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Aug 22 2014
Sometimes the gospel sounds like, “Nobody can do me like Jesus.”

When you’re the president, people hang on to your every word. With Barack Obama, known for his way with words, we pay particular attention. Listening to him speak before African American audiences, it’s easy to notice a certain air of familiarity in his voice. Some say it makes him sound cool and relevant. Some have found it patronizing.

For example, in a nod to his base, he says the Republicans planning a lawsuit against him should stop “hatin’ all the time.” Before his last election, he reportedly switched to a preacher’s cadence when he told members of the Congressional Black Caucus to take off their “bedroom slippers and start marching.” He even recently complimented his White House pastry chef by saying his pies were so delicious, “I don’t know what he does – whether he puts crack in them,” using the term as shorthand for being addictively good. (With two teens in the house, Obama has a ready resource for the latest slang.)

Our president does what many of us do as we navigate between different cultural and professional settings: code-switching. As we develop certain speech patterns based on different languages or language variants, we find ourselves instinctually pulling from both in conversation.

While common among people of color, code-switching applies to us all in some degree; we tend to use insider lingo in certain contexts and know the social cues that apply to certain groups.

I remember when my then 16-year-old nephew, Christian, came back from vacation in California, sounding as if he’d grown up on the mean streets East Palo Alto, despite having been born and raised in rural upstate New York.

“I think code-switching is necessary to smoothly transverse through different groups. Growing up out (in a rural area), I did not learn what we typically consider ‘urban code.’ Coming to California was my first introduction, and I definitely wanted to speak the code at first just to fit in,” said Christian, now 24. “I have regularly spoken in urban code for the last 8 years, but… I realized what my grandmother meant when she said that people perceive you a certain way when you look and speak a certain way. So around sophomore year of college, I realized it could be beneficial to be able to do both at any time.”

In a TED talk, spoken word poet Jamila Lyiscott riffed easily between urban, Caribbean, and standard English, telling her audience she was “tri-lingual.”

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