Psychologist Reveals The ‘Annoying’ Unwritten Rule Of Work That Can Be Hard For People From Low-Income Backgrounds To Navigate

It's one of the key ways those from poorer backgrounds are held back in their careers.

Awkward office meeting filadendron / Getty Images Signature / Canva Pro

The corporate world is composed mostly of people from privileged backgrounds who grew up with parents who taught them how to navigate it. The higher up in the ranks you rise, the truer this becomes.

This makes it a place that is often confusing and difficult for those who grew up with less to navigate — it can often feel like trying to speak another language without having any lessons. One psychologist says this often results in people who grew up with less being held back in their careers.


The psychologist admitted there's one unwritten office rule that those from low-income backgrounds struggle with most.

Often disguised as "professionalism," workplace culture includes unspoken cues and standards that signify who is and isn't of a certain caliber, from jargon to how someone wears their hair.

Unsurprisingly, studies have repeatedly revealed that these "professionalism" standards routinely end up holding back workers who grew up disadvantaged, especially those from marginalized communities.

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Dr Anna Kallschmidt is an industrial-organizational psychologist, a field that focuses on how psychology operates in the workplace and management. She has concentrated some of her research on all these "unwritten rules" that those from low-income backgrounds often don't learn.

In speaking with her research subjects, there was one skill that every demographic — "black and white, women and men" — reported as being the most difficult: "It's learning how to be indirect in your communication."

Dr. Kallschmidt said those who grew up low-income often don't know how to navigate the workplace's 'indirect communication' standards. 

Kallschmidt said her research subjects often "felt like they had to cushion their language or use kid gloves when talking to people or giving feedback, particularly if it was not just agreeing with" the person they were speaking to.

In a previous video, she had likened the transition from a blue-collar upbringing to a white-collar life in adulthood to the children's story "The Emperor's New Clothes," where no one will speak plainly to the Emperor.

@drkallschmidt Yes I know white collar can have emergencies and blue collar can not. There are 3 min caps on these videos people. #unwrittenrules #leadership #tiptok #communication #whitecollar ♬ original sound - Dr K

She said the same analogy applies to office settings, where indirect communication is required that would never fly in most blue-collar settings.

"You don't want a construction worker who's indirect," she explained. "Like, is the wall coming down or not? Is it safe to go in or not?" So workers end up saying things like, "The wall isn't solid, MOVE!" because being direct is essential to everyone's safety.

That doesn't fly in corporate culture, though. "[You're] expected to cushion business leaders," she said—you'd never tell Bossman to "move!" You'd talk around it and finesse it as a sign of respect.


But if you don't come from a white-collar background, how are you supposed to know that that "cushioning" is required in the first place, let alone how to do it? This is where people often run into trouble at work.

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She then gave tips on how to accomplish the 'indirect communication' that is so necessary in the corporate world.

I grew up relatively poor myself and had to learn a lot of what Dr. Kallschmidt is talking about by trial and error. In my experience, what inevitably happens when you're overly direct at work (by which I mean you communicate like a normal person in the deeply abnormal environment of the workplace) is you start getting a reputation for being "difficult" and "unrefined." 


This tends to have a snowball effect, often resulting in you being considered "not [company name here] material," — especially if you're from a marginalized community. 

Kallschmidt says there are a few simple guidelines you can follow to help avoid this.

  1. Always "start with a greeting, especially on an email" — ask the person how they're doing before launching into whatever it is you have to say.
  2. "Ask to disagree first" by saying something like, "If I could just push back on that" or "If I could offer a counterpoint." This is especially important "if the person has power over you," Kallschmidt said, because it makes it seem like you're still respecting authority even as you're telling them they're wrong.
  3. "Use 'I' statements instead of 'you' statements" — for example, "'I perceive this' instead of 'you did this'" — so as not to sound accusatory and combative.
  4. Ask clarifying questions before assuming intent. Kallschmidt's example was: "I heard this, is that what you meant?" This helps avoid the kind of conflict that is often seen as disrespectful

"In corporate, it's a lot about relationship building anyway," she said, "so even if you don't agree, you do want to build a relationship with that person." Learning the "indirect communication" ropes can help with this.


Kallschmidt cautions business leaders, however, that it is ultimately their job to change the way corporate environments work. Having to tiptoe and beat around the bush only reifies snobbish and toxic notions of hierarchy in the working world that are often inherently classist, sexist, and racist — it also wastes everyone's time.

"I think it was the former CEO of Twitter who said, 'My job as a leader is to resolve mistakes as quickly as possible, and I can't do that if people are afraid to tell me what they are,'" Kallschmidt said.


"I would challenge leaders to work on creating a communication culture with your team," she suggested. "Talk about what you consider respectful, ask them what they consider respectful." This will not only help shift corporate culture to be more inclusive and egalitarian — it'll also make everyone more productive.

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John Sundholm is a news and entertainment writer who covers pop culture, social justice, and human interest topics.