Pittsburgh Emerging Arts Leaders Network

Connecting emerging arts managers with skill-building and leadership development resources.

From small talk to code switching…

I recently came across a blog that NPR started earlier this year called “Code Switch” which delves into the frontiers of race, culture, and ethnicity. Code switching, according to their blog, is a linguistics term that encompasses how we mix and meld language and speech patterns. The bloggers, a team of 6 different people, are looking at this phenomenon in its broadest sense in “the different spaces we each inhabit and the tensions of trying to navigate between them.”

I’ve been fascinated by this term ever since I first learned about it in an “Intro to Anthropology” course at college, primarily because it was a light bulb moment of, “Oh yeah! I’ve been doing that for years!” I heard the term a year after I had studied abroad in Ireland. At that time, the US was not viewed so favorably by other countries, and so while in Ireland I often adopted a longer “o” sound and threw in an “eh” at the end of my phrases to sound more Canadian (I’m from MN, so admittedly this wasn’t hard to do). But you know what? It worked! And my consciousness of code switching has only increased since then as the spaces I’ve entered since then–graduate school, a different state, the “arts professional” world, etc.–has grown.  Anyone who has ever been to graduate school knows full well the “academic speak” that you’re forced to adopt and use in order to survive and graduate!

But as an arts educator and someone deeply invested in community engagement, the concept of code switching strikes me as particularly important in how I conduct my day to day business. I work in numerous communities throughout the city of Pittsburgh with people from varying backgrounds and partner with numerous organizations, but I do so in my current position as a representative of a classical art form. A tension arises between how you can maintain the integrity of who you are (or in my case, what I represent–an artistic tradition strongly steeped in the traditions of white European court culture) while at the same time meeting people where they are, with respect to the content of the conversation, vocabulary used, and the patterns and style of my speech when I’m talking. Let me tell you straight up that I speak very differently with my peers at a PEAL Happy Hour when I’m discussing ballet than I do with preschoolers or with older adults who are subscribers to the ballet (noticed how I just code switched there? I feel that you–the nebulous readership of this blog–are my peers. “Straight up” would not enter into the conversation with the other two groups I mentioned!).  The idea of code switching absolutely encompasses race, but also so much more, and I appreciate the bloggers at NPR for their discussion on the topic.

In some ways, we’re talking small talk–how can we interact in the moment with the people who are right in front of us in a way that is authentic to both’s lived experiences? In some ways, we’re talking about situational leadership, a concept drilled into me this past year through the Arts Education Collaborative’s Leadership Academy, whereby you change your style of leadership depending upon who’s in the room in order to affect the most change and meet your objectives. In some ways, code switching is just another name for marketing of ourselves and of our product. In other ways, we’re talking about how we communicate on such a fundamental level, beyond just words, but also our body language. The fact that I stand up tall most of the time–something I’ve worked hard to do to ease the tension in my back–often leads people to believe I’m a ballet dancer, which is flattering and might have been somewhat true 10 years ago, but not so much anymore. I wonder–do those people who remark on my posture take me as more of an “expert” in ballet simply by the way I carry myself? What would happen to their perception of me if I slouched in my chair?

So my questions are this:

  1. How do you code switch–or not–in your personal or professional lives? Why do you choose or not choose to code switch?
  2. How can we as arts managers use the concept of code switching to engage new audiences? In  the art itself? In how we present it (marketing)? In how we teach about what we do?

Alyssa Herzog Melby is the Director of Education and Community Engagement for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Other spheres she navigates: motherhood, young arts professionals, DIY homesteading, and her church community. 

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