The Power of the Subjunctive Mood to Reveal Socioeconomic Status
Having navigated socioeconomic class in a way few people will ever understand or experience, I’ve often found myself fascinated with not only the ways in which simple behaviors, traits, habits, customs, or other signals can reveal a tremendous amount about a person’s background but with how those same things are often taken for granted, invisible through ubiquity. Of course, this isn’t limited to finance. We all do it every day in innumerable ways. The former head of disguise at the CIA has discussed how, generally speaking, 1.) someone raised in the United States will switch the knife and fork between their hands while, say, cutting and eating a steak whereas someone raised in the England will keep the knife and the fork in the same hands throughout the meal, and 2.) someone raised in the United States will tend to shift all of his or her weight onto one leg while waiting for a traffic light, whereas someone raised in England will tend to keep equal weight distribution across both legs. In the context of national security, making sure those tiny details were not overlooked could mean the difference between life and death.
As a person moves through social classes, what is considered normal changes depending upon context. Let’s use a famous illustration. Several generations ago, a person born and raised in certain rural areas of the United States may have spoken a dialect of English that employed something called a “negative concord” in which two negatives in a sentence do not, actually, negate each other to form a positive but, rather, maintain their original negative meaning. That is, if a person had said, “I don’t ever get to go nowhere”, the message being communicated is the opposite of the literal meaning of the sentence. He or she is actually saying, “I don’t ever get to go anywhere.” Had this person attempted to escape out of rural poverty, many conventional upward ladders of mobility would have been closed because the signal being sent out screamed , “I am not well-educated, I am not one of you, and I do not belong.” (As a side note, one of the things that makes historical biographies so interesting is seeing how human nature reacts to these closed doors. Driven by rejection, many of the greatest self-made entrepreneurs in American history started out as lower class individuals who amassed exceptional fortunes only to turn around and deliberately transform their family into the elite through a dual-process of 1.) education (namely, paying tuition to finishing schools, private universities, and tutors who inculcated family members with the habits, manners, behaviors, speech patterns, and knowledge of the upper class) and 2.) inter-marriage with older, more established upper-class families. The latter is particularly important. Among all of the definitions of economic class I’ve read, perhaps none rings more true than looking at class as the group of people among whom a person is likely to spend his or her time, be considered an equal, and into which his or her children are likely to marry. It’s not perfect but it does get to the heart of many of the distinctions.)
Today, only the poorest of the poor will ever hear negative concord be used in anything other than an ironic sense because it was beaten out of existence by armies of well-meaning parents and school teachers. On the flip side, you do witness a grammatical divide that tends to fall along socioeconomic lines: the proper use of a grammatical construct known as the “subjunctive mood”. More on that in a moment but, first, a refresher in case it’s been awhile since you’ve last tackled this subject.
Understanding Verb Moods in the English Language
Verbs are words that refer to an action, state, or occurrence; e.g., in the sentence, “He drove to the store and bought a loaf of bread.”, both “drove” and “bought” are verbs because they refer to an action.
Verbs are said to have different “moods”:
- The indicative mood is used if a statement is factual.
- The subjunctive mood is used to:
- Indicate a situation or condition that is conditional, hypothetical, or unlikely.
- Offer a suggestion.
- Demand something.
Ways in Which Vowel Conjugation Changes When Employing Subjunctive Mood
If the subjunctive mood is required, the verb must change as follows:
- The verb “to be” is conjugated as “be” in the present tense and “were” in the past tense regardless of the subject of the sentence. For example, if a person were discussing a hypothetical situation (indicated here by the use of the word “if”):
- Correct Usage:
- “If I were to become President of the United States…”
- “If I were to win the lottery…”
- “If I were to write a novel…”
- “If I were to learn how to speak Chinese…”
- “I wish I were taller.”
- Incorrect Usage:
- “If I was to become President of the United States…”
- “If I was to win the lottery…”
- “If I was to write a novel…”
- “If I was to learn how to speak Chinese…”
- “I wish I was taller.”
- Correct Usage:
- Verbs in the present tense, third-person drop the -s or -es when conjugated. For example, software company Grammarly provides these excellent illustrations:
- Correct Usage:
- “We asked that he listen carefully to the directions before starting the project.”
- “It is important that she agree to these terms.”
- “Maya insisted that the student seek the aid of a tutor.”
- Incorrect Usage:
- “We asked that he listens carefully to the directions before starting the project.”
- “It is important that she agrees to these terms.”
- “Maya insisted that the student seeks the aid of a tutor.”
- Correct Usage:
The Role of Signaling in Structural Inequality and Job Opportunity
While there are always exceptions, in nearly every case, someone who is upper middle or upper class will use the subjunctive mood correctly. They don’t have to think about it because it is ingrained; a reflexive way of speaking and writing that is as natural as breathing. Likewise, failure to use subjunctive mood broadcasts information about a person’s background and socioeconomic status. It seems such an insignificant thing but it’s not because the real-life consequences are overwhelming. In complex systems, small advantages or disadvantages compound over time, ultimately leading to enormous outcome differentials. Look at hiring practices in places like Silicon Valley. Getting the right job, especially early in one’s career, changes everything. In a well-known story, the founders of PayPal allegedly refused to hire an engineer who mentioned that he liked to play “hoops” during his free time, immediately determining he would not be a good cultural fit with the existing workforce. It isn’t difficult to see how that knee-jerk reaction, despite not being intentionally nefarious, effectively created a situation in which a disproportionate percentage of black engineers were all but disqualified due to signals and behaviors that came with them from childhood as demographic factors meant they were more likely to have played basketball growing up than, say, tennis or golf. The problem of people hiring others predominantly like themselves is so tempting that Facebook recently had to prohibit the use of the term “cultural fit” when interviewers made notes about whether or not to offer employment to a potential worker. (Interestingly, that, itself, may introduce far bigger problems down the road since a company’s culture, and the ability of people to fit into that culture, are among the most important factors in the long-term success of an enterprise.)
One pragmatic argument for this sort of discrimination is that what appears to be meaningless is, in fact, a proxy for educational quality. Perhaps there is some truth in that sentiment. After all, the brain is constantly looking for efficiency mechanisms, making split-second decisions about people and situations, frequently viewing signals through the lens of societal norms. A stranger who refuses to smile at others in Alabama is going to be seen as cold, rude, and off-putting. On the flip side, a stranger who smiles at strangers in Moscow is going to be seen as dishonest, scheming, or just plain weird. If you are looking to hire based upon talent and ability, and 97 out of 100 times certain traits correlate with those factors, it’s easy to design systems and processes that discard the 3 out of 100 who don’t fit neatly into a box.
Thoughts on Other Linguistic Signals
One linguistic tell I’ve noticed in my own life: many Midwesterners maintain a verb construction when speaking informally that is grammatically atrocious. It almost never goes away. The transgression: the dreaded “we’ve got”.
“We’ve got to…” or “We’ve got it…” is usually how it goes.
Think about the words, though. Remove the contraction.
“We have got…”.
What does that even mean? It’s horrible. Absolutely horrible. It should be “We have” or “We must” in nearly all cases.
I do it all the time when speaking (though not nearly as frequently when writing). Practice, and practice alone, seems to be the sole way to eliminate it as the usual exclusion-through-osmosis doesn’t seem to root it out once it’s taken hold. Doubt it? Despite their age, and decades being at the top of economic and political power: 1.) During the last Presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton used it frequently, and 2.) Warren Buffett once said it three times in a single paragraph during an interview with CNBC. Maybe it’s exposure to corn fields. I don’t know. It’s certainly a linguistic signal, though. It’s a bit like the British who don’t hear the “r” sound they add to the end of certain words (the so-called “intrusive ‘r'”.)
Still, it’s nothing compared to our friends in New Jersey. When Aaron and I first went off to college, we realized in horror that a specific area of New Jersey pronounces Mario Brothers – as in Nintendo’s Mario and Luigi – as “Mary-oh Brothers” instead of “Mah-rio”. It is wrong on so many levels.