Code-switching is more common than you might think. In fact, it’s very likely that you do it a lot without realizing it.
The ‘phone voice’ is a classic example of code-switching - answering an unknown number with a more ‘refined’, accessible, or generally less culturally-specific accent or way of speaking than you would use for someone you knew. But it happens a lot in other situations, too.
Code-switching in the workplace is extremely common, especially if your workplace has people from a diverse mix of cultural and economic backgrounds. But what does this mean for your workplace? Are there benefits to code-switching? What are the drawbacks for your employees?
Let’s take a look.
Code-switching occurs when someone switches from one way of speaking to another. This can be as extreme as changing language mid-sentence or as mild as switching out informal phrasings for more formal ones.
Although the theory often focuses on linguistic changes, it can also be understood as changes in behavior depending on a situation.
For example, it can refer to people who mix languages whilst speaking, as you would find in a multi-lingual household. But, it can also refer to someone who maybe plays down their accent or behaves completely differently in an environment where they’re the minority and want to fit in.
As with everything, code-switching in the workplace is a nuanced topic. Let’s explore the pros and cons in more detail.
Code-switching is often a good thing. Here are a few of the benefits of code-switching in the workplace:
Humans are a diverse bunch. That’s one of the best things about us. But it’s important that we can communicate with each other outside of our cultural/linguistic groups.
Code-switching helps employees from different countries, cultures, and socio-economic backgrounds to communicate with one another and gain rapport without losing their own unique cultural identities.
The ability to code-switch can bring opportunities both for individual employees and businesses. Having team members who are able to work with different people with different languages, cultures, and backgrounds can open up new possibilities when it comes to new clients, markets, and customers.
These benefits are often rewarded through things like the bilingual pay differential for employees who can switch between different languages. This is because businesses can take advantage of their employee's different backgrounds to expand their client rapport and market knowledge.
Ultimately making code-switchers fantastic for growing your network and gaining contacts and opportunities from all over the world.
Code-switching is often about fitting in. Team members adjust and accept each other to create a common ground and bond over mutual similarities, helping to build a positive culture and boost morale.
It’s also great for facilitating communication within multi-lingual workplaces and creating more flexible environments. As code-switching is encouraged, it can help foster a workplace culture where various languages and ways of speaking are accepted and people are able to communicate freely.
The enhanced communication from code-switching and multiple languages also strengthens team connections and camaraderie, as well as providing cognitive benefits. All of this is great for employee satisfaction and morale.
When there’s code-switching in the workplace, it usually means you’ve inherently got a team of different backgrounds and viewpoints. This is something that is great for innovation, whilst people may work to emphasize their similarities as a team, they’re also able to draw upon their individual strengths.
Differences can lead to new ways of approaching a problem, new insights, and a better chance of spotting issues earlier. On top of this, code-switching often means that these ideas and solutions can be conveyed more effectively depending on the context–whether it’s a stakeholder meeting or a team huddle.
So, code-switching in the workplace can result in a mentally flexible workforce who are able to provide and understand a diverse range of viewpoints.
Code-switching can help people communicate effectively, feel comfortable within a variety of social situations, and bridge cultural gaps between employees.
People like to feel heard and understood. Code-switching can facilitate that. It can also strengthen bonds between employees of different backgrounds.
All of this is great for building a confident workforce in which nobody is afraid to speak up with their contribution and get involved.
Code-switching can also cause problems. Here are some ways that code-switching can be detrimental to your workplace:
Code-switching can perpetuate stereotypes. Some employees may code-switch because they fear being stereotyped for their natural way of speaking. If this is reinforced in the workplace, it simultaneously reinforces the feeling that specific ways of speaking aren’t acceptable just because they aren’t the norm.
Nobody should feel forced to code-switch because negative stereotypes are attached to their natural accent, dialect, language, or general presentation. Forcing code-switching like this perpetuates and reinforces such negative stereotypes, and that can be a serious DEI issue.
Code-switching isn’t effortless. While a lot of us do it without thinking, it can also exert a considerable toll.
When some employees are required to code-switch more or in more extreme ways than others, this can create both uneven expectations and an unfair amount of pressure on certain employees.
This is particularly concerning when (as is often the case) those required to code-switch in more intense ways are from marginalized or under-represented groups. This adds an extra level of pressure for employees who may already have had to work harder than members of the dominant group to achieve their position.
Code-switching is a natural occurrence and can be a useful way of building connections in the workplace. But, when it involves people working too hard to fit in it can put them at risk of burnout. If this is the case, you’ll need to consider implementing regular training sessions to create awareness and place the focus back on the positives.
Training is costly, both in time and money. While you can use things like business spend management software to find the budget for this training, it’s harder to find the time and effectively change a negative culture.
The lesson here is to continuously foster a culture that embraces differences and acknowledges the difficulties associated with code-switching. This will avoid any potential burnout or the need for dramatic culture changes.
Code-switching can facilitate communication and help your employees to appear more professional. But there’s a risk that this professionalism becomes a mask that inhibits authenticity.
Authenticity is a valuable trait in any employee. What’s more, the ability to be your authentic self at work is important for avoiding burnout and having job satisfaction.
While there’s often a balancing act between professionalism and authenticity, sacrificing too much authenticity through code-switching can be bad for your employees and your business.
When there are a lot of languages and dialects in use in your workplace, it’s easy for misunderstandings to arise.
Mismatched terminology can cause a lot of miscommunication. Similarly, phrases or modes of speech that are normal and friendly in one dialect/culture could sound aggressive or unfriendly in another.
In a code-switching workplace, it’s important to make sure that linguistic and cultural misunderstandings don’t become a problem by creating a culture of open communication and mutual respect.
So, code-switching has as many drawbacks as benefits. How can you make sure that your workplace gets the pros without the cons?
Here are some strategies for effective code-switching:
Code-switching is all about context. To get it right, it’s important to recognize when different behaviors and languages are appropriate and necessary.
For example, it’s not unreasonable to expect employees to look smart and professional and not use curse words during shareholder meetings. But during after-work drinks or in any more informal context, there’s really no need to police language and presentation beyond a certain point.
Similarly, when an employee from overseas is anxious about fitting in, using slang they wouldn’t understand isn’t very inclusive. Code-switching so they can understand is appropriate in this context.
Code-switching is often a big part of communicative competence. People code-switch to communicate effectively across socio-cultural gaps and in differing contexts.
But by fostering good communication competence across your workforce, you can increase understanding in general. Teach your workforce how to communicate with and understand one another without the need for extreme code-switching.
This could involve providing plenty of context for assignments, using different communication styles, providing infographics, and more.
A lot of the negative impacts of code-switching stem from basic cultural misunderstandings. For example, people may code-switch to avoid negative stereotypes. There is no need to do this if those stereotypes are dispelled through cultural understanding.
If you encourage cultural understanding, you can get rid of the negative reasons why people might code-switch, as well as improve communication, rapport, and understanding in general.
Strong DEI initiatives are great for fostering good communication and cultural understanding. A diverse workforce helps to break up the dominant culture and make the need for code-switching less urgent. At the same time, it helps minority employees feel confident and comfortable in being their authentic selves.
A diverse workforce is also great for promoting communication competence across cultural and linguistic barriers. So, if you lack a diverse workforce, consider putting in some DEI initiatives to encourage diversity and inclusion.
Tech can help with many workplace challenges, and code-switching is no different. Tech can help you to bridge communication gaps and avoid problems related to linguistic misunderstanding.
For example, having people from multiple language groups operating your order processing software isn’t an issue if that software has inbuilt translation abilities. Similarly, you can use automation to do things like data entry and organization, which might otherwise cause problems if they involve language mistakes or misunderstandings.
At its best, code-switching in the workplace promotes cultural understanding, rapport across socio-economic divides, greater innovation, expanded business networks, more opportunities, better teamwork, and much more.
But it’s very important not to overstep the mark between positive cross-cultural communication and the issues code-switching can create, such as masking one’s authentic self.
So, when considering code-switching in the workplace, be sure to think carefully about how you are going to encourage the positives of code-switching, and tackle any negative aspects it may have.