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Andrew Harrison of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts in the post game press conference after being defeated by the Wisconsin Badgers during the NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 4, 2015 in Indianapolis.
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Annie Murphy Paul is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The New Science of Smart.

What leads us to say the wrong thing at the wrong time? We’ve all done it — and then, mortified, wondered why we didn’t keep our mouths shut. A high-profile example from this past week provides an object lesson for all of us in the origin of such lapses. If you haven’t yet seen the video, here’s what happened: At a press conference last Saturday, Andrew Harrison, University of Kentucky sophomore and Kentucky Wildcats basketball player, was asked about his Wisconsin Badgers opponent Frank Kaminsky. “F–k that n—a,” Harrison said under his breath — and into a live mic.

Let’s not condemn or defend Harrison’s remark (people on the Web have done plenty of both already). Let’s look at why he might have done this indisputably stupid thing. Its stupidity comes down to context. On the basketball court, or in the locker room, Harrison’s muttered interjection would be no big deal. At a press conference, it made national headlines. Linguists often refer to a phenomenon they call “code-switching”: moving between two languages, or more generally, between two sets of rules governing self-expressive behavior.

As a player on a top-seeded college basketball team, Harrison has to code-switch between the language and behavior that is accepted on the basketball court, and the very different language and behavior that is expected at a press conference. Harrison failed to recognize the need to code-switch (or rather, he recognized the need — hence his lowered voice and covered mouth while making the comment — but didn’t appreciate that in that on-camera moment, he really shouldn’t say those words at all).

Harrison’s is a dramatic example, but we all fail to effectively code-switch on occasion: disclosing something too personal to a professional colleague, for example, or expressing one’s political views a bit too stridently at a purely social gathering. Before you speak — especially in a high-stakes situation — pause for a moment to appraise the context in which your words will be heard. Carol Myers-Scotton, a linguist who studies code-switching, notes that people choose a particular code “as a way to index the set of rights and obligations that they wish to have in force between speaker and addressee in the current exchange.” That is, the way we choose to speak indicates something about the relationship we imagine ourselves to have with the people who are listening to us.

Speaking — especially public speaking — isn’t simply a matter of “being yourself.” You are always yourself in relation to another person or group of people. The specific nature of that relationship should be foremost in your mind as you mount the steps to the dais or lean into the microphone. When we lose track of our social context, it’s all too easy to make — as Harrison put it in his apology to Kaminsky — “a poor choice of words.”

Read more about the science of why we’re stupid and why we’re smart at The Brilliant Blog.

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