What Is Code Switching?

Once a linguistic term for alternating between two languages in the same sentence, code-switching has seen its definition expand in recent years.

Written by Jeff Rumage
Published on Jun. 20, 2024
What Is Code Switching?
Image: Shutterstock

Code-switching is when a person changes the way they speak, behave or present themselves in specific situations or circumstances. While everyone is capable of code-switching, it’s most prevalent among people from marginalized communities who feel like they have to adjust in professional or educational contexts.

What Is Code Switching?

Code-switching is the practice of adjusting one’s speech, appearance or self-expression to match the dominant social norms within a space or situation.

What Is Code Switching?

Code-switching is a linguistic term that refers to a bilingual person switching languages in the same sentence or conversation. The usage of the term has since expanded to refer to a sociological phenomena in which a speaker shifts dialects within a language to conform to the cultural norms of a group; this is sometimes referred to as style-switching.

Code-switching is not just limited to language. It also describes how a person presents themselves through clothing, body language and other aspects of their physical presentation.

 

Examples of Code Switching

Here are a few examples of how various people might code-switch to fit in with the dominant culture:

  • A Black man avoids speaking in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and adopts a dialect that sounds more like his white colleagues.
  • A gay employee changes their voice to sound more feminine or masculine, and they shy away from discussing their significant other.
  • A Black woman who usually wears a curly, braided or natural hair style begins to straighten her hair when going to work.
  • An Asian student uses an English nickname because it’s easier for other classmates and teachers to pronounce.
  • A sales manager from the southern United States uses a generic American accent when talking to customers and coworkers but reverts to a southern accent with friends or family.
  • A bilingual store clerk speaks English with one customer then switches to Spanish with the next customer.
  • A software engineer who speaks in jargon with team members uses simpler language to describe a project during a company-wide meeting.
     
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Why Does Code Switching Happen?

People across all demographic groups might code-switch to find common ground with someone from a different background.

“It’s just a part of human nature that when you’re interacting with someone who comes from a different background, we tend to try to meet that person halfway,” Myles Durkee, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, told Built In. “We tend to find ourselves adjusting certain aspects of our self expression.”

While people from every demographic group code-switch to some extent, people with one or more marginalized identities code-switch more than people from non-marginalized identities.

“Those from underrepresented marginalized groups are code-switching at much higher rates than those from the dominant group because of power dynamics,” Durkee said. “They’re trying to avoid detrimental outcomes from happening or unfair treatment from occurring.”

Some people are taught to code-switch in childhood, while others learn how to code-switch through observing and interacting with other groups, said George Paasewe, founder of DEIB training firm The Code-Switcher and author of The Cost of Code-Switching: Belonging in Corporate America.

Paasewe said he first code-switched in his freshman year at a majority-white college. He asked some students in his dormitory, “What’s happenin’?” and they looked confused, like he was “speaking a foreign language.”

“I recognized that my form of Ebonics wasn’t understood by everyone, and I had to find a more mainstream way to communicate what I meant to say,” Paasewe told Built In.

Code-switching is often described as a means of survival for people. Those who code-switch are more likely to get hired and promoted in the workplace, earn higher evaluations from teachers and make friends across demographic groups, Durkee said.

“People are going to naturally be attracted towards you,” Durkee said. “They feel comfortable around you because you’re basically mirroring their own norms and attributes directly right back to them.” 

 

The Costs of Code-Switching

While code-switching has its benefits, it can also take a psychological toll.

When Paasewe changed the way he spoke and dressed, for example, he found that he received a warmer reception from white students on campus. Eventually, though, he started to feel an identity conflict, and he felt like the relationships he formed were inauthentic.

These feelings are common among those who code-switch, Durkee said, as one can feel like they are forced to hide their authentic self. People who code-switch have reported that it affects their mood, their sense of identity and their authenticity, he said.

“When they find themselves being pressured to have to code-switch it creates this sense of internal turmoil that they then have to cope with,” Durkee said.

In addition to inner strife, people from marginalized communities may suffer from impostor syndrome – like they are not good enough — and may overcompensate accordingly.

“​​I felt the pressure of representing my entire race in a positive light in certain spaces, specifically in a lecture hall,” Paasewe said. “I felt like I always had to bring my A-game.”

 

Code Switching in the Workplace

Code-switching is most prevalent in the workplace — particularly when employees are uncertain of the workplace culture.

“As they enter a space where they’re unsure, a little bit anxious or not sure how they’ll be judged, code-switching is almost the go-to default until you get a validation that it’s a safe space,” Durkee said.

Code-switching can be emotionally exhausting for people from marginalized groups who feel pressured to fit in when everyone else talks, dresses and acts the same.

“It creates an environment where diversity is hidden and only a narrow range of behaviors or ways of speaking are seen as acceptable,” Kristie Tse, founder of Uncover Mental Health Counseling, told Built In.

Employees who code-switch might be less engaged and might suffer from mental health issues like anxiety and depression, Paasewe said. This can eventually lead to these employees burning out and leaving the organization altogether.

Companies can encourage employees to bring their authentic selves to work by creating an inclusive work environment. In a diverse and inclusive workplace, employees from underrepresented groups will feel less like an outsider that needs to conform to a predominantly white culture.

An inclusive company will not just hire diverse employees. It will celebrate diversity by creating employee resource groups where employees from various identities can share experiences and foster a sense of belonging at work. Companies should also commit to listening to the concerns of employees from underrepresented backgrounds and educating other employees about unconscious biases, microaggressions, the importance of inclusive language and how to be an effective ally.
 

Free Guide: Racial Equality in the Workplace

DEI experts offer solutions to create a radically inclusive workplace.

Frequently Asked Questions

Code switching is the act of adjusting one’s speech or physical presentation to match the social norms of other people in a situation.

One of the most-discussed versions of code-switching is when a Black person switches from African-American Vernacular English to a more formal dialect of English.

People code-switch to fit in with the dominant culture, make others feel comfortable and to communicate more easily and efficiently. It’s a skill that can be taught or picked up by observing other groups of people.

An earlier version of this story was written by Lisa Bertagnoli.

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