“What are you doing after school tomorrow? Walk me to Liberty Place, please?” I asked my friend one time over video chat.
“Nothing really, but that’s a hike... why?” she answered.
“I know but I need something from there. Pleeeaaasseee? I love you.”
“Nigga... whatchu gotta get?”
“I dunno but I need a gift for my cousin.”
“We don’t got time for that...”
“We do! You just said you weren’t freakin’ doing anything! We can take the trolley.”
“I gueeesssss,” she said, shifting a little.
Right after that, my dad knocked on my door and opened it without me even saying he could come in. When he smiled, I could already tell what he was about to say. It was the typical small talk we had every day.
“Hi Nia,” he said.
“How was your day?” he asked.
“How are you?”
“Well, okay then.” He left my room, and I could then finish talking to my friend.
“Ard, I kinda gotta go, stuff to do...”
“Okay, bye,” she smiled and ended the chat.
It was never as easy as that to code switch like that until I hit high school. Filtering curse words and slang just clicks with me now. Quite frankly, being able to talk with other people in what seems to be the most comfortable way for them provides lots of opportunity for me. Before high school in seventh and eighth grade, I went to Friends Select, a private school where mostly everyone was white. Going there straight from a 99.8 percent black school was like putting a drop of oil into a tub of water. I had a quick and easy adjustment, because I never had a very “thick black” accent. By this, I mean I knew what times were appropriate to let all the slang out in the world, and then when to say “like” more than five times in a six-word sentence.
What I did not know was that my tone and usage of words drastically changed in my seventh and eighth grade years. Family noticed, and even told me on the spot that I was “starting to sound like a lil’ white girl.” I’m still told to this day that my cousin and I “just aren’t black.” We usually rolled with it, and took it as a term of endearment that we were, and are, a little different. People at camp told me that I “talked so proper” and I responded with something along the lines of “that’s just how I speak.” But, for me, my newly developed “language” brought more than just words, it brought more conversations.
“Hey!” one of my friends said.
“Hey, how’s it going? How’s life?” I asked them.
“Tis good, you?”.
“Pretty okay, as usual. What’d you do this weekend?”
“Nothing really, sleep and some homework... you?”
“Same, nothing special... Fuck, I need a life.”
Even when it is not talking with parents and then friends, my use of words still tends to change between people I speak with. In a way, I believe that happens with everyone, to a certain extent. For example, because one person and their friend have spent more time with each other than that person and another friend have spent, the first pair might converse with more ease and flow than the second pair, because there is more to talk about—family, life, old memories, inside jokes, and all that. For me, there is a mixture of length of friendship and also the person’s personality, if I know their personality. Usually it takes a conversation or two to click with the words and tone of voice I want to use with a specific associate, friend, or group of friends.
When I talk to someone for the very first time, I almost want them to make all the conversation and I just listen. Sometimes, silence can be the best language to go with, because it communicates signals as much as words are able to. However, when trying to make a new friend or just cheer up someone and most of the talking belongs to me, it was best to just go with my gut on a more “standard English plus a bit of slang” tone, and develop the chat with more important things that might want that person to talk to me again.
It will take more than one time to find that conversation zen, and when it is found, it is marvelous. It all depends on the person and your own personality. However, efforts to make conversation zen happen continue if I decide to talk to that person again, which is almost definite I will. Sometimes a choice of words makes or breaks any talk. Something happens, whether it be a miscommunication or vocabulary differences. And so, there are those times where a discussion does not go so well for me. In a group of friends that was not mine, I felt like Maxine Hong Kingston did in her passage, “Tongue Tied”. She said, “It spoils my day with self-disgust when I hear my broken voice come skittering out into the open. It makes people wince to hear it.” Perhaps my struggles with finding the right words to say did not go as far as people wincing to hear it, but there definitely have been awkward moments when I’ve said something wrong and it just did not have a place to be justified. In those moments I may feel like quitting at a social life altogether. But, the important part was actually to keep trying at it, because sometimes a lack of knowledge of a certain language can make someone feel uncomfortable. It might not even be you, it could always be the person you are speaking with instead. Learn their language and way of words instead sometimes.
For me, doing just that has created so much social gain. Learning and using the languages and dialects of others widens the gates of communication for anyone. Being able to switch from tongue to tongue without getting “tongue tied” gets more of your ideas to more people, and if you have big ideas for the world, being able to code switch and use totally different languages altogether is very beneficial. For me, my social life continues to develop more than it has in middle school. Since then I have gained confidence and comfort with my speech. It’s a gift to be “cool” with everyone, even if it was just a single word or thought.