The Game of Words, Dialect, and Tone

In the 1959 movie Pillow Talk, eligible bachelor Brad (Rock Hudson) and single business woman Jan (Doris Day) share a party line and complications arise from their assumptions of one another based upon the voices on the other end of the line. The primary plot revolves around Brad’s prank of courting Jan by assuming a different persona and being very cordial following her complaint about Brad to the telephone company. By the end of the movie, Brad’s true self is revealed and the two become a couple. I agree with the movie’s implication that individuals can misperceive one another by voice alone or when speaking on the telephone, especially if the individuals have not gotten to know one another in person or beyond the contexts of the conversations the other individual has on the telephone, because of the idea of “code-switching.”

“Code-switching” is a concept I learned about after reading NPR’s article “How Code-Switching Explains the World” in my freshman writing course. The basic premise behind code-switching is that individuals will change their voice and/or language to suit the situation and the individual or the group to which they are speaking. Both main characters in Pillow Talk misinterpret one another because of their code-switching. However, the manner in which Brad code-switches and Jan code-switches is different. That is, Brad code switches purposely, and Jan code-switches seemingly unintentionally.

In the case of Brad, he plays upon a 1923 Southern Bell Telephone Company advertisement that suggests, “Your voice is you” (Fisher 41). Brad assumes the persona and dialect of a Texan named Rex who is touring New York; he is still fully Brad but acting as someone else. For example, Rex consistently calls Jan “ma’am” and extends his vowels. In contrast, Brad smooth talks women and uses serenades with phrases such as, “You are my inspiration,” when speaking to women on the party line. Thus, from the telephone, Jan gets the impression Brad is a pompous women-user. Nevertheless, she finds Rex delightful and admits to loving him. In essence, Brad intentionally becomes Rex using the code-switching of the southern hospitality dialect to woo Jan.

On the other hand, Jan seems to stay true to herself, only her different identities come out at different times. Jan is subconsciously code-switching by assuming a tone and language appropriate for her company and mirroring her feelings. The business woman Jan on the phone is short and rude, whereas the everyday Jan with her colleagues and clients is kind and obliging. These differences in her identities are depicted in her words to Brad like, “Mr. Allen, you are on my half hour,” when he is holding up the party line and her words like, “Oh no, I wouldn’t want to impose,” to her wealthy client. Moreover, Jan is flirtatious and fun with Rex. In the beginning, Brad perceives Jan as a woman who is jealous of his love affairs and who needs to get a life. After being Rex, Brad’s feelings change and he realizes Jan is the woman for him.

In conclusion, code-switching is what causes Jan and Brad to misread one another and also to eventually fall in love; it’s all about putting the tone and words with the person, in the proper context.

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One thought on “The Game of Words, Dialect, and Tone

  1. I really like how well you combined two things that we have read or watched for this. You connected the code-switching articles too the movie and thoroughly analyzed how they are related. You did a really nice job summarizing the parts of the movie that are relevant to your argument without giving too many details from the film. You also included direct quotes from the film to support your argument which is always a good thing to have. Even if I hadn’t seen the movie I would be able to follow your argument based on the plot. I like how you explained the contrast between Brad’s code-switching and Jan’s code-switching and talked about how their code-switching helped develop their relationship. You also explained the meaning of code-switching so that your reader who doesn’t know would understand. Good job!

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