Code-Switching Is a Survival Tactic in the Workplace and Here's Why…

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A couple of weeks ago, I read an article from a predominately white female media brand that talks about code-switching. In the article, code-switching was described as a tool to gain or exploit an advantageous position in a social and professional environment. This generic view of code-switching suggests that any deliberate adoption of a sociocultural norm to fit in may be viewed as acceptable. As such, code-switching is pretty much harmless, it occurs everywhere all the time affecting and affected by everyone…

I don’t buy it! Such a view is empty and meaningless from any perspective. I wanted to slap the person who created that article, but the more I thought about it, the less offended I felt…Let me explain my concern…

In definitional terms, code-switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation 1. While there may be some truth to this context, code-switching is much more dynamic than this.

Code-switching is not merely switching from one dialect to another, it’s an important survival tactic for people of color that significantly affects how one may be perceived and assimilated. It is a key communication strategy that speaks to our capacity to adapt to different cultural, or professional environments. It’s purposeful and strategic, with consequences that lead to trust and acceptance or distrust and miscommunication. As such, code-switching may be perceived as positive when applied for advantage and advancement, and negative when applied out of fear and deceptive intent.

Consider for a moment that any inauthentic sociocultural behavior may be considered code-switching. Minorities are seen as code-switching to dampen tendencies to be stereotyped, while persons of the majority culture are seen to be code-switching when they adjust to fit into more conservative or professional environments. It helps us in our daily professional lives as well as in our personal lives as we strive to fit in and be taken seriously.

It’s not just verbal communications, it’s all forms of communication and interpersonal behavior. It’s the way we respond to disagreements, it’s the way we engage with colleagues and superiors in the workplace, it’s how we style our hair or wear our clothes. It’s the tone and inflections we apply in our voice to express excitement or enthusiasm, as well as the anxiety of doubt, seeking further advice or greater explanation. It’s our poster-boy language as we physically confront a friend or challenger in an asocial or professional setting. We perform these so-called non-defiant roles to make others feel comfortable, to build trust, to promote engagement and buy-in, as well as to get others to open up and share resources or information.

We learn from an early age, from our parents as well as our siblings and peers, how to speak to persons in authority. We learn how to get what we want from persons we perceive to be holding back. A well-placed smile, a timely statement of support or agreement, can go a long way in gaining an ally or diverting a foe. We develop a sense of when and how to speak grammatically correct to promote understanding and convey intellectual grasp, and when an appropriate slang expression or a wink of assent will reduce tension and reset the temperature in the room.

We have to automatically assimilate to the dominant culture wherever we find ourselves. We need to be local, regional, national, and global in our capacity to read an environment to assess our position and present our most effective persona. Our behavior, posture, and profiles are highly influenced by our perceptions of negative stereotypes. So much so that we subconsciously adapt, so as not to be treated as an outsider.

“In the workplace, it most often occurs for black women to avoid being stereotyped. Black women are most often seen as sassy slang users or as angry and aggressive. In the workplace, our word choice and our tone can result in us being classified into one or the other or both. Code-switching allows us to adopt a neutrally toned work persona where can operate under the radar of these stereotypes alongside white people and other races and ethnicities. This is especially true for me when I’m dealing with microaggressions and with employee complaint investigations. I switch to full black voice so those who I’m interacting with know they are not getting away with any foolishness on my watch.” – Sarah M, HR Management

“Without code-switching, a lot of minorities would not go far in their professional careers. We have to be very skilled at conforming ourselves in the use of ‘traditional dialect’ in communicating and adjust our behavior to the workplace norms–which quite saddens me. Code-switching creates a form of unspoken work-politics for minorities challenging their efforts to maneuver up the corporate ladder. In order to be a successful career woman, we have to apply even more pressure on ourselves through the ever-present reminder to make sure we don’t sound too ethnic or urban. We don’t want to be labeled as ‘that girl’.” – Jasmin Williams, Creative Director

So code-switching takes on positive and negative connotations. How do we present our most authentic selves while adjusting to sociocultural signals that suggest we need to tone down our ethnicity and assimilate? Maybe it is all a function of how we perceive the term–in other words semantics.

For instance, a “liberal” was once seen as an open-minded compassionate individual. Nowadays, you hear the term and you think of a spendthrift not willing to stand on principals.

Or consider the term “politically correct”. It once spoke of efforts to show sensitivity and politeness in controversial situations. Nowadays, the term is used to negatively refer to a fear of speaking one’s mind or an effort to avoid conflict.

Depending on your confidence or personal conviction, your semantic disposition may suggest a conflict if you are open-minded and compassionate; but you don’t want to be seen as a spendthrift or unprincipled. Similarly, you question your tendency to be polite and considerate of the feelings of others, because you don’t want to be labeled as a politically correct opportunist! When code-switching allows you to gain an advantage, or establish an alliance or maybe to enhance your communicative effectiveness, then code-switching is a skill you want to embrace. Conversely, when you feel inclined to code-switch out of fear of rejection, or in compromise of your integrity, it is incumbent upon you to reject the impulse and stand on principle.

“Code-switching is necessary for a lot of environments for black people. I code-switch in white environments professionally at times because they treat us differently if they hear even a single southern drawl. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the world we live in. I think it’s important to discuss because it raises the larger issue of: why do WE have to make white people feel comfortable?” – Chantal R., Digital Media Content Lead

So now I’m convinced that everyone at some time or other engaged in code-switching! The question is whether its a strategic move or a defensive posture. Whether it honors our efforts or dampens our spirit. Is it oriented to personal growth and professional success, or anxiety and fear of humiliation? Our best most authentic selves must be prepared to adjust, pivot, and excel in any environment, regardless of ethnicity, race or culture. But the environment needs to be welcoming of our diversity and our efforts. If not, it’s probably not an environment that values you, so it is not worth your efforts!

Jasmin Williams is Melanation’s Co-Founder and Creative Director. On top of her full-time job, she’s currently working to make sure Melanation is a dope website where women of color can explore and be fully themselves unapologetically. You can find her IG @jasminjanae to know what she’s been up to.

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