Code-switching at work: the double lives of racial minorities

What is code-switching at work & its impact on people of colour?

‘I remember calling my mum at work as a young child—she was a secretary at Nasa—and asking the person who picked up to put my mother on the line. It’s only when my mum changed her voice—“Hey baby, it’s me!”—that I realised I’d been speaking to her all along. I kind of froze at the realisation that I hadn’t recognised her—her “work voice”, that is.’


“Without us having to have a conversation about it, I understood, through witnessing my parents over time, how to code-switch…” - Dr Myles Durkee

Dr Myles Durkee, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, recalls this scene as one of his earliest exposures to “code-switching”, which, in this case, meant his mother chose to turn off her more natural African-American Vernacular English in favour of a less stigmatised way of speaking. “Without us having to have a conversation about it, I understood, through witnessing my parents over time, how to code-switch as a way of being and carrying myself in certain contexts,” he said.

We increasingly hear of code-switching, especially in the context of working life, yet it has many meanings and is lived differently from one person to the next. We spoke to several people of colour, from around the world, who shared their experiences of racial code-switching in predominantly white workplaces.

Code… what?

The term code-switching was first used by linguist Hans Vogt in 1954 to refer to the seamless switching between languages by those who are multilingual. Within linguistics, the scope has broadened to consider speech more generally, including aspects such as tone and dialect, as well as context: when do we adapt our speech and why?

Code-switching is now often used for any choice relating to the identity we put forward in different contexts—whether that choice is about sexuality, religion, race or something else. It can take many different forms. We may code-switch through speech, but also, for instance, through our clothing, behaviour or the interests we claim (not) to have.

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What’s happening in the workplace?

The workplace clearly requires some degree of code-switching from everyone. We switch our personalities, tone of voice and clothing choices between the home and the office, depending on workplace culture.

But, according to Dr Durkee, what we consider to be “professional” is ultimately “a narrow script of standards set by a white majority”. In a largely white environment, we may not just be expected to speak the dominant language, but to speak it without an accent. Clothing considered professional in a non-western culture may not be appropriate in an American or a European office. If so, having an accent or wearing unfamiliar attire can make a person of colour come across as unprofessional for reasons completely unrelated to their actual work performance and attitude.

‘It’s like you’re told, “Come as you are, but you have to be a certain way.”‘ - Miranda *

The stakes are high at work, which can put pressure on people of colour to code-switch more than most. Put bluntly, the desire—or need—for a person of colour to prove they are “just like everyone else” at work might mean downplaying parts of their identity that are tied to race. Several US studies conducted among minorities document this pressure, including surveys published by the Harvard Business Review and the Cornell Law Review. Miranda, a recent graduate, describes it as follows. ‘It’s like you’re told, “Come as you are, but you have to be a certain way.”

What do you hear?

Talking to people of colour quickly gives a sense of why code-switching was born in linguistics. I change the tone of my voice and my accent during interviews,” said Hind, a business analyst, even though she doesn’t feel the need to code-switch once hired. “I just don’t want people to start asking questions about where I’m from, from the very beginning.”

For many, the deliberate changes to speech are more permanent. “My voice plays a big role,” said Don * , a tech industry worker.

He said, “I don’t want my ‘Arab’ delivery of sentences to be a quirk [to white colleagues] because I know that in an Arab who speaks a certain way, they see someone who is likely incapable of understanding their norms.”

“Attitudes about language use are almost always attitudes about the person who speaks it.” - Dr Nilep

These experiences are in line with Dr Durkee’s findings that young Americans of colour mostly describe the “acting white” phenomenon in terms of speech—or the difference between talking the way they’re used to and “talking proper”. Dr Nilep, a sociocultural linguist at Nagoya University in Japan, elaborates, “We communicate ideas through language, but also want to send a message about ourselves or the situation, and language can be used to do that, too. Attitudes about language use are almost always attitudes about the person who speaks it.” This is certainly the case for Zeyneb * , a tech consultant.

“My former colleagues would say ‘inshallah’ and ‘mashallah’, which would make me uncomfortable. Because when I say it, I’m a caricature,” she said. These words are commonplace in the culture Zeyneb grew up in. Yet she feels uneasy using them at work and fears that colleagues’ attitudes toward her may change if she does—not because of the words themselves, but because of what they could mean to them when spoken by someone with her background.

Avoiding negative stereotypes

Even on casual Fridays, “everything about my outfit is calculated.” - Kenza *

Racial code-switching does not start and end with language. It manifests, consciously or otherwise, in many ways. Kenza, an intern in the legal field, says that like most people of colour she’s encountered at work, she “gives 200% all the time to change negative perceptions of minorities, but also because I do not want to prove a stereotype right”. Even on casual Fridays, “everything about my outfit is calculated” with this in mind.

In fact, Dr Durkee identifies avoiding negative stereotypes as one of the most commonly reported motivations behind code-switching. Zeyneb admits that she is “constantly afraid of being perceived as aggressive”. For Don, it is all about coming across as approachable. “I’m aware that to white Europeans I can seem abrupt, and that that is easily associated with my being Arab,” he said.

The consequences of stereotyping are significant. Research shows, for example, that black Americans are more likely to be seen as “leaders” if they manage to avoid negative stereotypes, whatever these may be.

“I wear my glasses more often in professional contexts than I do at home. It’s silly, but I’ve noticed white people talk to me differently when I wear them.” - Yannick

Jeansen, editor-in-chief at a radio station, is particularly worried about coming across as unintelligent: “I use fancier words than necessary to try to prove I’m smarter than most people think I am when they see me,” he said. Meanwhile, Yannick, a film student and former reporter, tries to show people he is “not from the streets”. “I’m not, but people often make that connection,” he said. He does this through the way he speaks and dresses, but also through more subtle methods. “I wear my glasses more often in professional contexts than I do at home. It’s silly, but I’ve noticed white people talk to me differently when I wear them.”

The challenge of being a ‘cultural fit’

“It’s quite clear that if you don’t integrate, you’ll be pushed aside. You swim or you sink, and I don’t want to sink. I know what the job market looks like for people like me.” - Alaric

There is also the desire to thrive. Here, too, people of colour may feel the need to put in extra effort. Alaric, a social media strategist, considers code-switching a prerequisite for progression in his large firm. “It’s quite clear that if you don’t integrate, you’ll be pushed aside. You swim or you sink, and I don’t want to sink. I know what the job market looks like for people like me,” he said.

Miranda recalls that in her most recent internship, cultural fit mattered above all else: “My boss made it known that he had a clear idea of what he wanted his employees to be.” In fact, studies show that cultural fit is “the single most important thing in the hiring process”.

However, sometimes there is a feeling that whatever you do to fit in, it’s not going to be enough. Yassine, a financial strategy consultant, feels he adapts well to work contexts, but that this will only take him so far. At some level of management, adaptation is no longer enough,” he said. “If all the firm’s partners are Catholic and grew up horse riding, and you didn’t grow up in any way similar to that, there’s nothing you can do to change that and really fit in.”

The cost of code-switching

“It can be hard to protect an identity while also trying to downplay it.” - Zeyneb

The toll that code-switching takes is highly personal. Research has found that racial code-switching can be taxing to manage and can hinder performance. Don believes that his code-switching works, but it comes at the cost of “taking a lot out of myself—away from myself”.

It can even be a reason to leave a job. “I kept feeling I had to dim a part of myself around my colleagues,” said Miranda. I ended my last contract early because of it.

To some, code-switching comes naturally, or they’ve had time and circumstance to hone the skill. Others truly enjoy it, and speak of their code-switching abilities with a certain pride. As Yassine says: Being able to adapt to different contexts is the best thing in the world.

“Am I both these people or just one pretending to be the other?” - Kenza

Yet a common thread emerges: having to code-switch all day almost invariably leads to some level of inner questioning. After three years of work experience, Kenza does sometimes wonder: “Am I both these people or just one pretending to be the other?” Alaric speaks of part of me disappearing, because I constantly deny my Indianness to bring out my Frenchness”.

This is a balancing act, explains Zeyneb. “It can be hard to protect an identity while also trying to downplay it,” she said.

Empowerment at work

Code-switching is, perhaps ironically, hard to box in as a phenomenon. Depending on who you ask, racial code-switching at work can be a reflection of problematic power dynamics, a necessary evil, a mere fact of life or of no relevance at all. To people like Yassine, for example, racial code-switching is no more than “a form of social adaptation”.

Some are deeply disturbed by the real or perceived need to balance “protecting” and “downplaying” their racial identity simply because they are a minority. Others may agree with this but accept it, including Alaric, who admits that as an immigrant, “I knew this would be the trade-off when I chose to come here”.

But how far are you willing to go? As Maureen, a city government worker, points out, the extent of our racial code-switching largely depends on “what we’re willing to sacrifice to achieve our goals”.

Seen this way, the playing field is not quite level if some might have to “sacrifice” more than others. The more space there is for authentic self-expression, the easier it is to navigate the working world and climb the ladder—and the more diversity there is likely to be at the top of that ladder.

Perhaps it comes down to this: code-switching should be a choice. Zeyneb sums it up. “I want my code-switching to come from a conscious and pragmatic place, not one where I feel forced. I want to be empowered to take that choice in my work.”

Photo: WTTJ

*-Names have been changed

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