How to navigate the art of code-switching at work

Code-switching is more than just a linguistic phenomenon; it’s a dynamic expression of identity, culture, and survival. Code-switching is a nuanced and multifaceted practice that goes beyond merely shifting between languages. It’s about adapting to different spaces, communities, and expectations while preserving one’s authenticity. As a Black executive, I know the significance, challenges, and power it holds.

I identify as a Black, queer, Gen X, American woman. Code-switching based on your identity can be universal, but I’m going to focus on code-switching as a Black person in corporate environments because I have spent 100% of my career doing it. I personally haven’t had to spend a significant amount of my time code-switching because I’m queer (I live in the largely queer-friendly Bay Area), or a member of Gen X, or a woman—even when I’ve been the only woman in the room. In my experience, race has always been the differentiator and has always impacted expectations of how I show up, act, and talk in a given space.

To better understand nuances of code-switching at work, you need to understand the different layers of code-switching. 

The layers of code-switching

Language Code-Switching: Code-switching often begins with language. Many Black Americans may switch between African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Standard American English (SAE). Black people from across the diaspora may oscillate between their mother tongue and SAE. This linguistic versatility allows them to connect with various social circles while maintaining their cultural roots.

Cultural Code-Switching: Beyond language, Black people navigate a complex web of cultural code-switching. They may adapt their mannerisms, hairstyles, and clothing choices to suit different environments. This cultural chameleon-like ability is both a form of self-expression and a defense mechanism against stereotypes and biases.

Professional Code-Switching: In the workplace, Black people often engage in professional code-switching. This involves modifying speech and behavior to conform to corporate norms. It’s a survival tactic in environments that may not always appreciate the richness of diverse cultural backgrounds or that lean into stereotypical tropes.

Socioeconomic Code-Switching: Socioeconomic factors also play a role in code-switching. Black people may need to switch between social and economic contexts, adapting their communication styles to fit different situations. This adaptability is a testament to our resilience.

Adaptability and resilience are undeniably great skills to have at work. But there are many challenges that also can be associated with code-switching in a professional environment. 

Data about code-switching

According to a recent survey from Indeed, Black people are more likely to think code-switching is necessary in the workplace (44%) compared to all respondents.

At the same time, more than half of Black respondents felt they had good BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) representation in leadership in their company. It appears that there is a correlation between having good representation in the workplace and implementing DEI initiatives, since 74% of respondents who said they had good BIPOC representation in leadership also said their company implemented DEI programs.

However, this does not curb the feeling that code-switching is necessary. In fact, those who said their company had good BIPOC representation in leadership and DEI initiatives were more likely to think that code-switching is necessary.

This may seem counterintuitive—an assumption would be that seeing BIPOC representation in leadership or having programs in the workplace that focus on DEI would lead to less code-switching, not more. However, there is so much nuance when it comes to the practice of code-switching. 

What code-switching feels like

The way I have experienced corporate environments having more diverse representation in leadership and company-wide DEI programs (which has sat in my wheelhouse for almost 20 years), does not mean I have to code-switch less. I have found that my presence as a Black leader can take the air out of the room—or breathe life into it. Not because I am queer, or over 40, or a woman, but because race and the stereotypes that go with it make even the most “well-intentioned” people uncomfortable.

When race isn’t a factor—meaning, I’m in a space where Black people are the majority of people in the room—I breathe a deep, cleansing breath. That’s rare. My body relaxes and my language has more cultural context than when I have to code-switch. If you are always in rooms where you’re not “othered,” you might not know what this feels like. But, this release feels like a salve for the soul. It feels like taking off a sweater that’s a bit too tight for comfort. It is what it feels like to truly belong.

Growing up, my father called it just being bilingual. He said, “There’s a way that you speak at home and there’s a way that you speak at work.”

He was an executive, and in one instance, the nonBlack executive who had never met my father in person was speaking badly about Black people and using derogatory terms that I won’t repeat here. My father never let on that he was, in fact, Black. Instead, he waited until they met in person for lunch the next week. He walked in with a smile, sat down calmly and said “Hi, nice to meet you in person. You were saying?”

Some people reading this might say that my father should have given the nonBlack executive a piece of his mind or that he should have stopped that person while they were on the phone. However, the way he handled that was a lesson for me in the art of code-switching—and it made a much bigger impact.

The consequences of code-switching

Code-switching can inadvertently reinforce stereotypes about Black people. When we change our behavior to be accepted in certain environments, it can perpetuate harmful preconceptions about our community. I can’t tell you the number of times I have corrected someone for saying that someone’s communication was not angry (as the angry Black woman trope goes), but direct. Often, there is nothing wrong with the message, the problem they actually have is with the messenger. This kind of bias needs constant and vigilant examination.

Code-switching can also feel like an internal dilemma in that code-switching can lead to a constant battle between authenticity and assimilation. Black people sometimes grapple with the fear of losing their true selves in the process of adapting to various spaces. The continuous effort required for code-switching can take a toll on mental and emotional well-being. It is exhausting to navigate a world where one must constantly modify their identity to fit in.

Can you imagine the collective genius, innovation, and problem-solving we’d be able to achieve if we didn’t have to code-switch? What greatness are we missing out on because code-switching is filling brain space, time, and energy?

The art of code-switching as experienced by Black people is a complex, multifaceted, and often misunderstood practice. It’s a survival tactic, a form of self-expression, and a bridge-building tool all in one. While it comes with its challenges and dilemmas, it is also a powerful means of navigating a world that may not always appreciate the richness of our identities. Code-switching is not just about changing languages; it’s about adapting and thriving in a dynamic workplace and an ever-changing society.

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