How code-switching has changed the game of communication

By Anna Schmader
October 14, 2021

Code-switching is both a conscious and subconscious act some people do. For some, it’s a foreign concept. For others, it’s an everyday occurrence. 

There are groups of friends, cliques if you will, who meet up and hang out. That’s a natural feel, there’s no obligatory feeling to “switch” your language in order to fit in. You are part of the majority and the dialect stays. For those who don’t fit into the majority may feel like they have to “switch” the way they speak or hold themselves in order to ‘meet’ the majority’s level. 

This is also called code-switching. According to Health.com, “some examples of code-switching include changing your language or dialect in order to assimilate into the predominant culture.” Once explaining this several times through interviews, the concept became familiar. But that doesn’t mean they understood the weight of code-switching. 

Another definition by Health.com says, “As time went on, code-switching took on a new meaning. It now refers to any member of a marginalized or underrepresented identity adapting to the dominant environment around them in any context.” Some would agree with this takeaway. 

There are groups of friends who’re the majority and those who want to be accepted into the majority may or may not unconsciously or consciously ‘switch’ the way they speak. According to an article from NPR, “A lot of folks code-switch not just to fit in, but to actively ingratiate themselves to others.” 

By understanding the concept of code-switching, a sometimes lost idea is how it can appear as faking a personality or being weird. “When we force individuals to code-switch when it doesn’t come naturally to them, it’s now a stressor,” Health.com, said. 

Professional view

Dr. Vivian Smith, Chair and Associate Professor of Criminology. Photo by Cabrini.

Dr. Vivian Smith, chair and associate professor of the department of sociology and criminology, had her takeaway on code-switching relating to her personal experiences and the general idea. 

“Code-switching the way some sociologists and linguistics is basically this idea of switching from one identity to another,” Smith said. “Oftentimes there are many reasons why we do it… It’s like transferring your vernacular or switching the way we discuss.” She further describes one reason can be to appease the larger group which relates back to integrating yourself into the majority. 

Smith emphasized that code-switching does come in terms of language and vernacular. She said, “It’s important to understand the duality of code-switching which often times can be seen as toxic but in other ways depending on the person or depending on the situation it could actually be uplifting.” In most cases, the environment has an effect on how you present yourself. Smith mentioned if you’re in a workplace or more professional environment, “code-switching works when you have aspirations of leadership or you want to be promoted so you have to speak a certain way.” 

Looking through a different lens, gender and social class can affect whether or not someone feels the need to ‘switch.’ Smith touched on those who are from minoritized communities often code-switch. “If we are talking about policing, people might have been taught to address the police in a particular way to make sure that they’re not harmed,” Smith said. “If you come from a community that has often been marginalized so it could also be a survival tactic.”

In simpler terms, she highlighted that being in a different group you may alter your language so you talk in more complex sentences to get your words across. Knowing your audience can be the differentiator between keeping your same tone or switching it. 

Sean Snyder, a clinician supervisor at Penn Medicine, MSW and LCSW, detailed his experience watching others in his workplace code-switch.

Sean Snyder pictured with wife and dog. Photo by Instagram.

“Even the way that they (black people) dress or the hairstyles, like the natural hair movement, those kinds of things,” Snyder said. “Basically white-washing and having to go back and forth has stress behind it.”

In a way, some can perceive code-switching as fake. Snyder touched on this mentioning it can absolutely appear as being fake since you’re trying to fit into a social context. There are certain cultural conventions that people play into. Understanding the dominant culture that you aren’t part of then trying to be part of it so it can feel like you’re trying too hard.

“Code-switching is stressful and adds to your plate for folks that have to do it,” Snyder said. “That impacts access and equity.” There are higher stakes in professional settings where you could be fired. In the stages of growing into a company, you’ll present yourself differently or use certain vernacular. 

Snyder highlighted the minority stress theory. According to APA, this theory “proposes that sexual minority health disparities can be explained in large part by stressors induced by a hostile, homophobic culture, which often results in a lifetime of harassment, maltreatment, discrimination and victimization.”

Students reflection

Victoria Boland, senior digital communications and social media student, briefly touched on this subject. She mentioned code-switching, “as a way people change their mannerisms and speech to optimize the comfort of others in exchange for equal treatment.”

Understanding this, she agreed that this can be perceived as being fake since individuals may only act differently for specific groups. Boland does not feel the need to ‘switch’ since she believes individuals “can be accepted for who they are by using their own speech and personality.”

For Naim Taylor, a junior sports communication student, had a different perspective. He mentioned how he talks to his friends is way different compared to how he talks to students on-campus or especially classmates. 

“When I was an athlete, they act completely different so I felt like I had to switch,” Taylor said. He added that he can perceive code-switching as faking a personality. People can feel like “you’re putting up a front or acting fake.” 

One of his biggest frustrations is what people would think or if they noticed the ‘switching.’ Taylor feels that a lot of kids should know more about code-switching.

Anna Schmader

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