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Decoding Code Switching

Code switching.

The concept and what to do about it is critical for building healthy, inclusive cultures. It’s also emotionally charged, powerfully loaded, and often misused with confusing and, at times, detrimental results.

So, what is code switching (and what is it NOT)?

Code switching is:

Code switching is when an individual or group of individuals are forced to act as something that is not genuinely themselves in order to successfully function within an environment. Commonly described as ‘playing a character’ or ‘putting on a mask’, code switching is a coping strategy for those with little to no sense of belonging in a culture.

“Code-switching is often leveraged as a competitive advantage or a competitive necessity when individuals are in environments that would otherwise be hostile, unwelcoming, or dismissive to them. The practice is prolific,” explains Dr. Rudel. In a recent qualitative study designed by Dr. Rudel to capture the narrative of executive-level black male leaders, 100% of participants acknowledged the use of code-switching on a regular basis throughout their day.

For example, someone who hides their sexual orientation, sexual identity, religion, or disability, or someone who is suppressing any hint that they ever feel anger or upset, or someone who mimics those around them to conform to the ‘normal’ behavior patterns independent of themselves.

Code switching is exhausting, stressful and accompanied by a constant fear that the person will slip and expose their true selves. And it’s not just bad for those doing it, negatively impacting their health and well-being, code switching is also bad for business. It takes a lot of energy and focus to maintain the act, which are precious resources not going to things like productivity, creativity, and the pursuit of business-positive opportunities.

Okay, so what is NOT code switching?

Code Switching is Not:

Code switching is sometimes confused with the human capacity to shift our natural behaviors to fit a situation. These shifts are still genuinely you, just different versions of you. But with phrases like “bring your full, authentic selves to work,” some are struggling with the difference between ‘genuine’ (i.e. not code switching) and ‘professional’.

For example, consider how you act when you are with family vs. friends. Or consider how you interact with children vs. peers vs. older generations. Or consider how you act when meeting someone in your day-to-day routine vs. meeting someone while on vacation. Do you always choose the same words, the same topics, the same activities? Most likely, no. Humans shift behaviors to best fit the environments. In other words, parent me is different than child me, is different than friend me, but they are all genuinely me.

It would not generally be appropriate for me to treat a peer as I would a child or speak to a leader as I would my parent. Nor would it likely be appropriate to act as though I were on vacation when in a meeting. Does this mean I’m not bringing my genuine self to work? No. It means I’m shifting to the right genuine version of me for the environment.

Interested in learning more about code switching and other coping mechanisms for low belonging? Stay tuned – we have some exciting content coming soon!

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