One example of this is when orchestras audition their new musicians behind a screen or curtain. They do this because the only information that is relevant to their decision-making is the individuals’ ability to play their instrument. 

Another meaningful example presented by Dr. Bloom of how to bind yourself is when representatives of a country sign a constitution. A nation can decide that no matter how much one citizen, or a group of citizens may want to discriminate against individuals based on their protected characteristics (age, race, sex, religion, etc.), the nation has bound itself from those options.  

What steps can your organization take to bind itself from even accidentally prejudging a person based on irrelevant information?

A question to consider

Life contains many issues that have a moral dimension that may or may not be connected to law. 

The word moral is dangerous when left undefined. It is ambiguous given that the moral content of an issue is always discerned through a specific lens or measured with a specific meter.  There are different moral standards that we could use to answer the question posed by the article’s title. We’ll  keep things simple by leveraging  the principle of “do no harm to others” to uncover the moral dimension of prejudice.

The question could be framed as, “Does prejudice lead to physical or emotional harm?”  Perhaps a better question might be, “Would a rational, prudent, impartial person acknowledge that prejudice violates contemporary ideals, norms, or values of respect for persons?” 

I think it’s good to acknowledge that the question won’t capture all of the nuances of a particular situation. It does, however, provide good guidance.

Prejudice could also be considered an ambiguous word. Let’s define it as a condition that affects our behavior toward other people. It can be discerned in us when all of the following symptoms are present:

  1. Prejudging a person or group using hand-me-down stories;
  2. Holding derogatory beliefs;
  3. Hostility and fear are the dominant feelings associated with a person or group;
  4. Inclination to hinder, hurt, or support others in doing the same.

Would someone manifesting the above symptoms violate contemporary ideas, norms, or values of respect for persons? 

Let me morph an old proverb as an answer: The proof of the pudding can be found on the receiving. You will need to understand the lived experiences of those you hold prejudices against or at minimum listen to their voices.