-Code: A sentence that has a hidden meaning the listener must infer. Metaphors and innuendo are both examples of this.
Everybody speaks differently. It’s thought that our mindsets, beliefs, cultural expectations and even our personalities are a mixture of the five to ten people closest to us. Many more can leave an impression. Therefore, no one person will speak the same way. Even two sisters living in the same home, with equal interaction from both parents will speak slightly differently to each other based on their unshared friends and teachers. However, whilst actual languages can obviously cause barriers, we are generally able to communicate with people who share our culture, language and dialect without much difficulty. Someone may ask us to visit and we understand that they mean for us to see them soon, only when we need them or they’re just being polite. Someone may ask us to tea and we know whether they mean the meal or the drink. Someone may offer us chips and we know whether they mean hot fried potato sticks or cold fried potato slices. The more groups we belong to, the more our individual code gets jumbled. For example, women and men in the West are raised to speak different code. Women use more code and require more inference than men. Therefore, a woman who is generally friends with women and generally talks to women will use a lot more code than a man who is generally friends with men and generally talks to men. Or a doctor who is very absorbed in their career may spend a lot of time talking to patients, other doctors, nurses and pharmaceutical staff and reading about their favourite subjects, resulting in an deep knowledge of medical jargon, which can cause them to use overly complex or overly simple language with people who do not share their interest or knowledge. Furthermore, a woman such as the one described above is more likely to get along with people who use her own code and a doctor like the latter is more likely to enjoy conversation with someone at their own level. Therefore, your use of code can choose your social groups for you by making it easier to speak with people whose language most resembles your own.
We also use many ways to tell when someone may be using different language to us. An accent could indicate that the language is not their first, or that they come from a different region. Clothing tells us whether they come from our culture or not. Mannerisms, body language, names and, of course, them telling us that they speak our language secondarily or come from elsewhere, will remind us to exercise caution when using local dialect, archaic words, sarcasm or humour. In short, we avoid speaking in our cultural code when we aren’t sure we will be understood.
However, rarely do we account for individual code. We may be careful not to call our recently-migrated Indian friend “our boy” or a “basic b****” unless we’re ready to explain it to them. But we assume that those who speak English as a first language, who have our accent, who come from our region and who share our culture will understand what we mean by it. In short, we assume that because they share our language, dialect and culture, that they must also share our code. This, in and of itself, is not a problem, but we’re missing the final factor.
Sometimes, there are things we don’t want to discuss. Sometimes there are lies we tell: little white lies, lies of omission or overt lies, that are actually open for the reading of someone else. And sometimes we talk a certain way around our friends, family, partner or colleagues for so long that we forget what code we use for whom, what we discuss with whom, what language we use with whom. How often have we heard or used a sentence along the lines of “What I meant to say was…” so as to avoid blowback from a sentence or even a word that caused confusion? This is why. We used code that they interpreted literally, sometimes taking great offense to. This is how most misunderstandings happen, from someone getting you the wrong drink to someone believing their partner never wants to hear from them again. When we notice them, when someone else calls us out on our use of language or declares offense, we correct or explain ourselves, usually apologizing in the process. And all is well. However, people don’t always mention when they’re offended, or when they’re confused. And sometimes they will interpret something one way, it will make sense to them, they won’t be offended or think to challenge it and will act on their inference. And when the relationship with this person has a lot at stake, then we’re more likely to be greatly affected by the consequences. Someone honest and straightforward dating a person who is unusually flighty and uses a lot of fairly contrary code will find it hard to enjoy the relationship. Someone who uses jokes and sarcasm negotiating with someone who doesn’t appreciate the first nor understand the latter could lose business. Someone faking disinterest in someone who is looking for overt interest and consent could lose a chance at a friendship or a relationship. Someone taking a sentence at face-value could be led on by someone who prefers it when others read and don’t hear their intentions.
Of course, I can’t offer a solid solution on an individual level. If you choose to avoid all code, not only are you likely to fail, but when interacting with someone who uses a lot of code, they will be operating under the assumption you’re using it. If you try and analyze all code, you’ll find that for one person “yes” means “yes and don’t ask me again”, for another it is gentle dismissal, for another it means “I’m not sure” and for another it means “yes”. Even in the same context, with the same tone, a single word will vary in meaning depending on who’s using it and be interpreted differently depending on who’s listening. On a societal level, if we could abandon all code we would probably be happier. Yet on an individual level we must simply learn to live with it and work around it.
And here is where listening and paying close attention comes in. We must always assume that someone we’re talking to, especially someone we’re talking to for the first time or outside our closest social circle, will be speaking different code to you or your friends. They may not at that particular time, or their code may be similar, but our world and culture are too jumbled to make that assumption. Where you read a certain sentence or word one way, ask yourself whether that is the common language meaning or the code meaning. Ask yourself, or even them, what exactly they meant. Eventually, once you’ve heard enough people talking, you start to notice when they are using code, which parts of your language are universal “Let’s go and have dinner at that new Italian restaurant.” and which parts are heavily coded “Let’s get some drinks.” Then you will be able to communicate using clear, universal language, adapting to use your conversational partner’s code, reading them as easily as they intend you to.
Furthermore, when you learn to look out for and interpret code you also learn to spot the secret languages people use among small social circles or to themselves. Those words and sentences that have a hidden meaning understood by one or five people, that are obviously coded, but undecipherable to the layman. When a girl calls you a “Mikey” to her friends, or a coworker suggests to the secretary that you need to “Slow down with the speed up.”, you may not be sure what they mean. Is it good or bad? In what way does it affect your relationship with these people? How does it alter any future interactions you’ve planned? Some are easy to identify, some are harder. But once you start working out code you start realizing how there are certain types of people, and each type uses code in a particular way and eventually you work out what people’s private code means. You spot their lies, their in-jokes, their manipulation.
And who wouldn’t want to communicate better with people whose intentions are good for you and better detect and use people whose intentions are bad for you?