From the Breakroom to the Boardroom: Understanding Code Switching at Work

CoachHub · 20 February 2023 · 7 min read

Whether we realise it or not, most people unconsciously have a different voice for different occasions. A more common example is the “phone voice.” That subtle change in tone and diction when you pick up the phone before you know who’s on the other end. Most people present themselves differently depending on the situation and the people we’re interacting with. We have different behaviours for work, home, family or friends.

The way you speak to your childhood best friend is always vastly different to how you speak to a superior at work. The name for this change is known as code switching. For some people, it is unconscious and for others, it is a necessity. It is important to be aware of these changes at work because they can affect our mental and psychological safety whether we realise it or not.

In the workplace, it is important to be able to communicate succinctly, using the right terms and behaviours. The importance of code switching is better understood when you remember that communication isn’t always about what is said. Half of communication is dependent on how you say things – your body language and tone can vastly affect the meaning of your words. This is why it is important to be conscious of code switching in the workplace.

In this article, we take a dive into how code switching affects our interactions with coworkers and partners in the workplace. The goal is to foster a deeper understanding of how code switching can help professionals navigate cultural differences and advance their careers.

code switching

What is Code Switching?

Code-switching was originally used by Lucy Shepard Freeland, the author of the 1951 book, Language of the Sierra Miwok. Since then, it has evolved in academic circles and several researchers use code switching in reference to a switch between different languages, styles or dialects. In recent times, a clear example of code switching is seen among those who speak African American Vernacular English as their speaking style switches depending on the formality of the situation.

In linguistic studies, code switching is also known as language alternation and is used to refer to a phenomenon where a speaker goes between two or more languages or dialects within a situation. Although they’re often misused interchangeably, code switching is not the same as plurilingualism as the latter is the ability to comprehend and use different languages.

Code switching is the use of different languages together or within the same context. People who can speak many languages (multilinguals) are known to mix elements of different languages when speaking together. Code switching is the act of using different linguistic elements together.

People switch codes for different reasons. Sometimes it is unconscious and at other times, it can be a deliberate process. The main reason why people started to code switch was to be able to fit in. It helps people present a different identity depending on the situation they are in. Adaptability is a core part of the human experience and code switching is one of many ways the human brain tries to adapt to different situations and circumstances.

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Examples of Code Switching in the Workplace

In professional settings, it is not uncommon to see people code switch often. In fact, code switching is essential for certain professions and roles as the kind of language you use can have a great effect on workplace relationships.

Switching between professional and casual language

Workers are known to use different language styles for different instances. For example, the way you speak to your coworkers is very different from the way you speak to your superior. You may be able to use jocular language when talking to a coworker you’re familiar with but you’d most likely not be comfortable using that same language with a team leader or a superior. Sometimes, you may not even be aware of the change.

Adapting communication style based on audience

This is another common example of code shifting in the workplace. The kind of audience you’re faced with affects your speaking style more often than you realise. The way you speak when carrying out a work presentation is always different from the way you speak to your family at home. One is bound to be more formal than the other.

Adjusting behaviour to fit in with coworkers or clients

We are more likely to see examples of these in roles that require interpersonal relationships. From time immemorial, one common way that companies try to sell their products is by using language tailored to their audience. Companies have always been known to use language that is utilised by their target audience to market their products and services.

 

The Benefits and Challenges of Code Switching

Code switching has different applications and advantages, but like most things, it also has its cons.

Benefits of Code Switching

Code switching is important in the workplace because it can help in building better communication among workers. People are more likely to relax when you speak their language. It increases the likelihood of developing a more cordial relationship, not to mention that people are more likely to offer career advancement opportunities to people they trust.

Being able to code switch efficiently in the workplace has been known to open doors and expose people to better opportunities for growth and development.

Challenges of Code Switching

Perhaps the main challenge with code switching is the way it makes it difficult to strike a balance between authenticity and professionalism. At what point do you stop being yourself in a bid to appear “professional.”

Another problem with code switching is that it inadvertently propagates stereotypes. One main reason why people code switch at work is that they do not want to appear unprofessional so they “hide” themselves behind different languages. In the long run, this does more harm than good.

It is also very exhausting to continuously put on a facade, especially when it is done out of fear. People are more likely to experience burnout due to the mental and psychological stress that comes with consciously code switching all the time.

 

How to Effectively Code Switch in the Workplace

Code switching is relatively easy once you understand how and when to do it. It is not necessary to code switch at all times, you just need to know when it is appropriate.

Understanding the cultural context

You need to have an understanding of the historical and cultural context of certain language styles before you use them. This makes it easy for you to know the appropriate way to use them.

Building self-awareness and emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence plays a core role in dictating how you speak to people. It determines how well you can communicate the meaning behind your words so that your intentions are not misunderstood. A very helpful way of building emotional intelligence is by becoming more self aware. This puts you in a better position to learn different communication styles and how to apply them to build better relationships, both in personal and professional settings.

Practising effective communication skills

The importance of being able to communicate properly cannot be overemphasised. As said earlier, communication is not just about what is said, it is also a measure of how you say things, your body language and your tone. By practising these things often, you develop a stronger ability to make your intentions clear even when you code switch.

Seeking feedback and learning from mistakes

No one is perfect, least of all at communication and code switching. It takes consistent practise and learning from one’s mistakes before you get to a point where you can communicate with different people efficiently. One of the best ways of doing this is by asking for honest feedback and being willing to sit and learn from your mistakes. There’s no point to practising if you’re not going to at least recognise your mistakes.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, how far we go in the workplace is sometimes dependent on the kinds of relationships we build along the way. A big part of building relationships is language and communication. Speaking to people in a way they understand and appreciate will do more for your career than you realise.

We live in a very diverse world with different people from various backgrounds and cultures. As you go into work everyday, there’s a very strong likelihood that you’ll interact with someone from a different background. Code switching can help you figure out how best to communicate with them and be respectful.

For professionals hoping to improve their code switching skills, the best thing to do is to ask questions and be willing to learn. It becomes easier to communicate with people when they know that you are interested in learning about their culture and means of communication. You’d also be building stronger workplace relationships and creating a healthy workplace culture for you and your coworkers.

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Samuel Olawole
Samuel Olawole is a freelance copywriter and content writer who specialises in creating exciting content across a wide range of topics and industries. When he’s not writing, you can find him travelling or listening to good music.

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