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In review of code-switching, the linguistic practice that both becomes and betrays us

For a while during high school, I had two groups of friends. One group was ambitious and academically oriented. The other was more athletic, musically inclined, and a bit rebellious. The latter group often played word games and invented their own slang. One day, I remember somebody from the former group saying to me, “Why do you talk differently with them than you do with us?”

I had never noticed myself doing this before. I was embarrassed. I shrugged my shoulders and tried to deny it. For years afterward, I felt ashamed any time I noticed myself changing my speaking style to suit the situation I was in. I felt as though I needed to discover the one ‘true’ version of myself and then stick to the script. Anything short of this would be ‘inauthentic’ or ‘fake.’

What is code-switching in language?

It wasn’t until years later that I learned about the concept of linguistic code-switching. There are two types of code-switching. The first kind of code-switching occurs when speakers of two or more languages change from one language to another, often midsentence. This may be done because a speaker is looking for a more precise, poetic, or funny way of saying something, or sometimes just due to force of habit. Think Spanglish.

The second type of code-switching, which is the focus of this article, is when a speaker changes their dialect, accent, mannerisms, or style of speaking depending on who they’re talking to, where they are, or what they are talking about. This is the type of code-switching I was engaging in when I changed my speaking style from one group of friends to another.

Why do people code-switch?

To varying degrees, virtually everybody engages in code-switching. We may censor our speech by avoiding certain words or topics when speaking with a young child or an elder. We speak more formally with a boss or coworker than a friend or family member. And we may even find our hometown accent or particular sayings or mannerisms creeping back into our speech after a week-long visit home.

People code-switch for many reasons. But perhaps the most prescient is because code-switching is a powerful psychological tool that plays into peoples’ similarity biases. Similarity bias is the human tendency to be drawn to people perceived to be similar to oneself. When a person adjusts the way they speak to more closely align with the person they are speaking with, that person is more likely to listen and be receptive to their message. This type of code-switching, in which a person adjusts their way of speaking to mirror the other person, is known as linguistic mirroring.

Linguistic mirroring can be an innocuous method for fitting in and being well-liked. And in fact, it is believed to be biologically innate to most people. Most young children learn to speak and use gestures by mirroring their parents. Later in life, the ability to mirror becomes a proxy for how well-developed social skills are. It follows, then, that neurodivergent people who struggle with social skills, such as many people on the autism spectrum, often have difficulty with linguistic mirroring. As neurotypical people tend to expect some level of linguistic mirroring when they interact with others, this difficulty can make it hard for neurodiverse people to connect with others.

To quickly retrace our steps, we’ve gone from my early experience of code-switching as the antithesis of authenticity, a source of deep shame and embarrassment, to it being imperative for skilled social communication. But if code-switching is innate to most human beings, why is it so often perceived as a threat to our authenticity?

Code-switching as a means to an end

Code-switching can help us to connect with others and be well-liked. But the extent to which we engage in code-switching can also have serious, real-world consequences. Assistant professor of management at Texas A&M University, Yong H. Kim, found evidence that lawyers that use a linguistic style similar to the judge presiding over their case increase their chances of winning. He examined more than one thousand patent infringement lawsuits from 1990 to 2013. On average, the probability of winning a patent case is 11.5 percent. However, lawyers that used linguistic mirroring when arguing their cases were found to win 25 percent of cases, more than doubling their odds for success.

This is where we can begin to see the more nefarious side of code-switching. We all hope that others will judge what we have to say based on the content of our message, rather than our particular linguistic style, accent, or dialect. This is important not only in friendship formation but in every aspect of our lives, from school to the workplace to the justice system. Unfortunately, the research shows that linguistic style may be almost as important as message content.

The slippery slope from code-switching to pandering

Linguistic mirroring can also be a tricky balance to strike. Done subtly, it can play on our interlocuter’s similarity bias. But when overstated, linguistic mirroring can quickly tip the scales in the other direction and be perceived as pandering. Historically, this has gotten a lot of politicians into trouble. Hillary Clinton was accused of pandering to her audience on numerous occasions, occasionally slipping into a Southern accent or even using rhetoric generally associated with black evangelical speech styles when speaking in one such community. Former President Obama was also known for shifting his linguistic style and word choices when speaking to black or white audiences, often by making changes as subtle as converting an -ing to an -in’ or using the word folks. While some saw these shifts as perfectly natural, others perceived them as pandering to the crowd.

When code-switching becomes an obligation for success

There is a difference between a member of a minority group code-switching to align with the dominant culture versus a member of the dominant culture code-switching to match an outgroup’s linguistic style. While the latter is often cringe-inducing, many of us don’t bat an eye at the former. Why is this?

In a world in which positions of authority still tend to be filled by white men that share similar linguistic codes, people from minority groups are often expected to code-switch in the workplace. In fact, Standard American English (the kind of English we are taught to read and write with, that is used by most white Americans lacking a regional dialect, and that dominates the professional world) has historically been codified as ‘proper English,’ while African American Vernacular English and other dialects have been called ‘ungrammatical’ or ‘nonsensical.’ Though such designations have long been recognized by linguists as nothing more than discriminatory flim-flam (you can read more about this in my article, “The Fallacy of Proper Grammar“), the idea that anything outside of Standard American English is ‘improper’ or ‘lesser than’ remains strong amongst the general public. We need to look no further than the designation ‘Standard American English’ as the name given to the dialect most spoken by white middle and upper-class America to see that this is true.

It follows, then, that members of minority groups often feel obligated to code-switch within the workplace. Code-switching becomes a method for downplaying membership in stigmatized racial groups and thereby increasing perceptions of professionalism, as well as the likelihood of being hired and subsequently tapped for career advancement opportunities. In addition to modifying their linguistic styles, minority groups may feel pressure to express shared interests with members of dominant groups and downplay areas of interest that are more associated with their racial or cultural group, again due to the similarity bias.

Unfortunately, research confirms that people of color who code-switch in the office do, in fact, increase their chances of being promoted and respected by coworkers. This has a number of negative consequences. First, it is psychologically damaging for members of minority groups to have to constantly suppress their cultural identity and to feel that cultural identity is somehow ‘unprofessional.’

Additionally, the conceit of a monoculture of professionalism has a homogenizing effect on the workplace. This is not only damaging to individuals, but to companies, which may miss out on the unique perspectives and contributions of minority groups that are uncomfortable expressing themselves genuinely at work.

The mixed messaging in the workplace

Members of minority groups are often confronted by a difficult decision: is it better to suppress one’s cultural identity for the sake of career success, or to stay true to oneself and one’s community at the potential cost of career advancement?

This is even further muddled by the mixed messaging of corporations. In recent years, the idea of “bringing your whole self to work” has been peddled throughout the professional world.

The author of “Bringing Your Whole Self to Work,” Mike Robbins, said in an interview that “bringing our whole selves to work means showing up authentically, leading with humility, and remembering that we’re all vulnerable, imperfect human beings doing the best we can. It’s also about having the courage to take risks, speak up, ask for help, connect with others in a genuine way, and allow ourselves to be truly seen.”

This all sounds well and good, but we’ve now seen that the research shows something very different. While members of in-groups may be rewarded for being authentic and vulnerable in the workplace, the same is not likely to be true for members of stigmatized groups. This creates a caustic double standard, in which the inadvertent message for people of color becomes, “bring your whole self to work, but not that whole self.”

Tackling the problem

The problem of obligatory code-switching is a complex one. Ultimately, it is a reflection of the inequitable power dynamics that are echoed through every echelon of our society, from the classroom, where many children are told for the first time that they or their families don’t ‘speak properly,’ to the office or to the criminal justice system.

Many of us may not be aware of the fact that, due to implicit biases such as the similarity bias, we tend to prefer people who communicate in the same ways we do. Rather than scoffing or turning away from this notion out of fear or embarrassment, we do our best work in breaking down such biases by being willing to examine, self-reflect, and actively work against them in an effort to create a more equitable and inclusive world.

For leaders, this means working to tackle underrepresentation at all levels within your organization. Minority groups remain underrepresented in many workplaces. When the office is dominated by a single group or culture, the slightest cultural or linguistic difference becomes all the more noticeable. Ensuring people of color are represented at every level of an organization thus helps to normalize cultural differences within the workplace.

But research has shown that this is much more than a numbers game. Code-switching often occurs even in organizations that have roughly equivalent numbers of black and white employees. Thus, diversification is only the first step toward a solution.

To further tackle the problem, diversity and inclusion need to be understood as two separate issues. Organizations can create policies and rules that reflect inclusivity, such as criteria for hiring candidates that promote differences alongside meritocracy.

A double-edged sword

As a teenager called out for code-switching for the first time, I developed a rigid, simplified definition of authenticity. I thought that being authentic meant discovering my one true self, down to my mannerisms and style of speech, and sticking to that at all times. But we are all far too complex and multifaceted to have a singular, clearly identifiable true self. We are not untouchable islands. Instead, we are all constantly in flux, playing off of one another, developing different facets of ourselves as we come into contact with different people and have diverse experiences over the course of our lives.

Where code-switching comes naturally to us, as when switching our word choice slightly when talking to our work friends versus, say, a friend from school, it’s nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. Nor is it a challenge to our authenticity. In fact, I would argue it allows us to experience ourselves more richly and complexly, without the boundaries imposed by the notion of a ‘singular, unified self.’ Code-switching allows us to alternate between playfulness and seriousness, between distant respectfulness and intimate vulnerability as we move back and forth along the continuum of linguistic features within our repertoire.

And yet, we live in a world in which many feel obligated to code-switch into a version of themselves that pushes them beyond the boundaries of their own repertoire and feels forced, unnatural, and even degrading.

Solutions beyond the workplace

We don’t need to wait until a person is entering the workforce to begin dismantling an expectation for code-switching. The education system has long been a culprit in telling little black boys and girls that the way they speak or write is unacceptable. What if we were to take a different approach to teach grammar in linguistically diverse schools? What if we were to teach African American Vernacular English as an acceptable alternative to Standard American English? Or, at the very least, what might it do for children’s self-esteem if, rather than teaching them that some ways of speaking are wrong while others are right, we simply taught them about the concept of code-switching?

For me, at least, I think having an understanding of code-switching from an early age would have helped me through the difficult adolescent years in which we all start trying to work out who we are. At its best, code-switching is a sort of linguistic representation of human complexity. Becoming aware of its benefits and pitfalls allows us to develop and accept ourselves as multifaceted individuals, and then begin the work of dismantling expectations for linguistic homogeny in the classroom, workplace, and beyond.

Janet Barrow holds a B.A. in Written Arts from Bard College, and a Master of Speech-Language Pathology from the University of Sydney. She works as a pediatric speech pathologist and freelance writer, and is currently finishing her first novel.

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