Code-switching, or dialect switching, is something that happens naturally for many people, especially those who are Black, Indigenous, or a Person of Color (BIPOC).
Although code-switching isn’t necessary for every BIPOC, many still choose to do it, whether it’s for their own gain or whether they feel pressured to do so.
However, code-switching can be exhausting and may lead to feelings of abandonment of yourself or your culture. Learning to recognize the signs of this exhaustion may help you know when to reach out for help.
Code-switching is the act of switching between one language or dialect to another, depending on the social context or your environment.
Code-switching can also be used to describe switching other cultural habits based on your environment, like the way you might greet someone.
For instance, in certain cultures, greeting someone with a kiss on the cheek is not uncommon. However, in other cultures, a kiss on the cheek might be seen as impolite. A person within that “cheek-kissing” culture may code-switch to a less culturally sensitive greeting — such as a handshake — in a different setting.
Sometimes, people even code-switch within their own cultures. Black people, for example, often switch up cultural norms in settings with others who are not Black.
In Black culture, a typical handshake might be a “dap”— a greeting where two people interlock their hands and follow up with a chest bump. But if greeting someone who is not Black, the person might use a regular handshake.
Code-switching also happens when someone who is bilingual or bi-dialectal uses their first language or dialect with family and friends, but switches to using Standard English (SE) when speaking to those outside of their communities or in settings like at school or work.
Jameta Nicole Barlow, PhD, MPH, community health psychologist and assistant professor of writing at The George Washington University, simplifies code-switching by saying, “There is how we speak and operate within our home versus how we speak with our family and our friends versus how we speak with people who are outside of our home.”
In essence, we all code-switch in one way or another — whether that takes form in the way we think, behave, or speak — based on where we are and who we’re around.
Linguists have been studying code-switching for decades, and according to research, there are several reasons people code-switch, such as when:
- shifting between formal and informal conversations
- unifying with group members in certain settings
- exerting control
Code-switching in different conversation settings
Many times, code-switching happens when a person is in a formal or professional setting. You may feel pressured to switch your language and habits when you’re in class or at work.
This can be as simple as changing the habitual “be” from the African American Vernacular English (AAVE), also called Black English, dialect in the sentence “I be calculating budgets at work,” to the SE dialect “I sometimes calculate budgets while at work.”
AAVE is a dialect that has been around for decades and was initially created by enslaved Africans in America who were not allowed to use their native languages and were forced to learn English instead.
According to Dr. Barlow, “When we’re thinking about Black people, our native tongue was stolen. When you consider that there were native tongues of multiple people, [the languages and dialects] all became one.”
Code-switching to fit in a group
In many cases, code-switching is done simply to fit in. This type of code-switch may happen subconsciously or consciously.
If you code-switch between formal and informal settings, you might do so because you’re in an environment where your culture is different than those around you.
This may cause you to code-switch to help you feel more at ease in your setting.
In other cases, you might switch to your first language or dialect for comfort. For example, when two Black people greet each other, they may naturally use their AAVE dialect, regardless of the setting they’re in since this dialect is a way in which they relate and connect to one another.
Code-switching as a survival skill
Historically, there has been a stereotype that people who do not speak SE as a first language or dialect are less intelligent than those who do. This stereotype often affects People of Color, Black people, and first-, second-, and third-generation immigrants.
The 1903 book, “The Souls of Black Folk,” written by the late civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois, spoke about Black people surviving by highlighting the need for Black Americans to recognize their double-consciousness, or the two parts of their identity: their Blackness and their “Americanness” — or how they were viewed by white Americans.
DuBois believed that college-educated Black men who fit into the idea of what Americanness was at that time were the best fit to lead their communities and guide the rest of their communities away from their norms to survive in society.
“DuBois talked about double-consciousness, and that’s what code-switching is now,” Dr. Barlow adds. “You had to, for your survival, exhibit that double-consciousness.”
Survival by code-switching is a skill that has been passed down throughout generations, and code-switching itself has survived because people still use it as a survival skill.
During the time that DuBois wrote his book, American politics were very different. However, some people still believe that BIPOC people, in particular, must show more “Americanness” to be accepted.
“For some people today, their survival requires them to code-switch,” says Dr. Barlow. “If you’re a Black person, and you live in a heavily policed area, you’re going to have to act a certain way.”
Because of this, many people may even feel the need to code-switch at work, school, and around their white peers and colleagues, and may still feel the need to stray away from cultural habits to get ahead and to avoid feeling imposter syndrome.
When it comes to imposter syndrome and code-switching, Dr. Barlow adds that “it certainly makes sense that if you don’t feel like you belong where you are, you might participate in some code-switching, and there might be a bidirectional relationship between the two.”
She also adds that to help curb the feelings of imposter syndrome, “I would encourage people to really understand that you belong here, you belong where you are.”
As much as you may feel the need to code-switch, you may also feel exhausted from code-switching, or you may feel a sense of abandonment from your culture. You may have even heard someone say that you’re “acting white” which a 2019 study says could cause psychological implications over time.
“When you cannot be your true and authentic self, there’s going to be some blowback,” Dr. Barlow believes.
She also adds, “There isn’t enough research done on Black people to make an assessment. But with our rates of [mental health conditions], they are either misdiagnosed, under-diagnosed or over-diagnosed depending on what conditions you’re looking at, and the fact that that happens tells me that we’re constantly navigating these social exposures in interesting ways that are detrimental to our health.”
Code-switching and work performance
One 2015 review shows that actively trying to avoid stereotypes can hinder work performance over time.
Another much older 2009 study suggests that when historically marginalized groups or populations “wear the cloak,” or conform to fit into settings, that can lead to feeling a sense of abandonment from their own norms and eventually lead to burnout.
Some symptoms of burnout can include:
- emotional exhaustion
- feelings of detachment
- high levels of irritability
- high levels of dissatisfaction
- lower work performance
- lower sense of accomplishment
Code-switching and emotions
Dr. Barlow adds, “When code-switching, we put up protective barriers because we don’t want to reveal certain parts of ourselves. When you find yourself in an emotionally heightened situation, those barriers may be lowered.”
A 2012 paper exploring the use of code-switching to manage emotional situations found that when code switchers are put into stressful situations, continuing to code-switch can create anxiety and intensify the stress of the switcher.
There are several ways we can decrease the stress levels of those who code-switch. Some of those include:
- being inclusive
- checking our own biases
- avoiding cultural appropriation
- recognizing dialects like AAVE and hybrid languages
Dr. Barlow also adds the importance of making structural changes within society to avoid the need to code-switch.
“We need to eliminate the systems of oppression so there’s no perceived threat, and people feel like they can be themselves,” she says. “If we don’t actively address those systems at a larger societal level and also within our companies, things won’t change.”
If you are a person who code-switches often and finds yourself feeling overwhelmed, burned out, or exhausted, it’s important to know you’re not alone and help is available.
You can start by talking with someone you trust. You can also talk with your family doctor, if you have one. They can refer you to a mental health professional, if needed.
There are also resources dedicated to providing mental health and wellness services to the BIPOC community. You can find a list of those resources by visiting our page: Mental Health Resources for People of Color and Indigenous People.
Code-switching can be helpful to get ahead, but it can also be challenging for some people.
It’s important to keep in mind that you should not have to code-switch, but if you choose to, it’s not uncommon to feel exhausted from time to time.
If you feel too exhausted or overwhelmed, consider reaching out to a mental health professional, either online or face-to-face.
The Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) is the first nonprofit organization founded by Black women to protect and advance the health and well-being of Black women and girls. Learn more about BWHI by going to www.bwhi.org.