Imagine you’re at work discussing a project with a few coworkers. You are formally addressing them, going in depth and describing the project. All of a sudden, your cell phone rings and you excuse yourself.
You answer, and it’s a friend or family member on the phone. Without thinking, your speech changes. You might use slang words or words you wouldn’t use in the office. Your once-subtle accent becomes loud and prominent.
You quickly hang up and turn to your colleagues– and they’re looking at you like you’re from a different planet because of the way you were speaking.
This scenario is a perfect example of code switching. It’s when you’re speaking in your voice– just a different form of your voice. Code switching is shifting the type of language that you use depending upon the person you are speaking to.
This happened publicly with President Obama back in 2008– and he was highly criticized for it. He went to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a famous restaurant in a historically black neighborhood. When the black cashier asked him if he needed his change, he replied with “nah, we straight”.
Many people were highly upset– they thought that the President shouldn’t be speaking so informally, or ‘acting black’. In reality, Obama is an African-American male and has the right to speak in this way.
Personally, I believe that code switching is an entirely natural thing. You need to change the language that you use depending on who you’re speaking to.
For example–I code switch with just about every group of friends that I have. When speaking to adults, I use a serious tone and act professional. I’m careful not to use slang terms and to articulate well.
When speaking to my friends, I tend to slip into the same kind of speech that they use– I drop the g’s at the end of my verbs, use black slang, and talk informally (as do they). We may talk about subject matter that I wouldn’t discuss with adults.
At work, I address customers politely: always uptempo, articulate, and attentive. I’m sure to use manners when talking to the customer’s that I’m helping. I try to make a good impression so that ultimately they will return to the theater again.
Here’s the crazy thing– speaking in all these different ways feels completely normal to me. I know how to talk depending on whom I’m around.
Code switching also applies to changing languages. For example, a person can have an entire family that speaks Spanish, but friends that speak English. In order for them to communicate with each group, they would have to completely change the language they are speaking.
So — code switching isn’t a form of hypocrisy. With code switching, we explore different aspects of our own identity.
It’s a natural tendency and is necessary in our society– because you can’t talk to your boss the same way that you would talk to your mother. It’s contextual, and a natural shift in the way we speak.