13 July 2009

Code-shifters Unite! "Oh, No You Di'int!"

I am afraid I "di'id," err, I mean I do, "code-shift" that is. Code-shifting (sometimes called code-switching) is a long-standing tradition of those amongst us who can be having dinner with our friends from the ole neighborhood (the ones called "stinky", "nails" and "princess" even though their names are Steve, Theo and Paulie), and with a "wait one" finger in the air to our pals we can take a call from a senior editor at The Times to give a comment on the Secretary of State's recent gaffe regarding an overseas speech which seemingly is at cross-purposes with current White House policy. We'll use words like "statecraft" and "hegemony" with Mrs. Senior Editor, and then when we hang up we'll use words like "bite me" and "that's what your wife said" to our pals who were mocking us brutally whilst we were on the phone. (Did you notice, btw, that I used the words "amongst" and "whilst" when its clear that I am a simpleton from SoCal? Now that, dear reader, is an affectation and not code-shifting.) Now ... wherest was I?

With our business colleagues on the road we mock-n-curse each other and the naughty competition with a toolbox rich with colorful insults, and then we insist that our youngins riding in the back of the car on the 2-hour ride to San Diego not say "sucks" when "stinks" will suffice. Or as Kate Hepburn's mom in The Philadelphia Story (1939 or thereabouts) said to her youngest, "Don't say stinks, Dinah. Say 'smells,' but then only if absolutely necessary."

I can see both sides of this controversy (it's only controversial because I say it is ... I want this article/website to have some substance after all) because on the one hand, it's axiomatic that we should all behave in a consistent and principled manner toward our fellow man (but not the fallow man, damn him!). This seems to be at odds with the code-shifting crowd's natural wont, but, upon deeper examination, not so much. We ALL code-shift. When we talk to our kids; when we speak to our child's homeroom mom; when we go on job interviews; when we're on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien; and, yes, even when we go to church.

There are lines that we shouldn't cross to be sure. If you are personally offended by cursing or sarcastic humor, then by all means behave consistently across each population of your friends (and here is where I take the 5th, dear friends). However, I am willing to bet that even amongst your most ardent of anti-swearers, there are phrases or slang that you feel comfortable using and yet would not venture to use that same vocab at the PTA meeting. See my meaning? Catch my drift? Are you pickin' up what I'm laying down? Code-shifting is natural and I believe helps grease the wheels of communication.

"How so?" you ask. First, it puts all at ease. When you speak formally toward your octogenarian grandmother, the one whom you still call "grand mere", she feels at ease, and believes that her 80-some odd years on this earth were not in vain, and that sending you to Smith Colllege (her alma mater) was in fact not good money after bad. When the President (Mr. BHO himself, the grand pubah of community organizing) talks with White House groundskeepers or staffers around him (say, Kal Penn, formerly of the hit series, House) he will in his inimitable way put them at ease and probably reference the Chicago White Sox's (his favorite team) recent win against the Nationals. This is how it works with those who are naturally gifted in this regard. They seek to put others at ease, yes, but secondly, it primes the pump of information. People talk more when they feel that someone is actually interested in them, but especially if they can relate to the person addressing them ... and that someone is you and I.

If you try code-shifting -- even if you feel silly at first -- then you'll begin a life-long journey of knowing our fellow man if not in a deeper way, then perhaps in a richer one. Greatness in this regard can indeed lead to accomplishing great things. Let's consider President Lincoln, from poverty to becoming arguably one of the greatest writers ever; President Truman (also from humble beginnings, he worked at a men's clothing store); Frederick Douglas, the former slave who became a leading abolitionist, is another personal hero of mine, who crossed color lines, even in his marriage, and could chat with Presidents and paupers alike; Queen Elizabeth is also said to be excellent at this and has met well over 500,000 people in her life time. She might not dap you up or high-five you, but she can ask you about cars (she was a mechanic during WWII), sheep, dogs, and anything else considered to be "common." Former President Bill Clinton was especially strong-suited here, although his touch was a little too common if you know what I mean, but I digress into truth. Sorry.

To my way of thinking, the single best modern example I can think of in this regard, is business leader extraordinaire, Richard Branson. Completely without guile (from news articles and his books that I've read, at any rate) and is just unabashedly immune to bruised ego syndrome. That is the downfall of so many leaders, viz., not considering that others may be right or at least should have a voice (insert here, Mssrs. Steve Jobs, Al Gore, certain religious leaders, et. al., for examples of impolitic behavior and those without code-shifting abilities). Branson flies around the world and has a beer with mates (aka, his employees) in Australia, the US, and the UK with abounding aplomb. He has meetings on his Necker Island with world leaders as well with equal ease. Indeed, he receives the FatScribe code-shifting award for 2009. Well done, you, Sir Richard!

And, that is, after all, what code-shifting is all about, viz., the common touch, the kind that Kipling wrote about in his If: "If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings -- nor lose the common touch." Even the Apostle Paul said "I become all things to all people." I think his point was that we have to reach folks where they're at if we want to be their friends or at least help them understand where we're coming from. That's the essence of code-shifting. I've been seeing a lot more of it recently, and that to me is a good thang!


3 comments:

K. said...

JG--

AWESOME article! I like it so much I'm going to tweet it (I NEVER do that!) This should be in a magazine...

I never really understood how on the one hand I am so professional at work and then when I come home and am with friends, I seem to act like another person! The Hubs calls it "immaturity" but I think it's code-shifting! I definitely talk like the people I'm hanging out with. Thanks for the enlightening info...

BTW, I love Richard Branson...rubs elbows with the Queen and somehow can connect with young people too! Code-shifting is a gift...

JGregg said...

K., you are now officially runner-up for the FatScribe Code-Shifter for 2009! Thanks for stopping by the ole porkster ...

Jg.

Sandy K. said...

Your site makes me laugh out loud - thank you! As a teacher, and parent, and photographer, and writer....I know exactly what you mean about that sense of place. I do like the term "code shifting," and if I had better memory skills I might try to remember to use it!

Your blog is funny, and smart. I like that. Just like I miss West Wing and Paper Chase. Thank you for stopping by today...I'll be back.