Why Do I Have to Change How I Talk to Sound ‘Professional’?

Though I change how I talk in certain situations, I'm no less proud of my family's accent.

by Meagan Zullo

The first time I realized I was code-switching, I was making an appointment over the phone to get eyelash extensions. I was in the living room on the couch with my 14-year-old niece. My voice became higher, more gentle. I also purposely avoided saying certain words that would emphasize my New York accent such as “water” and “thought.”

“Why were you talking like that?” my niece asked when I got off the phone. When I didn’t immediately answer, my mother, who’d been listening from the kitchen, called out, “She’s trying to sound professional.” I felt mixed emotions when she said that. I felt proud of myself that I was able to sound professional but I was also embarrassed that my way of speaking changed so drastically that it was noticeable.

NPR defines code-switching as “the practice of shifting the languages you use or the way you express yourself in your conversations.” It can include changing languages, dialects, accents, and tones of voice.

Although we’ve never discussed it in my family, I have adopted this more conventional and measured way of talking that I call “my appointment voice.” I have observed my older sisters doing it when they are taking a work call or making a doctor appointment. But also because my Brooklyn-Italian accent is embarrassing at times and is not considered professional-sounding or intelligent.

This summer, I was at a friend’s party and she asked me in front of some other friends whom I didn’t know: “Can you talk like your dad?”

I knew she meant my dad’s stereotypical Italian accent that most people find amusing.

“Yeah but mainly I just do that when I’m talking to him,” I said.

“Oh my god I have to hear it,” she said.

I froze. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was on stage expected to perform a magic trick. But this wasn’t a magic trick; it was the way my dad talks. I felt like I would be making fun of my dad’s accent, which was occasionally my own. It felt disrespectful. Luckily another friend noticed my discomfort and changed the subject.

This idea that my accent is a joke is another reason why I code-switch. I also use words that make me sound more intellectual and that I wouldn’t use in my day to day life. Words like “ambivalent” and “boisterous.”

In fact, I use it so much that only some of my closest friends have heard what I refer to as my “home accent,” which is mixed with Spanish and some Italian words. I use phrases like bendito (which could be used in many different contexts but overall means blessed) and Ay Dios mío (oh Lord). I don’t worry about pronouncing words “funny” or talking with my hands because when I’m home or with close friends, I don’t feel like I’m being judged.

Cult of Pedagogy

Abandoning a Piece of My Identity

Code-switching is more than changing some words that you use and slightly altering your accent. When I code-switch, I am abandoning a piece of my identity. People’s accents and dialects often represent where they are from. I feel like a part of me is trapped when I code-switch.

My dad refuses to do this. He was born in the Bronx. His grandparents and uncle immigrated from Sicily and his mom’s family came from Holland and has lived in America since the 1700s.

When we’re in the car, he points out to me the old buildings he used to work and live in around the Italian American and Latinx areas of Bensonhurst and Coney Island in Brooklyn. My father has a thick, stereotypical Italian accent like the one you see in The Sopranos and films like GoodFellas and The Godfather. He talks with his hands, he talks loudly, and he’s very straightforward. My dad doesn’t try to hide his accent when talking to anyone, including his boss. I always found this strange because TV and society taught me that this was unprofessional.

My father doesn’t code-switch. One day I asked him why he talks to his boss in an aggressive tone. He looked at me and said “That’s just how I talk.”

I tried to explain to him that when you’re talking to your boss you should sound more professional.

His reply was, “Why should I change for him?” I knew that he was right.

My dad says he grew up during a time where southern Italian immigrants and Italian Americans faced a lot of prejudice. They were viewed as job stealers, criminals. They weren’t considered “White.” When my father was younger and working as an engineer, he was often called derogatory terms like “guinea” and “wop.” My father takes pride in getting through these struggles.

My dad doesn’t like other people telling his story, so I asked his permission to talk about him for this piece. He said, “Go ahead. I’m not ashamed of who I am. The way I talk shows where I’m from and I’m proud of it.”

Sounding “Professional”

In 9th grade my algebra teacher encouraged me to apply to the SEO program, which helps students get into and through college. I filled out my application and a while later I got an email inviting me for an interview. I was ecstatic yet nervous, because I’m a better writer than speaker.

The morning of the interview, I practiced words that I pronounce with an accent like “water,” “thought,” “park,” and “dog.” I also planned not to talk with my hands by sitting on them. Although my father had raised me to be myself and not act a certain way to appease others or fit in, I knew I had to for this interview.

In the end, I didn’t get accepted into the program and at first I thought I’d failed at sounding professional enough. But now, I look back at the interview and feel like everything went good; there were just better candidates.

The media has taught me that code-switching is a necessity, especially in the professional world. Examples of these play out in films like Pretty Woman and Maid in Manhattan. Lower-class women enter an upper-class lifestyle and the way they talk and dress changes. They did this both for love and respect. These movies portray code-switching as a way to climb the social ladder and appear more intelligent.

Having to code-switch is particularly sexist and racist for Black women. When any woman uses slang or a strong tone of voice, she can be seen as uneducated and hostile. When a Black woman expresses her opinion using an aggressive tone, she’s seen as an angry Black woman instead of a passionate one. When a person from a lower class uses slang, they are seen as uneducated, but when a person from the upper class uses slang, they’re hip.

These stereotypes prevent authentic self expression. We are silencing a part of ourselves so others don’t see us as inferior. I’ve accepted that I’ll have to continue to code-switch between the accent I was raised with and the accent I am expected to have. It’s not just that I need more confidence in myself. It’s more than just not caring what other people think. It’s a fact that people judge me based on how I speak, and I’m scared of letting an accent mess it up.

I am applying to colleges next year and there’s a lot of pressure to impress people, from admissions officers to professors and classmates. Although there’s a big part of me that wants to listen to my father and just be myself, I can’t afford to take that chance. I’m a low-income POC, and if changing my accent or dialect is going to help me get a job or get into my dream college then I’ll do it.

Discussion Questions

  1. Have you ever had to code-switch like Meagan? If so, what was the situation and how did you feel about it?
  2. What does Meagan mean when she says, “When I code-switch, I am abandoning a piece of my identity”?
  3. Meagan decides that she must engage in code-switching even though it can be a racist and sexist practice imposed on us. What do you think of her decision? What would you do in her place?

When I code-switch, I am abandoning a piece of my identity.
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