Ask Alto: What is code-switching?

November 24, 2022 Share this article:

Ask Alto

“As a young, curly-haired Hispanic woman, I was often perceived as uneducated and nothing more than a pretty face in corporate America. I learned to ‘talk the talk’ and embody the version of me that belonged in certain successful atmospheres.” Rach Richardson, a success coach

Everyone makes subtle changes in their behaviour based on who they’re with. The way a teenager talks to a strict grandparent is always going to be different from the way they talk to their friends. But what happens when people feel they must speak or behave differently to fit in, and succeed, at their workplace? When that happens, it’s called code-switching. And it can cause some problems.

What is code-switching?

The term, coined in the 1950s, was originally intended to describe the way bilingual people switched between languages or dialects, and the between the identities that accompany those languages. The term has come to have a wider meaning: it now refers to the ways in which a member of an underrepresented group (consciously or unconsciously) adjusts their language, syntax, grammatical structure, behaviour, and appearance to fit into the dominant culture.

According to psychologist and race relations expert Beverly Tatum code-switching can be language-based or culture-based. “A bilingual person might use one language to speak to some people, and another language to speak to others – or one language at home, another at school,” Tatum told Health. “Cultural code-switching is similar, but not only limited to language. It could refer to other cultural expressions as well – style of dress, physical mannerisms, and other forms of self-presentation.”

Why do people code-switch?

Business coaching company BetterUp lists the following reasons why people code-switch:

Fear of confirming stereotypes – a common (conscious) reason for code-switching is to avoid validating negative stereotypes about your group or calling unwanted attention to yourself.

To achieve a specific result – for instance, to get something that you feel isn’t available if you don’t successfully blend in with the dominant social group. For people from underrepresented backgrounds, however, this can feel like trying to erase their cultural identity.

Because they can’t help it – sometimes, when we’re around people from different parts of our lives, we unconsciously shift into that way of being.

It expresses something that can’t be said another way - certain languages and cultures have words or shared experiences that don’t translate well into other languages or cultures. When this happens, a person might feel like shifting to the language or identity to express how they feel. This also results in code-mixing, which is when people mix elements of two different languages or cultures.

What does dominant culture mean?

Business consultancy company Integrative Inquiry defines dominant culture (the “culture of power”) as the culture that has been able, through economic, social, or political power, to impose its values, language, and ways of behaving on other cultures.

Each country and region may have a dominant culture, as might cities or communities. Businesses have dominant cultures. But the effects of colonisation, industrialisation, and the global economy have reinforced the dominance of certain cultural norms and values (specifically of U.S./European, white, male, cisgender, heteronormative, English-speaking groups).

How does this dominant culture affect workplaces?

The dominant culture is often invisible to people who are members of that culture (and is often part of unconscious bias). That means that leadership teams may not be aware of what they are implicitly asking of their staff. But people who are not part of the dominant culture can infer the unwritten rules, and code-switch to fit into that culture, thus acquiring “cultural capital,” Integrative Inquiry says. On the other hand, the inability to code-switch can have far reaching ramifications, limiting upward mobility, access to career opportunities, financial stability, social standing, and physical safety.

What does code-switching look like in practice?

  • People of colour changing their natural hairstyles to “look more corporate” or to comply with white-centered dress codes.
  • Speakers of other languages trying to reduce their accents or not feeling comfortable speaking to one another in public.
  • Non-binary individuals wearing traditional-gendered clothing in the office.
  • Women wearing suit-like outfits to blend in with their male counterparts.

What happens when people have to code-switch to hide their true identities?

As BetterUp points out, we all want to fit in, and we all make subtle choices to be more “acceptable” to the groups we’re with. This is called our contextual identity. But when our contextual identities are out-of-step with our authentic, absolute identities, we’re in trouble. In those cases, we’re not choosing to adapt — we’re forced to hide.

For people of colour, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalized groups, it can feel like only certain parts of their identity are welcome in professional settings. Harvard Business Review points out that code-switching comes with social and psychological repercussions. “Downplaying one’s racial group can generate hostility from in-group members, increasing the likelihood that those who code-switch will be accused of “acting white.” Seeking to avoid stereotypes is hard work, and can deplete cognitive resources and hinder performance. Feigning commonality with coworkers also reduces authentic self-expression and contributes to burnout.”

What companies can do?

Here are some ways to reduce the impact of code-switching on your employees (from better up):

Support employee resource groups (ERGs)safe spaces are critical for people to drop their guards and connect with one another. ERGs can provide a place where people can say what’s on their minds and ask questions.

Increase the diversity of the leadership team – since one of the main reasons for code-switching is to fit in with the people that can help us move our careers forward, the presence of inclusive leadership gives people a way that can they be successful without having to compromise “hidden” aspects of their personalities.

Dilute the dominant culture – emphasise diversity in both overt and subtle ways. Offer educational opportunities, invite people in to speak, and be transparent about the company’s diversity hiring strategy.