Updated: Jan 7
“Code-switching” is a term that has joined the mainstream, though many leaders are still struggling to understand what it is, how it impacts diverse employees, and how to address the underlying causes that make it necessary. In this article, we will break down and explain these concepts to get at the heart of how we as leaders can step in and change our work culture to ease the burden of code-switching for our team.
What is “code-switching” exactly?
Originally developed in linguistics, code-switching referred to individuals who switched between two or more languages. Today, we use it much more broadly to describe the many ways we adapt our language, behavior, and actions to the dominant culture.
Code-switching is the act of changing our behaviors, including speech, dress, and mannerisms, to conform to a different cultural norm than what we might authentically do in our own homes. We all do it to some extent. Most of us don’t dress the same, or use the same expressions or speech patterns with colleagues as we do with our family and close friends. But code-switching is not equal for everyone; some of us are expected to make more changes than others to conform to a standard set by the dominant culture.
The Dominant Culture
To understand the inequity and cost of code-switching, we have to understand what dominant culture is. The dominant culture, sometimes referred to as the “culture of power” is the culture that has been able, through economic, social, or political power, to impose its values, language, and ways of behaving on other cultures.
The dominant culture is often so ubiquitous that it is almost invisible; you can hear it when behavior is described as “normal,” “good,” “successful,”or “well-behaved.” The underlying messages are that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, and the group that determines what the right way is belongs to the dominant culture.
There are multiple dominant cultures at play; each country and region may have their own dominant culture, as well as individual regions, states, cities, or communities. Even your business has a dominant culture. These may or may not align with one another. That said, the effects of colonization, industrialization, and the global economy have reinforced the dominance of certain cultural norms and values (specifically of U.S./European, white, male, cis-gender, heteronormative, English-speaking groups) over others.
People whose identities are not reflected in the dominant culture often change their mannerisms, behaviors, or dress to conform to the customs of the dominant culture.
The less a person needs to code-switch to “fit in”, the closer their identities may align to the culture of power. The notion that you can “just be yourself” and still succeed in the workplace is laden with undertones of power and privilege. Many individuals, whether from
BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, or other marginalized communities, face tremendous social pressure to adapt to the dominant culture.
If you are a manager reading this, thinking “we don’t ask people to change at our workplace,” understand that culture is so deeply intrenched you may not be aware of what you are implicitly asking of your staff. People do not need to be explicitly told cultural norms to infer them.
What could this look like in the office? Here are a few example:
Women changing their tone or cracking lewd jokes to be part of a “boys club.”
People of color changing their natural hairstyles to “look more corporate” or comply with white-centered dress codes.
Speakers of other languages trying to reduce their accent or not feeling comfortable speaking to one another in public.
Non-binary individuals wearing traditional-gendered clothing in the office.
Why do People Code-switch?
Code-switching isn’t simply solved with anti-discrimination policies, because there are many reasons why individuals code-switch. Here are a few reasons why someone might code-switch in a given situation:
a) To achieve some level of power, respect, or advantage. Modifying behaviors to conform to the dominant culture unfortunately often feels like a requirement to be recognized for one’s efforts and talents or to be promoted, which can bring with it additional economic privilege, power, and freedoms.
c) To assimilate into dominant culture. Sometimes code-switching is subconscious. Individuals may internalize the narrative that certain behaviors are somehow inherently “better” than what they grew up with, and attempt to assimilate and adopt these identities as their own in order to achieve a greater sense of belonging or inclusion.
b) To appear less “threatening” to avoid violence. Finally, there are certain circumstances where code-switching is life saving. Shifting posture, dress, changing accent or mimicking traditional gender characteristics can reduce the threat of attack from dominant groups for LGBTQIA+ individuals, and black communities face similar choices when dealing with police suspicion and brutality.
There can be immediate and severe repercussions for not code-switching. While an individual may choose to represent their authentic self without modifying to the dominant culture, there are many incentives not to.
There is an inherent assumption in this discussion: that an individual knows how to code-switch and is familiar enough with the dominant culture to do so. This fluency to know the unspoken rules is also known as having “cultural capital.” The inability to code-switch can have far reaching ramifications with access to upward mobility, career opportunities, financial stability, social standing, and physical safety.
The Cost of Code-switching
It is important to note that not all code-switching is bad. Adapting our cultures to one another is a way to form common values and shared communication strategies. The problem is in the unilateral direction of assimilation, and the undue burden placed on marginalized groups to accommodate the comfort and ease of those in power.
The more a person is required to code-switch, the more daily stress and anxiety accumulates for the individual from the effort required to adapt to the dominant culture. This can greatly impact their engagement, productivity, and satisfaction at work, where their concern for cultural compatibility detracts from focusing on their ideas, perspectives, and work.
In addition to the energy required, there is an implicit de-valuing of a person’s identity that is a result of coercive assimilation. It also means the loss of that culture’s values and customs in the workplace.
What Can We Do
We have to acknowledge what the dominant culture is and challenge our assumptions. We have do the work and see the water we swim in. This requires a lot of listening, receiving feedback, and enough psychological safety on a team to address the topic openly.
“Instead of the brand of diversity which purports that minorities are acceptable provided that they behave in a specific way, what about a truer sense of diversity, where people are praised for their uniqueness and the cultural capital they bring to places.”
Explore what those policies and norms are and ask yourself, “Is this because it makes sense for our business, or is this just because ‘it’s the way things are done’?” Why is there a dress code and who decides what that is? How are meetings structured and is there a better alternative? Imagine what can be done if employees were able to focus primarily on innovation, problem-solving, and productivity instead of navigating the murky waters of cultural compatibility.