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.