Code-Switching in the Workplace: Understanding Cultures of Power

Odds are, if you've clicked on this article, you've heard the term "code-switching" before, but want to understand it better. Though originally a term coined in linguistics referring to individuals who switched between two or more languages, today we use it much more broadly.

Code-switching is the action of changing our behaviors, speech, dress, and mannerisms to conform to a different cultural norm depending on context. We all do it. You don't dress or use the same jargon/phrases with colleagues as you do with your family. But code-switching is not equal for everyone; some of us are required to make more changes than others.

The Dominant Culture

To understand the inequity and cost of code-switching, we have to understand what the dominant culture is. The dominant culture, sometimes referred to as the “culture of power” is that which is the most powerful, widespread, or influential within a social or institutional space.

In this context, culture refers to expectations and standards related to language, values, rituals, and social customs. The dominant culture is often so ubiquitous that it is almost invisible; behavior which is viewed as “normal,” “good,” "successful,"or “well-behaved.”

There are multiple dominant cultures; each country and region may have a dominant culture, individual cities or communities, and 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 some cultural norms and values 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, the closer their identities align to the culture of power. This is sometimes referred to as “cultural capital.” The notion that you can "just be yourself" and still succeed in the workplace is laden with undertones of power and privilege.

If you are a manager reading this and thinking "we don't ask people to change," 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 does 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."

  • Speakers of other languages trying to reduce their accent.

  • 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 may code-switch in a given situation:

a) To achieve some level of power, respect, or advantage

Modifying behaviors to conform to the dominant culture often allows a person a better chance to be recognized for their efforts and talents or to be promoted in their job, which usually bring with it additional economic privilege, power, and freedom. Code-switching here may be a conscious choice to "get ahead."

c) To assimilate or blend in

Sometimes code-switching is subconscious. Individuals may internalize 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, and similarly for police suspicion and brutality.

You can see 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.

However, there is an inherent assumption in this: that the individual in question knows how to code-switch and is familiar with how to imitate the dominant culture. Being unable to code-switch can have far reaching ramifications with career opportunities, financial stability, social standing, and physical safety.

The Cost of Code-switching

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 certain members to conform.

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. Their focus becomes more on cultural compatibility than 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 to see the water we swim in. This requires a lot of one on one 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."

Chandra Arthur, The Cost of Code Switching

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?

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