Which is the real “me”? : A Quick Intro to Code Switching

When you’re out with friends, you’re relaxed, outgoing, confident. When you’re at the office, you’re reserved, quiet, focused. You feel like you’re an entirely different person around your family than when you’re around your friends. You think to yourself, “which of these is the real me? The truest me? How do I know I’m not just pretending whenever I’m around other people?”

I’ve heard this question asked more times than I can count. Usually it’s in jest, but sometimes it’s a deeply rooted fear. They worry that among all of these different “personalities,” their truest selves have been lost; that they are somehow liars who put on an act to gain social acceptance.

If this hits close to home, I’m here to tell you not to worry. This phenomenon, the seeming ability to be multiple different people is called code switching. Code switching is often used primarily to describe changes in speech, but I tend to believe it can manifest in a few ways. Regardless, the result is essentially the same: you appear to have different personalities or mannerisms around different people. How? Here are a few ways:

1. Your style changes Style (and I don’t mean just your fashion choices) is a necessary part of how you present yourself. This includes, but is not limited to, clothing, hairstyle, use of jargon, the way you walk, and the way you carry yourself. Around the office, this might mean wearing professional clothing, standing up straighter, and exuding confidence. When you think about what certain clothing choices say about you as a person, you’re thinking about style. When you adjust those choices based on circumstance, you’re code switching. You may do this on social media too, especially if you use more than one platform.

2. You switch dialects If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably fluent in English, and at least one other dialect. That could be Standard Formal English, perhaps your hometown’s unique style of speech that you only drop into when you visit, or maybe it’s Southern American, or AAVE, or the jargon you use around your work colleagues. All of these could broadly be described as dialects, and the ability to move in between them in different social situations is code switching. If you have a child and switch between “parentese” and adult conversation, it’s the same thing.

3. You switch languages I had a friend in elementary school who we’ll call Jane. Jane’s family spoke fluent English and German at home. Sometimes, if I was unlucky, I would see them get mad at each other, as families do, and if Jane was really frustrated or upset, I would see her switch into German. As an 8-year-old, this both terrified and confused me. While this particular situation might not be the most common, it’s not unusual for bilingual families to switch between one language in a school or work setting, and another at home. Bilingualism is not my primary area of research, but there are a lot of resources out there if you’re interested in this variety of code switching. There are other varieties, of course, but this is just a quick introduction. Next time, I’ll be discussing my personal favorite, code switching on social media. For more information, I recommend the NPR Code Switch blog and this post, How Code Switching Explains the World.

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