Everyone Code Switches

Living in a college town, I deal with people from different places. I notice how, as a parking ramp cashier, I treat customers differently. I’m guilty of judging people by appearances and by accents. I’ve worked this job for so long that I unconsciously categorize people, you might say I profile.

It doesn’t alter the quality of my customer service or anything like that. But it amuses me because of how it does effect how I act.

I think this comes from having spent much of my life split between two distinct regions. I had to learn a new way of talking and acting when I moved to the Deep South as a kid. When I returned to the Midwest after high school, I still had a bit of the Southern accent that I had picked up. It also took me a while to stop referring to all of my customers as “Sir” and “Mam”. There were many ways of speaking that I had to drop from my repertoire, but they remained within my mind.

What many people don’t think about is that inner city dialect is a product of the South. I more often interact with people with an inner city dialect than a Southern one, but they are similar in certain ways. When I hear someone speak with a stereotypical inner city dialect, I naturally fall back to aspects of my Southern way of speaking.

This happened the other day. A black customer spoke with an inner city dialect. Instead  of saying a solid Midwestern “fine” in response to something, I said the (Deep) Southern equivalent, which is “all right” but without the last letters enunciated, more like “ah’righ”.

I would never speak this way to my fellow white Midwesterners. Sure, I’d likely respond to a white Southerner in that same way, but here in Iowa City I don’t run into too many whites from the Deep South or even whites from the inner city of Chicago. It’s mostly blacks who elicit this from me because around here it is only among blacks that I’m likely to hear the closest equivalent to a Deep Southern dialect.

When this happened, I realized what I was doing. I code switched. I didn’t code switch from white to black culture, but from Northern to Southern culture. It’s just that inner city blacks and I have both inherited a bit of the Southern culture.

I unconsciously look and listen for cues about people. I more or less treat people the same, but there are tiny shifts in how I act or speak. I only notice them when I’m actively thinking about it. It is more than just about black people or the rare Southern person I meet. For example, I switch the way I interact depending on how I perceive someone’s class. It is easy for me to code switch between middle class and working class, as I spent my life in both of those classes at different times. I know how to act in proper middle class ways, when needed.

All of this is based on my perception, of course. It is a superficial level of interaction, but that is what daily interactions tend to involve. Everyone does this type of thing and most people give it a lot less consideration. Even if you are aware of how you act in different situations, it isn’t easy to control. Although I couldn’t for the life of me intentionally speak with a Southern accent, I’d probably slide right back into it if I moved back to the Deep South.

These are the outward expressions of social identity. It’s not who we are at a deeper level, just the patterns of behavior we learn from those around us. We then carry these patterns with us for the rest of our lives, even if we leave an early influential environment that shaped us. We all have many selves, ways of acting and roles we know how to play. We can forget about some of these aspects of our identity, until something brings it out in us.


3 thoughts on “Everyone Code Switches

  1. My mom’s family comes from the Upper South, at least culturally. She was born and grew up in central Indiana, but her family came from Southern Indiana and Kentucky.

    She had a Southern accent when she was younger, all the way through her early marriage, although it was a dialect of the Upper South which is quite different than the Deep South. She never regained her Southern accent, even as she occasionally slips into pronouncing certain words in Hoosier style (‘cooshion’ instead of ‘cushion’).

    When I was a kid she had already adopted Midwestern speak and she kept talking that way for the rest of her life, even when we were living in the Deep South. She never identified as a Southerner. I never saw her code switch back to her Upper South accent, but maybe I just didn’t notice.

    My accent wasn’t influenced by the way some of my mom’s family spoke because I was never around them much. Even after living in the Deep South, the Upper South dialect wouldn’t elicit any code switching from me. Deep Southerners don’t pronounce words the way my mom’s family does.

    It is interesting that an inner city black does elicit code switching from me. It makes sense. I didn’t just grow up in the Deep South, but urban Deep South. I went to public schools with lots of inner city kids, including inner city blacks.

    In my mind, Deep South and inner city have much overlap and get conflated a bit. Inner city blacks are in some ways just transplanted Southerners, even many of those who never lived in the South. Their being culturally segregated has allowed their Southern culture to survive in the North, just as the Amish’s German culture survives in the US.

    In that sense, inner city blacks in the North are similar to me. When they code switch, it isn’t so much between black and white as between Southern and Northern. It’s just that, in the North, a particular Southern way of speaking has become entirely associated with blacks.

    It is strange that I share more linguistic background with inner city blacks than I do with my mom’s family.

    • When I was in West Virginia, everyone had a southern accent. When I was in central VA (Charlottesville/UVA area) I didn’t notice this as much. I’ve never been further south than UVA, so I don’t know much about accent distributions.

    • I lived in Columbia, South Carolina. There was a major university and military fort there. It is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the entire South, but it is still clearly Southern.

      My best friend growing up was more from the rural culture of Scots-Irish rednecks. Between Southerners like him and inner city kids, I picked up a mix of elements. But the basic way I spoke was always Midwestern, I’m sure. Many people living in Columbia, especially middle class professional whites often didn’t speak with a Southern accent.

      There is a big difference between rural and urban in the South, but so many rural people have been moved to urban areas. The race and class segregation in the South does keep some distinctions in the way people speak. My neighbor lady who was a Southern Belle spoke a very different way from either working class whites or inner city blacks. It is different in a Midwestern state like Iowa where there is much less linguistic diversity.

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