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  • Lydia Yu

Code switching: adapting your identity to your social setting

Perhaps it’s an evolutionary biological instinct for every child to want to fit in. Without acceptance from the tribe, surviving, let alone thriving, is nearly impossible. To secure our membership when we were young, we wore the same charm bracelets, plastic trinkets clinking together. Now, this manifests through our moment of hesitation before speaking to consider how our differing opinions may be received.

You enter a room. Before you set foot within the doorframe, every set of eyes is staring at you. Time freezes while your mind races, “What is wrong?” Every person encounters dozens of different social settings each day; we morph ourselves to adjust to each unique set of expectations. For example, no guest should wear white to a wedding, but it would be perfectly acceptable to wear white to a graduation.

An example: “In Asian culture,” Joyce Fong relates, “we talk really loud. So, since I was young and I went out with my family, I became aware of the stares at us because we would talk really loud. I’ve really noticed that and made myself more of a calm and quiet person. I think that has affected who I am today.”

Code-switching is defined as the practice of alternating between two or more languages, or varieties of language, behaviors, or other nonverbal communication in conversation. Although the variation between languages is an integral part of the experience of multilingual people, more broadly, code-switching also applies to the change of accents, tones, and behaviors between different groups of people, which could be influenced by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic or cultural background.

If everyone behaves differently in different situations, like no white at weddings, why is code-switching significant? Language and the choice of words is the most impactful factor on others’ perceptions of us—it offers an exclusive insight into our minds, allowing others to know our personalities and values. This article focuses on this powerful social determinant, and its effects on the students of color at Stevenson.

Stevenson is a multicultural space. For many students, this campus might be the first place where they encounter and live with people from different backgrounds. Without previously having close interactions with a diverse group of people, stereotypes portrayed through the media and society might be the only thing they know about people. This comes with a set of apprehensions for many students of color, as senior Emily Amador describes: “I’m very intentional about not putting up a bad image for myself or the group that I represent. Even though people say that one doesn’t represent their entire community, [since] there aren’t that many Hispanic students here, I feel like I do represent my community. So I’m very conscious of preconceived stereotypes that people may hold. [I try] Not to be boisterous, not to be loud. I make sure that I dress appropriately, and the way I’m speaking is very well thought out, eloquent.”

Eric Zhang elaborates on his intentions: “Sometimes, I choose my words more carefully. People say, ‘There’s no need to be so nervous.’ But this uncomfortableness does not come from pressure or nerves, I just wonder if I am unknowingly hurting their feelings… with people of different cultures and values.”

Adding on, Kayla Russell reflects on her first time code-switching: “When I went to a high school program for 7th-graders, it was my first [prolonged period of] time around white people and I felt the need to be more professional. Since the only form of professionalism that I was taught is through talking or acting a certain way, being around a lot of white people, I acted in that way, unknowing that it was code-switching.”

Lastly, Amber Shan reveals her thought process: “If I’m speaking Chinese randomly, people could mistake one thing for something else. For example, the word, 那个, [which means “that”] could be mistaken for the n-word. So I don’t want any unnecessary controversies.”

At Stevenson, cultures all around the world collide. Please consider the above accounts above when interacting with others at Stevenson.


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