Social Class in the Workplace: Exploring Multilevel Code-switching

Image of multiple people speaking, using letters from a variety of alphabets.

Image copyright 2009 by Tobias Mikkelsen (http:/www.tobiasmik.dk). 

Code-switching is a practice that is well documented - both what it is and how it affects different groups (see Code Switch: NPR and the Bibliography of code-switching) and refers to the practice of  alternating between different languages or methods of expressing ourselves in conversation and in our everyday actions as well. Code-switching is something that to an extent, everyone does. For some it’s much more obvious and prominent, but for others, it may just be a slight change in how they approach different situations and contexts. For individuals that are required to code-switch consistently in one interaction and on various levels, the act of code-switching can be particularly exhausting and it's this key difference that I want to explore today. 

Before I launch into why it’s not only important to acknowledge code-switching, but also why people may feel obligated to code-switch, let’s watch this video, which provides a good example of what multilevel code-switching may look like:

When You Code Switch at Work

When viewing this video from a more critical standpoint, it was clear to me that the video showcased how an individual must act accordingly in order to feel accepted in different communities. When the actress in the video says hi to her friend standing by the drinks, she draws on their shared Black culture, when speaking with a fellow Latinx, she switches to a standard Dominican greeting, and by the time we get to the final scene, the actress not only changes the variation of English she uses, but she also draws on an activity that they may share - hiking. 

People code-switch for different reasons. NPR’s Code Switch, which I mentioned earlier, asked readers to send in their stories of code-switching. From that data, they mapped out 5 reasons why people code-switch:

We do it subconsciously → Have you ever replied to your work friends’ email differently than other colleagues? It happens.

We want to fit in → See above video. The hosts of What Had Happened Was, note that code switching isn't just about trying to fit in into something that you're not, but also trying to fit into what people perceive you as. This is an important distinction to make and an added layer that influences the use of code-switching. 

We want to get something → This was brought up primarily in service industries, where people may feel more comfortable with you if you’re able to code-switch successfully. In my case, when I worked in a public library, I would call many of our older Spanish speaking patrons “Don” and Doña”, which really just means “Mr.” and “Mrs.” but can be more endearing than “Señor” and “Señora.”

We want to say something in secret → This was related to switching between languages. However, language is only one aspect of code-switching.

It helps us convey a thought → This was also related to switching between languages, but also made note that some languages may have words for things or feelings that do not exist or are not as accurate in another language. Example: The japanese word shouganai (しょうがない) has no English equivalent. But, it can be best translated as “It can’t be helped” and ultimately relates to accepting the things that we can’t control.

Overall, there will be different levels at which we all code-switch. For some, coming into our workplace - an R1 library -  requires small adjustments, but for others, their entire demeanor changes when it’s time to come into work. In her Ted talk, The Cost of Code Switching, Chandra Arthur explains how the ability to code-switch ultimately is a survival tactic, as the ability to "fit into" different communities affects whether or not you are able dispel often harmful stereotypes that may affect the outcome of a promotion, meeting, or a more serious situation. 

For me, the first six months I spent in Ann Arbor were extremely difficult. While everything I did in the library was interesting and everyone was very welcoming, when the day ended and I headed back home, it  never felt like I had left my workplace. This was because I felt obligated to keep up my code-switching as I moved through my neighborhood. I have heard many people say that U-M and Ann Arbor tend to meld into one and I felt that acutely. To an extent, I still do. 

Ann Arbor is primarily a city of highly educated people, who generally earn a good income. My current salary makes me the highest earner in my immediate family - I earn more than my parents ever have in any one job during their lifetimes with my first full-time post-grad job. The reality of this is hard to grapple with sometimes. For this reason, among others, code-switching becomes something I feel I must do rather than something that is a choice. While I have met a wonderful group of people with whom I don’t feel obligated to code-switch and as a result, I also feel more comfortable not code-switching even while at work, I know that this is a privilege not everyone enjoys. 

I will admit however, that even when speaking Spanglish with colleagues, I still codeswitch on some level. The Spanish that I grew up speaking is riddled with slang and tied to the linguistic roots of Southern Mexico. So even when I do speak Spanish at the workplace, I code-switch. Because the language that I learned growing up is tied more closely to Mixtec languages. For example, “croquis” instead of “mapa (map)”, or “catafixiar” instead of “intercambiar” (to exchange).

Code-switching can happen at various levels at one time, from appearance to linguistic choices to mannerisms. In a room of diverse individuals, people code-switch on multiple levels consistently within one conversation. The fact that someone code-switches with you is not a marker that they're not comfortable with you. While level of comfortability can certainly be a factor, as noted above, people choose to code-switch for various reasons, and for some, it happens automatically. 

What can we do to stop people from code-switching? Well, to an extent, I think it will always be around. But I also think it's good to be aware of it if you aren't already and recognize that for example, when I use words like "shall"  or "meta" in conversation, I'm code-switching at one of the highest levels I can. It also can be helpful to try and rid yourself of too much jargon, as it can be intimating for people who do not understand to ask what something means multiple times in a conversation. The most draining type of code-switching ultimately happens when I'm trying my best to understand and connect with someone, but they're not trying on their end to adjust their approach to connect with and understand me. This is something I myself want to improve on as well and I encourage others to think about ways they can improve their approach too!

Comments and sharing your own stories with code-switching are encouraged, and you are more than welcome to post anonymously.  This is the first of a series of posts grappling with issues of social class in the workplace, the next of which will focus on visual signs of wealth on campus. 

2 Comments

Carol Shannon
on Dec. 20, 10:52am

Thanks for a very thoughtful post, Sheila. Here's an example that's a type of the first kind of code switching that you mention. In this case, I think that it was all about hierarchy. In a department where I was working, a student worker came to me because she had had what she thought was a very good idea of how to improve processes in the Admin office. She had talked to one of the associate deans and he didn't respond positively and she didn't understand. My suggestion was that she should try again, but use email. That way he would be looking at the suggestion and not at her. It's very easy for people to dismiss ideas that come from unexpected places - in this case, an undergrad - so he may not have even listened very well. Since the student didn't want to try again, a few days later, I dropped in on the dean mentioned that I'd heard about this idea, and wondered if it might be useful. He accepted the suggestion from me (at that time a grad student, but an older grad student with lots of work experience). The dean was a very nice man. All of us were white, with somewhat similar backgrounds, so the most reasonable explanation was the student's status - an undergrad worker who we didn't expect to think about her job other than to do it.

Sheila Garcia
on Dec. 20, 11:38am

Hi Carol, Definitely, when switching over to email there was code-switching involved for the student, as she would be adjusting to meet the communication methods of the dean. I understand not wanting to try again, having to code-switch can lead people to shut down at times. Thank you for your comment and for sharing this experience!

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