Code switching

I first came across the term code switching from Brian Watson’s post on it last winter. I’ve thought about it a lot since then. Code switching “explains how many of us subtly, reflexively change how we express ourselves in different contexts.” This graphic of President Obama illustrates code switching really well, and NPR has an entire blog on code-switching.


I think of code switching as different expressions of the same personality, in the way that light can pass across a single, vast landscape to highlight and obscure at times different aspects of that landscape.

It’s natural to code switch somewhat between the professional and familial, or in speaking with peers versus the elderly and children. I’m not particularly good at code switching beyond those basic contexts. A risk is when the code switch is inauthentic, where someone essentially puts on airs and tries to signal they’re fluent with an attitude or lifestyle that’s alien to them. Like politicians suddenly inserting “y’all” into Southern speeches.

It’s interesting to think about code switching less as a reflexive or superficial change in mannerisms based on context, but instead along the lines of habitually learning more across a variety of fields, and being able to deploy that knowledge contextually and even cross-fertilize insights between experiences. I’m thinking of Robert Heinlein:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

The fascinating code switch to me isn’t the handshake v. chest bump, but the ability to acquire foundational knowledge about Heinlein’s sort of fields, and identify the contexts where you can express that part of yourself.

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