What is Code-Switching?

Broadly, code-switching involves “adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behaviour, and expression in ways that will optimise the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.”. This kind of behavioural adjustment is often seen amongst minority ethnic individuals as a strategy to navigate through the workplace, and more generally, life.

However, code-switching isn’t always linked to race, it encompasses all aspects of identity – including socio-economic backgrounds, sexuality, and other aspects where an individual from an ‘out’ group (e.g. an ethnic minority) has to navigate an environment with a predominant ‘in’ group in place (e.g. an ethnic majority). Everyone, at some point in their life, would have had to do it themselves – the real issue is when one particular group of people have to do it more often; either because they need to fit into an expected norm, or to distance themselves from misplaced beliefs or stereotypes.

What are examples of code-switching?

It can manifest itself in a variety of ways – they are commonly (but not limited to):

  • Changing the way you express yourself – watering down some elements of your personality to feel accepted by other people, or to avoid negative connotations and stereotypes.
  • Changing the way you talk - changing your patterns of speech to sound more ‘professional’.
  • Changing the way you dress – maintaining a ‘professional’ look at work or when meeting clients, compared to how you would normally dress.
  • Feeling a shift in mentality/outlook – some people have reported that code-switching includes changing how and the way an individual thinks.

At this point, I will have to shout out Boots Riley’s directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You. The plot revolves around Cassius ‘Cash’ Green, an out-of-luck black man in Oakland, who rises through the sordid corporate ladder as a telemarketer after finding his innate talent of adopting a ‘white voice’. The film shows how a black man is forced to, and then later depends on, code-switching to allow him to progress and be treated fairly in life and at work. The film has been described to accurately portray the cost and the burden of code-switching on an individual and, starts a conversation on this issue.

What is the impact of code-switching?

An analysis by the Harvard Business Review in 2019 discovered that code-switching has a detrimental impact on mental health. The study found that it was common in the workplace for ethnic minority employees to:

  • Downplay their membership in a stigmatised racial group to help increase perceptions of professionalism.
  • Avoid negative stereotypes associated with their racial identity to help employees see them as hardworking.
  • Feign interests with members of dominant groups, to ‘fit in’ or raise promotion chances.

This comes with a psychological cost, where the study found that those who code-switch often can:

  • Alienate themselves from their own communities, increasing the likelihood of being accused of “acting white”.
  • Accelerate the process of burning out, to avoid stereotypes of being seen as ‘lazy’ or ‘incompetent’.
  • Lose a sense of authentic self when spending long periods of time ‘fitting in’ with co-workers.

These are real issues with real negative impact to a person’s mental wellbeing. I opted to highlight this study because a) there isn’t as much research as there should be on the topic, and b) work is an environment where code-switching takes place on a day-to-day basis and is applicable to most people’s lives.

To relate this to myself - I grew up in white, middle-class Surrey - this meant I had to code-switch to fit in. My interests, how I act and even how I talk is through years of what someone would call code-switching. My experience has made it easy to assimilate in predominantly white workspaces, as it was all I know. I really began to think about it when meeting a friend over lunch one day, and he had to take a call from work:

Me: “Mate, you sound well different when you’re on the phone”

Friend: “Yeah I know. Can’t talk road to dem man at work innit.”

Why should we talk about it?

With the events of 2020 highlighting racial tensions and injustices, we have seen a higher volume of conversation regarding the issue of race and identity. Companies, and by extension, employers themselves, made commitments to increase equality and diversity in the workplace. I believe more conversation and understanding of code-switching would serve as a better marker to show progress in true diversity and inclusion. Yes, you can show percentages of how different ethnicities, socio-economic levels, or gender are at the workplace and call that diversity. But answering the equity and inclusion part – How much of their own self can they express? Do they feel judgement when they have different interests and opinions? Why does everyone in this place love Bake Off and skiing? – these are questions that are reserved for people much smarter and much more important than me to tackle.

I still think it’s important for everyone, including employers, to speak about.

What do you think?