Do you have a "telephone voice?" So you probably know that moment when you recognize that voice on the other end of the line, and your "phone attitude" relaxes. We all have different ways of presenting ourselves in different situations. We behave differently at work, with friends and with family members who have known us all our lives.
This change is called code switching, but for people of color, it's a matter of survival. And if you don't realize this is happening in your organization, it could undermine psychological safety. Keep reading to understand the code change, why it's happening, and what it means for workplace inclusion.
What is code switching ?
The term code switching was originally documented as a linguistic phenomenon. Sociologists, including John J. Gumperz, have been interested in the circumstances that caused bilingual speakers to move back and forth between their native language and that spoken by the majority.
However, code switching was quickly noted even in populations that spoke only one language. The term has grown to encompass a set of behaviors beyond multilingualism. It could change our mannerisms, our tone of voice, or switch language codes between standard English and a more relaxed vernacular.
We all want to fit in and we all make subtle choices to be more "acceptable" to the groups we are with. This is called our contextual identity, and this adaptability is central to the human experience. But when our contextual identities are out of sync with our authentic and absolute identities, we run into trouble. In these cases, we don't choose to adapt - we are forced to hide.
This is why code switching can be so damaging to members of minority populations. If the dominant culture runs counter to our own, we may feel that our “natural” selves are unacceptable, unprofessional, unpleasant, and undesirable.
Why do people change code?
As we explore the reasons people switch code, it's important to note that not all are conscious or bad. The extent to which we feel we need to change who we are affected by how we are impacted by it. Let's take a look at the reasons below:
The most common (conscious) reason for code switching is to avoid validating negative stereotypes about your group or drawing unwanted attention to yourself. Unfortunately, it is also the most damaging. It's this kind of code change that makes people feel like they're not acceptable the way they are. The damage comes less from changing behavior than from the pressure to maintain an inauthentic facade.
Another common reason for code-switching is to get something you think isn't available if you can't manage to ingratiate yourself with the dominant social group. Just like in high school, we try to find the right balance between fitting in and standing out to move forward. For people from underrepresented backgrounds, however, it can feel like trying to erase their cultural identity. Like my friends in the examples above, they may fear that drawing attention to their identity will put them at a disadvantage.
In some extreme (but not rare) cases, it becomes a matter of survival. Black men and boys are often coached on how to act when interacting with law enforcement. In homophobic and transphobic environments, members of the LGBTQ+ community are often hyper-conscious about their appearance and behavior. These adjustments are the extreme side of trying to "escape" certain interactions without being "identified" as a member of an underrepresented - and therefore targeted - community.
As mentioned, not all types of code switching are intentional. Sometimes when we are around people from different parts of our lives, we switch to this way of being. This kind of code switching can actually be a very positive experience.
Some languages and cultures have words or shared experiences that don't translate well into English. When this happens, a person may feel that returning to that language or identity is the best way to express how they feel. It also results in code mixing, which is when people mix things up from two different languages or cultures.
Code switching keeps us in touch with all the parts that make up our absolute identities. But for people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalized groups, it can seem like only certain parts of their identity are welcome in a professional setting. This has a negative effect on both employee belonging and employee well-being.