The Art of Code-Switching

John David Washington’s depiction of Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s The BlackKklansman highlights the concept of code-switching. Stallworth, the first African American police officer hired in Colorado Springs, CO in the late 70’s believe it or not, infiltrates the KKK by sounding white on the phone.

What is code-switching? From Wikipedia:

“Some scholars of literature use the term code-switching to describe literary styles that include elements from more than one language, as in novels by Chinese-American, Anglo-Indian, or Latino writers. In popular usage, code-switching is sometimes used to refer to relatively stable informal mixtures of two languages, such as Spanglish, Taglish, or Hinglish.  Both in popular usage and in sociolinguistic study, the name code-switching is sometimes used to refer to switching among dialects, styles or registers. This form of switching is practiced, for example, by speakers of African American Vernacular English as they move from less formal to more formal settings. Such shifts, when performed by public figures such as politicians, are sometimes criticized as signalling inauthenticity or insincerity.”

I was introduced to code-switching before knowing the term in the early 80’s while waiting for a bus on UCLA’s campus late one night with a group of others including an African-American student dressed as UCLA’s mascot, sans the head which he held in his hand. His animated “street” talk was punctuated with profanities, non-standard usage, and related funk. “Wow,” I thought, who would’ve ever guessed that “Joe Bruin is one cool brother.” Until a professor acquaintance rolled up at which point he literally threw a switch and went standard English. The speed and skill of the transformation left me dumbstruck.

Granted, there’s always a risk of inauthenticity or insincerity, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make an effort to relate to a wider range of people than we’re accustomed to. For all the academic mumbo jumbo, that’s all code-switching is.

Richard Russo is one of my favorite authors. He has a doctorate and teaches writing at elite universities, but he grew up working class, returning to do manual labor each college summer. His respect for working men and women, and his feel for the speech and mannerisms of construction and factory workers is one of the hallmarks of his writing. Like Ron Stallworth, he’s an expert code-switcher.

Our church’s new “transition pastor” is also a licensed electrician. Which makes me think of the clash of cultures at my university one night a week when youngish electricians suddenly materialize for evening certification coursework. They’re a distinct subculture in that they ALL drive BIG trucks, are varying degrees of dirty, and smell like cigarette smoke. I’m betting Pastor Duane could go from one of our church council meetings to the steps outside my office where they take their final puffs and not miss a beat. Given his varied life experience, I’m betting he’s a good code-switcher.

Interpersonal intelligence requires making constant adjustments in speech and behavior based upon changing group norms. Rather than always expecting others to adjust to us, we watch, listen, and learn to adjust to them. Like Ron Stallworth, Joe Bruin, and Richard Russo.

 

 

 

 

Do You Mind If I’m Totally Frank?

Last week, that’s what one of my students asked me in the middle of a discussion led by a classmate. The topic was what stoicism teaches about getting along with others. At the beginning of the discussion, I skimmed the student leader’s questions. The last one was about stoicism and sex which was addressed within the related reading.

With about ten minutes left in class, I said to the student leader that he should probably pick one of the remaining two questions. Without hesitating he jumped to the last much to his classmates’ delight. Apart from a little antiseptic sex ed talk, I’m guessing this was the first time they’d ever truly discussed sex in a classroom.

It’s ironic that the more interpersonally consequential the subject—take sex as one example and marriage as another—the less likely we are to talk about them with adolescents and young adults in any detail. I guess we think of such topics as too personal, private, and value-laden. As a result, pastors rarely if ever talk about sex and marriage from the pulpit, parents rarely if ever talk about their relationships with their children, and educators routinely sidestep topics like that. That means adolescents and young adults are left to themselves to resolve all of the challenges posed by human intimacy through trial and error.

The sex question immediately piqued everyone’s interest. One especially animated student turned from the student leader to me and asked, “Do you mind if I’m totally frank?” Me, “Sure, of course.” Her, “There’s a big difference between fucking and making love.” As they repeatedly say on the television series Fargo, “Okay, then.”

Couple that ice breaker with the fact that it’s a small class, the students are friends, and they think I’m way cooler than I am, the conversation was more candid than I had anticipated. It’s kind of a blur. At some point, I pointed out that they hadn’t yet dealt with the stoic’s primary insight on sex, that in middle or old age few people reflect on their younger selves and wish they had been more promiscuous. Stoics point out that the opposite is much more common, that sexually active people often regret the damage done by being so promiscuous. To which one student bravely said, “I’m 19 and I regret being as promiscuous as I was in high school.”

From there the discussion turned to the confusing and controversial stoic suggestion that sex, even inside of marriage, should only be for the purpose of procreating, which strikes me as an overreaction to the dangers of promiscuity.

Rewind the tape to earlier in the week when, with two colleagues, I was involved in a protracted discussion with a student teacher who is struggling in her internship. I was asking questions designed to get her to admit a regret or two in the hope we could turn to what could be done to remedy the situation. “What would you have done differently if anything?” “Okay,” she finally said without asking if she could be perfectly frank, “I fucked up.”

After the meeting that utterance was what one of my colleagues wanted to talk about first. He was right, she does have to be smarter about professional contexts, meaning more tactful and diplomatic, but these two incidents point to a huge generation gap when it comes to attitudes towards profanity.

Swearing, using “fuck” more specifically and not just as a verb, but as any part of speech, is so common among adolescents and young adults that some adults’ resistance to it, like my colleagues, hardly makes any sense to them.

Just as it’s unrealistic to expect married people to abstain from sex except when procreating, it’s unrealistic to expect young people to stop swearing altogether. The best hopelessly square people like myself can hope for, is that they learn to use profanity freely around their peers when in informal settings and then “code-switch” and refrain from it when around mixed aged people in other settings.

If you don’t agree, you can go forget yourself.