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. The higher-pitched, playful voice you use when romping around the yard with your toddler, for example, is not the authoritative tone you strike when you’re running a meeting at work. Both voices are yours, of course, and they make sense in different parts of your life.
But say 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.”
If you attempt to code-switch but are unable to do so effectively, Durkee explains, “people perceive you differently—and usually more negatively—because they realize you’re not being your real, authentic self. When people become aware that you’re changing your personality to appeal to their norms and preferences, they often feel uncomfortable by this dynamic. It comes across as pandering, which results in the exact opposite outcome you’re hoping to achieve.”
Because upper middle-class white Americans have historically held positions of power, they have set the standards for what we consider professional behavior. To get hired, to be seen as a professional, and to climb the corporate ladder, people from other backgrounds have had to behave like white upper middle-class Americans. “When employees of color code-switch, they do so to accommodate the comfort of their white colleagues by displaying the same etiquette and norms that these organizations are already accustomed to,” Durkee explains. “Essentially, underrepresented employees must often code-switch to fit into existing organizational cultures, rather than organizations changing their culture to create more inclusive spaces for employees from different cultural backgrounds. But in exchange for code-switching, employees of color are often perceived as a good cultural fit for established organizations and are more likely to be hired or promoted.”
Although code-switching may yield certain professional advantages, it doesn’t come without psychological costs. In addition to doing their job well, employees who use impression management strategies like code-switching must often distance themselves from negative stereotypes associated with their identity and work twice as hard to prove that these stereotypes are false. “There’s a real fear that if you slip up by breaking character while code-switching, other people will immediately notice,” Durkee says. “And if you slip up or break character too often, people will become suspicious about who you really are and begin to see you as inauthentic or less trustworthy.
“For people who intentionally code-switch in school or workplace environments, they experience a heightened stress response,” he continues, “and it’s accompanied by a degree of self-doubt about their code-switching ability: ‘Am I doing it right? Is it working? Should I continue this performance?’ All of this occurs while these individuals simultaneously perform their regular duties and responsibilities. Over time, this becomes a significant emotional and cognitive burden.”
When Durkee’s research team asked Black professionals to self-report on their code-switching experiences, they found that code-switching was heavily associated with vigilance (i.e., anticipating discrimination or negative treatment) and workplace burnout (i.e., severe feelings of depletion or exhaustion). Black professionals who frequently code-switched and worked in organizations where Black people were severely underrepresented reported much higher rates of vigilance and burnout—both of which are strong predictors of employee turnover. “The connection between being severely underrepresented, feeling pressure to code-switch, and experiencing more vigilance and burnout is a very common scenario that applies to many employees in today’s workforce,” Durkee says. “And it’s one that a lot of organizations and companies may not be aware of.”
Code-switching isn’t something people decide to do all of a sudden. It’s a skillset that takes years of experience to perfect. People begin to develop this skillset at a young age and then refine it throughout their lives. People who become particularly skilled at code-switching also become vulnerable to what Durkee’s lab calls “cultural invalidations.”
”In our race and ethnicity research, we look at how people’s cultural authenticity can be challenged or discredited by people both inside and outside of their ethnic group—like accusing someone of not being ‘Black enough,’ or ‘Latin enough,’ or ‘Asian enough’ if they don’t fit the prototypical norms or characteristics of their ethnic group,” he explains. “And for almost every ethnic minority group, when a member does not fit the prototypical norms, there’s a common tendency to accuse them of ‘acting white.’”
In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois coined the phrase double consciousness, which he defined as the “peculiar sensation…of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others.” More than 100 years after Du Bois named the experience, this internal schism persists.
“As researchers, we give a lot of thought to creating more inclusive environments where people don’t feel pressured to code-switch,” Durkee says. “Unfortunately, I don’t foresee an immediate future in which we can fully eliminate this pressure. Stereotypes evolve very slowly and they are difficult to change in our society.”
“But understanding the strategies people use in these spaces is a good place to start to help improve these environments and make them more inclusive,” Smith says. “One of the important things to take away from this research is the fact that we need to change what we define as ‘normal.’”
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