What is Code-switching and What You Can Do About It?

Do you sometimes feel like you act differently in front of different people or in various situations? You perhaps unconsciously code-switch without realizing it. 

What is code-switching? 

Code-switching is a linguistic term, involving the shift between different languages or dialects depending on the social context or conversational setting. More often, we refer to code-switching in the professional workplace. Code-switching involves adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.

Why do we code-switch? 

While everyone code-switches to achieve different things, here are some common ones: 

  1. To achieve some level of power, respect, or advantage 
  2. To assimilate into dominant culture
  3. To appear less “threatening” to avoid violence
  4. To help us convey a thought
  5. To say something in secret 
code switching
Photo credit: Pixels Free Photo

Is code-switching good or bad? 

Code-switching is not necessarily bad or good; not everything is black and white like that. 

Code-switching may be good, because it:

  • increases the perception of professionalism and likelihood of being hired. 
  • avoids negative stereotypes associated with certain identities (ie. incompetence, laziness). 
  • expresses shared interests with members of dominant groups and therefore promotes similarity with powerful organizational members. 

However, when done poorly, it:

  • comes with social and psychological repercussions. It can deplete cognitive resources and hinder performance. 
  • reduces authentic self-expression and contributes to burnout. 
  • negatively impacts engagement, productivity, and satisfaction at work 

How to normalize conversation? 

Both mindfulness and self-awareness can go a long way when it comes to fostering workplace collaboration and encouraging employees to think, speak, and behave exactly as they are – or, less code-switching. 

  1. Begin with understanding. Instead of making assumptions of what we think, ask and listen, before commenting or doing.  
  2. Don’t use charged terms. Avoid terms that others find unfamiliar, confusing, or triggering.  
  3. Ask others to define their terms. When you hear something you don’t like, ask them to define it. You may not agree with that definition, accept the definition they offer in that discussion. It’s hard to know someone’s subjective experience. 
  4. Don’t expect others to use your language. In heated debates, make an effort to communicate in a language they know. 
  5. Gradually introduce your language to others when appropriate. When you think someone may be ready to hear a new term, make sure to do so gently and respectfully. 

How can you or your organizations help? 

  • Get to know your employees. This extends past onboarding and should be part of your work routine.
  • Evaluate company culture. Encourage employees to bring their authentic selves.  
  • Tackle underrepresentation at all levels. Ensure that cultural identities for people at all levels are normative and acceptable.
  • Consider inclusion separately from diversity. Value fairness and meritocracy. Be clear in your words and actions that inclusion is a lived value in your workplace. 
  • Be the first to share a part of yourself that you would normally cover. Being vulnerable invites others to be open about themselves, and can build trust and safety.

To learn more, come to our next meeting on July 7 at 6:45 p.m. PT. 

codeswitching, What is Code-switching and What You Can Do About It?
Meeting Image: code-switching

Written by Renee Yao, President of Women L.E.A.D. Toastmasters













Featured Images: Pixels Free Photos

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