In the 1950s, linguist Einar Haugen coined the term “code-switch” to describe people’s ability to move between languages and dialects. Linguists explored when people code-switched, and sociologists examined why they did. Now Myles Durkee, assistant professor of psychology, and members of his lab are hoping to understand the psychological costs and benefits that come with code-switching, especially for people from marginalized backgrounds.
Toggling between identities is something we all do. . . . [S]ay you travel to a place where people speak a different language, follow different customs, and practice different beliefs. “You will probably start trying to get a sense of the lay of the land as soon as you step off the plane,” Durkee says. “As soon as you start to interact with someone, especially if they have a different identity, you intuitively try to figure out how to fit in and find common ground.”
The experience is not unlike that of a person of color negotiating a predominantly white culture. “When people temporarily alter or adjust their behaviors to optimize the comfort of others, and, perhaps, to achieve a desired outcome, that’s the code-switching we study in the lab,” explains Richard Smith II, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Psychology and a member of Durkee’s lab. “It can mean changing one’s hairstyle or style of speech, going by a different name, or downplaying aspects of one’s cultural or racial identity to proactively avoid being stereotyped in a negative way.”
There are a lot of incentives for learning to do this, Durkee says, and there is a lot at stake. “The inequality gap is one example,” Durkee says. “If your physical phenotype happens to conjure up feelings of prejudice and fear in others, being able to skillfully code-switch might also help you survive by managing the impressions others make about stigmatized groups.
“If you have a marginalized identity, choosing whether to code-switch is no light decision because the modified behaviors you present to others have to be fully convincing. It has to be all or nothing,” Durkee continues. “To effectively code-switch, you can’t switch only some traits and not others. You have to change your entire behavioral profile to successfully convince people that your code-switching behaviors are in fact your ‘natural behaviors.’ To sustain this performance while still completing the full responsibilities of a student or employee can be incredibly demanding and physically exhausting.”