The language we use with our friends and family is often different than what we use at work. For women, people of color and those simply with a background not typically represented at their workplace, code-switching becomes a means towards an end. That is, alternating the language used at work is sometimes seen as a necessary practice for fitting in and possibly advancing professionally.
To clear things up, though, we should point out there’s no simple answer on what it means to code-switch. At least, not as it’s currently understood in the larger, mainstream culture. In academia, to code-switch can mean alternating between languages in a single conversation. Linguists might also point out that people often confuse code-switching with style-switching, which refers to alternating between varying speech patterns and styles within a single conversation.
But, for many people of color and other underrepresented groups, “code-switching,” encompasses a much wider and complex set of dynamics and practices. “I think that people are trying to make sense of deeply personal experiences of their language use and their efforts to control and manage [it],” Jonathan Rosa, a linguistic anthropologist and an assistant professor at Stanford University, says. Code-switching, then, functions as shorthand for making sense of those experiences, he said.
Wrapped up in our concerns about our own—and others’— language use is an inherent set of power relations and dynamics. It’s what leads to only certain populations being “marked,” for their language usage, while others can fly by unnoticed, Rosa said.
And, often, that unmarked language isn’t defined by a set of linguistic practices. “[It’s] more about an imagined model of personhood,” Rosa said. “What does a ‘boss’ look like? What does a boss sound like? What does an employee or a subordinate look and sound like, and what are the behaviors that are stereotypically associated with all of this?”
When that occurs, he added, we create a model of personhood that becomes the default. And that can be problematic, since the imagined model of professionalism ends up drawing on a range of stereotypes associated with race, class, and gender.
So, how exactly does code-switching at work look and feel like? It’s a complex and often subtle language practice. Some see it as a survival tactic and others see it as a heavy burden. Many others, still, see it as both. The one common thread? It brings up a range of deeply-held emotions.
Code-switching at work is complex. Here’s what these readers had to say.
Code-switching happened early on in life
I realized I had to code-switch early on in life. I started working at 14 years old, and slowly I started realizing that the way I spoke had a direct effect on how I was perceived. By 21, I understood that street talk had no place in the office and that speaking Spanish came off as rude or diminished how I was perceived in the office. Being a Latina from the Bronx, raised around and using urban vernacular, I understand that the way I speak with my friends isn’t office appropriate; as far as talking Spanish, I understand that people could take that as offensive.
Honestly, anytime you work in a corporate environment that involves direct contact with a C-level exec or some other big title person, the pressure is there to minimize my accent, get rid of certain filler words or street words; they call it “talking like a white person” where I come from. To me, it’s a business skill like using pivot tables on Excel if you’re an accountant: it’s vital.
At work the pros are obvious: you either blend in, are taken serious or are considered “articulate.” The cons to me are far more personal, I feel like I’m an imposter constantly imitating work jargon to prove I’m in the circle.
— G., Events Coordinator, 31, New York City
It changes from phone call to phone call
I work with a lot of managers and executives at my company who all have their own attitude, so I find myself speaking almost a different language going from phone call to phone call. As someone who needs to get stuff done (and sometimes the work an HR person does is not the most pleasant for people to deal with), I find it crucial to code switch in order to maintain favorable relationships with everyone I work with and to navigate rough waters.
Internally: yes, but not directly. My supervisor on the executive team has definitely encouraged me to “speak their language” so to speak when I’m dealing with an issue, but I feel they’re trying to help me, not pressure me.
I honestly do think it helps me get ahead, and I have really great relationships with everyone around me, however, sometimes I wish I could just be myself! How I speak and how I deal with issues outside of work gets shit done too.
— W., HR Generalist, 25, Las Vegas
It was my understanding of ‘professional’ speech
I remember when I was working in my first internship roles and listening to people who were not first or second-generation Canadian or raised around a distinct cultural community within the area. They sounded like my understanding of professional, whether they were or not. Specifically, it’s where they chose to put their emphasis within the pronunciation of a word or overall in a sentence. I noticed it was different and that I sounded distinctly different as a result.
I found myself beginning to mimic the way they spoke to wipe away any indication that I was different from that understanding of professional. The worst part of all of this is to me is I felt this way and my natural code was not even as distinct as a lot of the people I grew up with.
— E., Digital Strategist/Small Business Owner, 27, Vaughan, ON
The film industry is dominated by white males, even though “diversity” is in now, it’s going to take a while for it to hit all levels. As a director and assistant director I have to navigate these levels with an iron suit on. I know if I’m on set as an AD and I’m “too Black” they’ll get intimidated. I don’t talk about race and avoid situations where I speak up on it. But as a director I’m known for my films being for and by the black community. I speak on all race issues and speak up for all people who are underrepresented and marginalized. Again, it’s exhausting.
Once someone on set asked for my Instagram account, the next day they said to me “Oh I didn’t realize you were that black.” As a survival mechanism you just do what you have to, to get by. Just to fly under the radar and collect the cheque.
I think it’s exhausting. I think we, as PoC should be able to be our true selves in all situations. Having to be less than to get by and avoid issues isn’t fair.
— H., Film Director, 29, Toronto
It breeds mixed emotions
It is something that breeds mixed emotions. It is something that allows me to relate and build a rapport with everyone on a different level, but I wish I didn’t have to do it. I feel in order to be respected by everyone I have to show each individual a different version of myself that is more approachable and relatable to that individual.
I can appreciate code-switching because it makes me feel a little bit like superwoman, I can wear many hats. The main con about code-switching is that I often feel that I cannot be accepted and respected on every level, and by every person for who I truly am.
— K., Title Processor, 25, Las Vegas
The fear of slipping up makes you overly cautious
I realize that when I use my “white voice,” I get more respect and a better response. When I slip up at work and use my normal voice, my peers think I’m trying to goof off. At my last job, I had a white colleague who used to mimic my real life voice whenever she heard it. One time I received a call from my best friend at work and I picked up saying “wassup homegirl?!” and when I hung up, my colleague repeated the phrase in her best ME voice she could. It made me feel embarrassed about who I really am.
Though I can’t identify the pros of code-switching in relation to myself, the cons are that it’s just another way to communicate to minorities that we aren’t good enough as we are, and that the normal acceptable standard when it comes to speech directly correlates to how white people communicate.
— J., Publicist, 28, Hoboken, NJ
People can’t tell what codes I tune in to…
When I am on the phone, I sometimes feel like in order for them to understand me, I have to code-switch. I also notice sometimes people attempting to code-switch with me, because when they see me they can’t tell which codes I tune in to. I also sometimes feel this huge burden of racial impostor syndrome because I have a hard time connecting my heritages on both sides, and so I find myself lost among my own codes.
Code-switching feels like a super power. It’s great to be able to communicate with different communities and people. However, when I am entering a meeting with all-white businessmen, I suddenly feel that I need to speak a certain way…not only for them to understand me, but for me to survive in the office.
— H., Development Assistant, 24, Washington, DC
I do it to be visible and heard
I feel that it becomes such a norm that you don’t pay it any mind until you finally pay it mind (become woke) or you finally get a co-worker that you identify with. (I have a sista girl co-worker that I can relax, relate and release with once I turn-off code-switching.) It’s hard being a woman of color, working for a large company where you are under represented and you want to feel like you earned your right to be there. So I would say I do it so I can fit in and be visible.
People seem to respect you more or are more willing to listen and just not hear you when you code-switch. But it can be frustrating because when you are “lost in the sauce” you also lose yourself. And you come this realization that you are not being authentic to yourself or to the future girls you are making a place for.
The worst feeling is when you become the butt of the joke because you dropped a word/phrase that would be considered ebonics—meaning that there was a glitch in your code-switch program to cause the slip up and everyone: 1) questions you about what you just said, 2) they ask you to explain what it means and how to say it, 3) People laugh and think it is so cool and say it over and over.
— T., Marketing, 30, Chicago
My friends told me they’d never heard me speak like that
I am a Jamaican Canadian attending school in a more suburban part of Ontario than I was used to and there was also a very large South Asian community attending my school. I was on the couch talking to my cousin and had gone into full blown Jamaican patois with out realizing it. When I got off the phone my roommates, with glee and curiosity in their eyes, asked me what language I was speaking or what accent that was. It took me aback as I didn’t know what they were talking about and then it dawned on me what was happening. My one friend noted that she “had never heard me talk like that before. So cool!”
Pros: It can make it easier to communicate yourself and your ideas to others. Cons: It can maybe feel like you are not “being yourself” all the time. It can also be frustrating when there’s a phrase in one world that is so fitting to something you’re experiencing in another, but the people you are with wouldn’t understand.
— R., Filmmaker (Writer, Director), 27, Toronto
The judgmental standards are real
I’m from Compton. I have a lot of tattoos and I love trap music. I’m in the medical field where judgmental standards are real and I didn’t want to “scare” or intimidate my peers.
These people will tell all kind of stories about you if they don’t like you. If I didn’t understand what they call code-switching, I’d never get as much recognition as I deserve because I would be overlooked so they wouldn’t have to address me at all.
— S., Pharmacy Technician, 30, Compton
Code-switching is normal where cultures overlap
It became more obvious to me when I lived in Puerto Rico where code-switching is just naturally done considering the overlap of cultures (Latin/American), especially with the younger crowd. Even after moving back to Miami in 2010, code-switching was becoming the norm for me because there was an influx of Latin American migrants taking residence in the city.
It’s been beneficial. It allows me to express both sides of my cultural influence, and to connect on a deeper level with my colleagues and others that I work with professionally.
In the context of work, I would encourage companies to allow code-switching from employees who enjoy code-switching. They’d be surprised by how code-switchers les pueden brindar otra perspectiva.
— D., Project Manager, 37, Miami
It allows me to be more effective at work
When I have conversations with clients it tends to be more overt than when I communicate with doctors and attorneys—that’s when code-switching becomes more subtle. The reason I do it is because it allows me to be a more effective with folks that may not be familiar with the healthcare system or the laws that affect a particular process in their legal case. Or simply because I am trying to get something more favorable in the case.
I’ve felt pressure to code-switch when I have to communicate with certain people at work, but primarily the doctors and attorneys. When I negotiate with certain doctors and attorneys it forces me to be more careful not to code-switch without thinking about it because it feels more risky. I want to remain professional but also be sassy or more aggressive in my negotiations so I can achieve my goal.
— B., Lien Negotiator/Legal Assistant, 25, Huntington Park
We’re talented at managing different audiences
Code-switchers are pretty talented in my opinion. We know how to manage different audiences at different times. I code-switch because I don’t think some people would understand or accept that other side of me. For instance, using ebonics might be seen as being “ghetto,” and you don’t want your coworkers to judge your character off of that. Also, I believe code-switching is almost like a bonding experience that you have with people who are like you and understand your character is multi-dimensional.
The pros? We know how to transcend and transform ourselves in many different settings. We know how to manage and navigate many different groups. The cons? We can’t truly be who we are. We have to hide our personalities, culture, and upbringing because people might associate us with being ghetto or uneducated. Another con is that sometimes it takes a lot of energy. It’s sad that we live in a society that judges you for who you are, instead of embracing your differences.
— V., Journalist, 29, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Submissions have been edited for length and clarity. Names have also been withheld.