Code-shifters Unite! Sir Richard Takes the Prize: “Oh, no you di’int!”

Sir Richard Branson, Virgin, Code-shifting guru

Sir Richard Branson, Virgin, Code-shifting guru

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 why you have three ex-wives” to our pals who were mocking us brutally whilst we were on the phone. (Did you notice, by the way, 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 privately, and the nefarious competition, with a toolbox rich with colorful insults, and then we insist that our young brood 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

Dinah, Ms. Lord's little sis, formerly Diana

Dinah, Ms. Lord's little sis, formerly Diana

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 LinkedIn post 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 Jimmy Fallon (and The Roots, one of my faves); and, yes, even when we go to church.

There are lines that we shouldn’t cross to be sure. If you are personally uncomfortable using sarcastic humor or colorful language, then by all means behave consistently across each population of your acquaintances (and here is where I plead the 5th, dear friends). However, I am willing to bet that even amongst your most conservative conversationalists, there are phrases or slang that you feel comfortable using with one group and yet would not venture to use that same vocab at the PTA meeting or Cub Scout troop. See my meaning? Catch my drift? Are you pickin’ up what I’m layin’ down? Code-shifting is natural and I believe helps grease the wheels of communication, especially in the business world.

“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

Smith College, Where your  grand mere  went to school

Smith College, Where your grand mere went to school

that sending you to Smith Colllege (her alma mater) was in fact not good-money-after-bad. When the President (No. 44 himself) talks with White House groundskeepers or staffers around him (say, Kal Penn, formerly of the hit series, House, when he was serving in the White 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 ifthey can relate to the person addressing them … and that someone is you and I. As I always tell my teenage sons, “Interested people are interesting.” And, when folks find you interesting, they will talk all things personal and business.

Ifyou 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

President Harry S (no period), Retired

President Harry S (no period), Retired

greatest writers and communicators ever; President Truman (also from humble beginnings), he worked at a men’s clothing store and eventually 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.; 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 and current VP Biden are especially strong-suited here as well, although their touch some may say is a little too common and lead to awkward moments of awkwardness (tautology intended). The common touch requires common sense as well, n’es pas?

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 or perhaps stoic 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 (The Elders organization) as well with equal ease. Indeed, he receives the code-shifting award for 2015. 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 agood thang!

As always, we welcome your feedback!