Code-Switching: What Does It Mean and Why Do People Do It?

You might be code-switching and not even know it.

Growing up as a young Black woman, my mother always encouraged me to speak "proper" English, free of slang or any cultural colloquialisms, especially when talking to my teachers or non-Black peers. Little did I know, I was being taught how to code-switch—changing up my social behaviors, language, and appearance to assimilate to the norms at large.

Researchers of a March 2022 study published in Computer Speech & Language identified code-switching as "a multilingual phenomenon"—where individuals who speak more than one language can engage in alternating use of those languages within a singular conversation.

However, code-switching has taken on another meaning: It can refer to any member of a marginalized or underrepresented identity adapting to the dominant environment around them in any context.

What Is Code-Switching?

Code-switching is divided into two types: language-based and culture-based, according to psychologist Beverly Tatum, PhD, race relations expert and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race.

"A bilingual person might use one language to speak to some people, and another language to speak to others—or one language at home, another at school," Tatum told Health. "Cultural code-switching is similar, but not only limited to language. It could refer to other cultural expressions as well—style of dress, physical mannerisms, and other forms of self-presentation."

Black and Hispanic Americans—particularly younger, college-educated African Americans—feel the need to code-switch or change their behaviors around their white colleagues, according to a September 2019 article from Pew Research.

Often considered a survival tactic, code-switching can happen across any social identity, said Myles Durkee, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who studies code-switching's mental and physiological effects.

"Code-switching is shifting or manipulating one's behaviors to appeal to a different crowd or audience," Durkee explained. "As a Black man, if I work in a predominantly white workplace, I'm shifting my racial behaviors to accommodate the norms of white culture values," Durkee told Health. "Whenever there are behavioral practices or a visual profile associated with the identity, an individual can code-switch based on it." This can go for religious identity, social class, or even sexual identity.

What Are Examples of Code-Switching?

Some examples of code-switching include changing your language or dialect in order to assimilate into the predominant culture. This could include primarily speaking English if your first language is Spanish or speaking Standard American English in another environment even though you commonly speak African American Vernacular English (AAVE), another dialect of English, at home or with family.

"Generally speaking, code-switching is about finding effective ways to communicate with another person," Tatum said. "If someone speaks to another person in a language the other person understands or in a style that puts that person at ease, the likelihood of making a connection with that person increases."

Code-switching can also be about altering your appearance to fit the norm of the environment you're in. This could include clothing changes and, particularly for Black women, hairstyles. According to the July 2019 Dove CROWN Research Study, Black women are 80% more likely to change their natural hair to meet societal norms for work.

"In my research, I found that Black and white women have very different perceptions of professionalism of hairstyles," Durkee said. "Black women feel that their natural, unprocessed hairstyles are still professional, but white women feel the opposite."

When there is a visual profile associated with certain marginalized groups, a member of one of those groups may avoid the traditional dress associated with their culture or religion. They may even attempt to dress beyond their social class when presented in an environment that demands it.

What Are the Benefits of Code-Switching?

"From both experimental and correlational work, code-switching has its benefits in the workplace, particularly for Black individuals," Durkee said. "Black people who code-switch in the workplace are perceived as more professional by both Black and white colleagues."

Tatum agreed with code-switching being a way to gain acceptance. "When a person from a stigmatized group (which could be based on race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, etc.) is interacting with people in a non-stigmatized group, they may code-switch to play down their group membership in order to fit in and be accepted," Tatum said. "That might help them advance in their career or feel included at school."

Given the often subconscious levels of cultural code-switching that people employ, as well as the self-reported nature of cultural code-switching studies, Durkee believed that many individuals may underreport how often they're code-switching—making it harder to document the benefits or drawbacks.

What Does Code-Switching Do to Your Mental Health?

A March 2022 study published in Affective Science explored the relationship between code-switching and its potential psychological consequences. The researchers noted that code-switching could end up depleting others' ability to see an individual as they are or result in professional issues such as burnout and emotional exhaustion.

Durkee's research delved into not only the mental effects but the physiological effects of code-switching on individuals. "When we force individuals to code-switch when it doesn't come natural to them, it's now a stressor," Durkee said. "It's a stress we're putting on people from marginalized identities, and that should be on the professional radar."

Given that many people alter their behaviors in order to fit in or advance professionally, the ability to code-switch is actually a skill set—one that can be developed and mastered to the point where one does it subconsciously, according to Tatum and Durkee.

"First you have to read the room, understand the audience, and then pick up on those cues quickly enough to demonstrate those cues, and make it appear authentic," Durkee said. "Your audience can evaluate you more negatively for 'trying too hard' if not done effectively."

Neither Tatum nor Durkee consider code-switching harmful if done at will—rather than as a means of survival or personal advancement. In other words, if code-switching becomes a subconscious behavior, the mental health risks could be minimized.

Still, why a person code-switches depends on whether their environment encourages a strict assimilating culture or fosters diversity and difference. "Trying to find common ground with others is not harmful by itself," Tatum said. "It becomes harmful if you have to deny your own sense of identity in order to do so."

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