Belonging is a basic human instinct; we are herd animals after all. As such, we have developed an essential survival technique of adjusting the way we speak or act to ensure we “fit” into different environments – a technique that has evolved to ensure survival in society and the professional world.

This change in behaviour is known as “code-switching”. While it once referred specifically to linguistics, where a speaker alternates between two or more languages within a single conversation, code-switching has expanded to describe the way we adapt our behaviour, mannerisms, speech patterns and even voices to suit different settings.

Code-switching is primarily utilised by those from marginalised groups, both consciously and unconsciously. And the fact that many people code-switch without realising sadly highlights the true insidiousness of the biases that run through our communities.

Examples of code-switching include:

  • A black person toning down their personality in meetings so they are not perceived as loud or aggressive, adjectives less likely to bestowed on their white counterparts.
  • A person deciding to eat a sandwich rather than bring traditional food from their culture into the office.
  • An LGBTQ person changing their voice and mannerisms to be more masculine or feminine in an attempt to act more “straight” in front of their colleagues.
  • A woman who works at a predominantly male company changing her language and jargon to fit in with the Old Boy’s Club.

This is, of course, complicated further by intersectionality, where a person belongs to more than one marginalised group, such as being black and gay.

Why is code-switching so problematic?

Code-switching is a shield wielded by marginalised groups against systemic inequalities. While it may ward off initial attacks, code-switching comes at a long-term psychological cost. It can be exhausting and demoralising to feel as though you have to hide or adjust parts of your true self day in, day out. It also reduces authentic self-expression, creativity and ideas, and can lead to burnout.

What can be done about it?

To understand why certain employees may feel the need to code-switch, here are a few things you can do:

Tackle under-representation – Those from minority groups may feel pressure to make adjustments if there is a problem with under-representation in their workplace; it makes their cultural “differences” more noticeable. Ensuring people from different groups are represented at all levels of your business will help re-balance the company’s cultural norms.

Evaluate your company’s inclusivity – Even with increased diversity, if everyone doesn’t feel the need – or ability – to be their true selves, then code-switching will continue. Take a look at what your company is doing and ask your people what they want to ensure everyone feels valued and accepted.

Check your own biases – As a leader, it’s important to analyse if your own biases may be contributing to someone’s need to code-switch. For example, have you ever noticed if you prefer a black colleague’s hair when it is straight rather than in a natural style? Why do you feel that way? You should be curious about your own inherent thoughts and feelings rather than ask others to explain their differences.

Are you code-switching? – Are you hiding or downplaying a part of yourself while in the workplace? By revealing more of your true self, you may encourage others to do the same.

If you want to learn more about tackling code-switching and how to apply these principles to your workplace, talk to us at Tell Jane. Contact me directly by emailing lisa@telljane.co.uk.

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