One day, I scheduled a meeting with a lady. It was a casual business meeting so we decided to meet in a cafe, instead of an office. I have never met her before, but we talked on the phone once.
She arrived at the cafe 15 minutes late, with Starbucks cup in hand (the cafe we’re in was not Starbucks), and immediately offered an apology: “Sorry I’m late Suhaimi, I had to drop my daughter off at piano class in TTDI, a bit of traffic on the way here.”
I met her for 10 seconds, and already I picked up several signals:
- That she is at least middle class (Starbucks takeaway even though we were meeting at another cafe);
- That she lives in a middle-class neighborhood (the kind of neighborhood where parents send their kids to music class. Perhaps one of the neighborhoods in or around TTDI);
- That her family is well-off (dropping her daughter in the afternoon means she does not have to keep a 9 to 5 job). Perhaps a high-income spouse, or inheritance, or both;
These are signals. Signals are not perfect. It could be the case, for example, that she used an empty Starbucks cup to fill in Ribena, her favorite beverage; or that she lives in a PPR flat; or that the piano class is free of charge, or really cheap; or that she actually worked desk office job, but that was her day off. But then again, probably not.
The signals were too strong, and Occam’s razor presumes that my initial assumptions were all right on the spot.
(Not to mention the signals I picked up from her middle-class demeanor. I recognize a certain poise common to well-to-do middle-class ladies, even when they dress casually, that cannot be faked by the working class.)
The signals being what they were, it made my job easy. I dealt with her accordingly as I would a middle-class person (even made a correct guess on where she went to school), and the meeting went well, and we both got what we wanted from the meeting.
She did not go out of her way to tell me she’s middle class, but everything around her gave that signal. Signals I was too ready to pick up.
We deal with signals every day. We give out signals, and picked them up, in our daily lives. Signals can be subtle or not so subtle. Signals galore on Instagram and other social media. People can be coy about it, but by sharing their lives online they are really signaling their lifestyle to you, along with their expectation of how you should respond to their show of lifestyle.
Some ways we intentionally or unintentionally signal:
- Namedropping. The name of VVIP you know or have met, the events you attended, the school you went to, the companies you worked at. If you mention these in a conversation with the intention of impressing the others, even slightly, then it is a form of signaling.
- Using “otherness” as a proxy for good. “This supplement is imported from France and approved by the European Homeopathy Association” (not everything that came out of Europe is a Peugeot or a Volvo. Europe is a huge landmass — some parts are shitholes, even in the developed countries). “Our international school has 80% expatriate teachers” (some of the worst teachers I’ve ever met are these “expats”). Another similar trick is to show oldness. “Established since 1833” — the signal being that the business is good, otherwise it won’t be open this long.
- Stereotypes. All stereotypes — racial, class, profession, religious — are forms of signaling. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and though it feels good to be “woke” and judge every human as unique individuals, our biological instinct causes us to treat people as stereotypical members of their groups. Our brains have evolved to be able to make statistical calculations whether bad things are likely to happen, based on the existing information, i.e., the stereotypes.
I am perhaps guilty of using signaling more than most people, seeing that I made a living on a hustle, or, in a more respectable term, on pitching businesses to my clients. I know some of the psychological sales tricks, to appear humble and shy and subdued, and to project signals to clients, rather than saying things outright. Talking straight is sometimes a virtue, but at other times, the situation calls for the opposite: niceties, beating around the bush, unspoken innuendos. In that situation, don’t just say it, signal it.