Code Switching: do you do it?

[My friend Diane, who lives in Singapore and is married to an Australian man, and I have been discussing code switching over e-mail for the past few weeks.  She suggested it as a post topic for me, but I haven’t had an encounter recently that offers the richness of perspective that I got out of my discussion with her.  With her permission, I’ve edited and reproduced it here.]


I have been thinking about code switching lately because of NPR’s great blog launched in April. Their definition of code switch is expansive and interesting, but here’s a snippet:  “In linguistics, “code-switching” means mixing languages or patterns of speech in conversation. But as our blog host Gene Demby explains: ‘We’re looking at code-switching a little more broadly. Many of us subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time. We’re hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities — sometimes within a single interaction.’”

I think most of us think of code switching as a dance that some people have to do (want to do?) to ‘fit in’ .. mostly when they encounter differences of race … Obama adding a bit of lilt to his tone in front of black audiences, or taking a bit of lilt out for white ones… and it’s often viewed as negative and alienating… painful to have to deny part of who you are to fit with what others think you are (or should be).

In this terrain, as a member of the US’s racial majority all I can do is acknowledge that I don’t know what that’s like, and listen to my friends who do, and learn.

To learn, and to think. So I’ve been thinking about this broader definition and where in my life I might find something to relate to… what about the extra y’alls that would creep in when I’d visit my grandparents from rural Virginia? Or how Australian I’m starting to sound when I talk to our (mostly) Aussie friends? I use different words, different intonation… etc. Except I DON’T try to drop my Rs. Melbourne is still MelbouRne to me… somehow it feels like dropping that R wouldn’t be ‘adjusting to find common ground’, it would be pretending to be someone I’m not (or probably more rightly someone that they ARE). I also think people “switch” along socio-economic lines. People who “marry up,” families that successfully improve their lot in life… when I was single I felt like I would switch a bit around married friends….

I think you’d be a very interesting person to write on this subject – you’ve been to SO many places, worked and lived in so many contexts, had to tell people not to try their bad Korean… you get the gist!


The code switching thing is really interesting. I’ll have to think about it a little longer and see what happens when I start typing. That Melbou(R)ne thing used to drive me crazy – it seemed like it was the only word that American expats in Oz would try to pronounce like Aussies, and I couldn’t figure out why. After reading and thinking about your e-mail, I think it’s because it seemed too self-aware, too intentional. I guess I perceive intentional code switching as somehow not genuine. I wonder how African-Americans feel when we co-opt their speech rhythms and vocabulary in a mocking way. It doesn’t happen all the time, but you can see it when it does. Feels disrespectful when it’s mocking.

I’ve noticed that I say y’all more frequently in Texas; when I lived in DC and traveled north of the Mason-Dixon line for the firm, I started switching to “you guys,” just because there’s some stigma attached to y’all, that it’s only used by southerners, who are obviously dumb because of their accents. I’ve also noticed that I sound more Texan when I’m drunk and/or angry. Sometimes, when I’m annoyed at the parochialism of Californians, I’ll purposefully sound more Texan around them.


Yes – self aware, intentional… it’s like the minute you’re trying, people can sense it… or you sense it yourself. Do you remember NB from the firm? She and I got on like a house on fire -she’s awesome (I probably think this since we had near-identical Meyers Briggs scores). Anyway she’s black, and once told me she appreciated that I didn’t try. (She had a friend of Puerto Rican descent who tried to say ‘oh, I’m latina, we have the same problems’.. and it pissed NB off. She was mostly venting about the other friend, but by way of contrast she said she appreciated that I acknowledged the figurative “places I couldn’t go, or lines I couldn’t cross” and that I would just acknowledge it.

Anyhoo, expanding beyond that I think the whole concept of adapting to where you are, who you are with, to the part of you that you want to bring forward… that is interesting…. I rarely think about being a southern woman (fist bump), but I can get extremely passionate about manners, sending thank you notes, my china pattern (still yet to be picked out, to my dismay)… and how appalling it is that Asian men in Singapore do not stand aside to let me off the elevator first. (WTF?)

So yeah… I’m ruminating on how to think about the act of bringing parts of yourself to the fore, to find common ground, to imply or directly share values… that bit. It can be nice? Helpful? Certainly using “y’all” helped me to thaw frosty conversations with clients who DID NOT care for that northerner who had been in their office last.  As you see it’s all nebulous but very interesting – especially for world travelers. What is good about code switching? Does it enrich you? Can it be bad? To whom? To your own sense of identity? To others?


I never met NB, but I understand what she’s saying – it’s a version of that hilarious video with the clueless white dude talking about all the Asian things that he likes. My college roommate told me an interesting story about Whoopi Goldberg and Patrick Stewart being really good friends. Apparently, when he was with Whoopi’s African American friends, he would use their vocabulary, but still use his own voice, and apparently, they loved it. He was doing it to fit in, but he wasn’t doing it offensively or with bad intent, and so instead of being insulted, they welcomed him with open arms.

To your point of figuring out which part of yourself to bring forward, I’m often annoyed at myself for code switching, whether intentional or unintentional. It’s too hard to try to be different for everyone, and it reminds me of a time when I was younger when I thought I had to change who I was to fit in. It’s EXHAUSTING to change who you are to fit in. But maybe code switching is less about trying to change yourself and more about the core of what good manners are — making the people you’re with more comfortable. I like your point about using it to find common ground or to signal shared values.

[Expect to see more on code switching in future posts; it’s come in handy in my work life, but I’m trying to be aware of the instances when I do it.  If you have experiences in this yourself, please tell me about them in the comments.  It’s a fascinating topic, especially in light of what’s happened recently with the Trayvon Martin trial and KTVU’s Asiana pilot name “joke”/Patton Oswalt’s reply “joke.”]

This entry was posted in life, travel, who am i and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Code Switching: do you do it?

  1. Nikki says:

    I couldn’t appear WASPier, by breeding. But being from a rural state and growing up very poor,economically. I often felt I was acting “up” in business. I’m lucky enough that my circumstances did not leave me with an accent, and did instill the middle class values of success. Going to college, for example, was an expectation that nearly none of my ancestors had achieved (shout out to the GI bill for Gramper who, as an engineer, built many of the highways in my home state.) When I attended a southern University, I realized how blessed I was with that privilege. People assumed, being at a fancy school, and from New England, a level of sopistication I did not possess. I have been able ( with my brains and hard work) to parlay that into a level of success for which I often feel, not guilty, but a bit like an imposter. At heart, I want to fit in back home. My solution, is to be as real as I can in every scenario. I have lived in the “south” for nearly as long as I have in the north and am not ashamed to use “y’all” regularly. I have also come to peace with (and have frankly used to my advantage) the fact that people project their image of what I am (based on what I look like) on me. I’m able to back this up with experience and knowledge, but it helps and I both hate and acknowledege that privilege. I try not to pretend I grew up with all of those forks or “summered” anywhere other than an occasional lake shack with an outhouse. In that small way, I feel I’m keeping it real.

  2. kingtime says:

    This was an important issue,btw, for the firm we both worked for. I tried to hire as many “underprivileged” kids as I could. It was hard.

    • Nikki, I think it’s fascinating that you’ve had this experience because this is the U.S., where the dream is upward mobility regardless of background or family history. Your story is supposed to be everyone’s story. Maybe code switching is an integral part of the American dream? So much food for thought….

  3. Steph says:

    I do it mostly to help emphasize what I am trying to say, or to make a connection with the people I am talking to. Middle school vernacular is much different from cocktail talk and it’s important to be able to navigate each easily. My situation is probably different from most because I work with kids, but it keeps me mentally youthful and in touch with what is “in development” with how people communicate with each other. Coming from a state where there are very colloquial ways to say places like “Norfolk,” when someone says “Nor-Folk” and not “Nor-fahk” you just know they’re not from here. It’s not how the name is pronounced. It’s not a matter of what pronunciation could work instead, you see…it’s just not correct to say it the other way.

    • Hmmm… this is code switching as shibboleth, which also includes what Diane and I were doing when we used “y’all” with dissatisfied, southern clients who were unhappy with the Yankees who’d been there previously. Steph, I wish you’d write an annual middle school vernacular glossary. Would be totes awesome.

  4. Melissa says:

    This is a very interesting topic. The MelbouRne example is so funny and real. When living there, I chose to go with Mel-burn. I asked many Aussies about this – they think it is hilarious when Americans try to say Melbin – if you look up the actual pronunciation it has an upside down e in it. I am not really sure how to pronounce an upside down e – do you?

    Being from New Jersey, but living in DC and abroad for (now the majority) of my life, the Jersey accent no longer really exists. It does come out though, every once in a while, reminding me of who I am. I have been intrigued lately at the language influence on young children. We have just been living in Philly for a couple of months now and I don’t even understand half of what my daughter is saying anymore. When I try to “correct” her pronunciation, she is insistent that she is saying whatever it is correctly. I have seen this with my American friends too who now have children with Australian accents. The parents must be wrong. I am sure there is more of that to come.

    When it comes to working internationally, I consider a bit of code switching necessary to demonstrate cultural agility and respect. I don’t necessarily change how I speak, but I do “flex” so that I don’t stand out as a culturally incentive American. I remember a conversation I had with someone in the US office of the firm when I was in Australia. “Well, they never give us credit when we Australianize the language for the meeting materials, so why should we invest in it.” My response is they don’t give us credit because we are speaking their language; however, when we don’t do it, it stands out and underscores our lack of respect of the nuances of the country – if we can’t talk the language, how can we be trusted to have done our homework on the business environment. So true…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s