First, as a disclaimer, this is a generalization of why code-switching in the workplace happens. Second, not all code-switching is the same; code-switching varies throughout cultures, ethnicities, genders, generations, and classes. Everyone, at one time or another, has pulled the code-switch–the reasons why it happens are what makes this process so trying and draining on those who live in duality.
But let’s pump the brakes here for a minute and dig into this.
What is Code-Switching?
Code-switching is the style in which people change their language (or behavior) based on their environments. It is the ability to shift between alternate ways of communicating.
The official definition, as cited by Britannica, describes code-switching as:
“the practice of moving back and forth between two languages or between two dialects or registers of the same language at one time. Code-switching occurs far more often in conversation than in writing. It is also called code-mixing and style shifting.”
Code-switching can be detrimental to the psyche because it stifles a person’s ability to be genuine and themselves, which in turn can decrease self-love, confidence, and creativity. To those who have to pull the switch continuously, it’s no longer something that just absent-mindedly happens; it’s a way of life, a survival mechanism that automatically turns on like an emergency exit sign when the lights go out.
It is a tool for those looking at social mobility, but for some more than others, it’s a vital tactic you must possess to go about daily life.
Why is something so exhausting, so essential?
Simply put, although millennials make up about 35% of the workforce, we don’t hold a lot of top-level management positions, and for that matter nor do we make up a large part of middle management positions. Because of this, millennials are forced to adapt to what those above us want and expect–AKA check your Gen Y vernacular at the door.
These are 4 Big Reasons Why Code-Switching Happens
- We want to get in where we don’t fit in: Let’s face it, we’ve all had a job or workplace where we didn’t fit in. Whether it was because you were the youngest on your team, the only female or minority, or someone with less experience, code-switching likely helped you relate to your team to show them that, although you’re different, you can hang with the rest of squad. It’s an attempt to show solidarity and relatability.
- It’s required: Calling it a requirement sounds harsh, but it is just that. Having Gen Xers as managers or superiors usually means that 98% of the time you have to assess and adjust to their communication style, because, let’s face it most won’t adapt to yours. This directly affects the way you speak to them, how you end an email, or even how you conduct meetings. A slip of a word or a misplaced comma could rub someone the wrong way, and code-switching is a foolproof way to avoid that.
- Explain our thoughts: Unfortunately, we can’t always explain to someone how much they suck or how much we don’t care for something they’re doing. Rewording certain sentences or phrases to a style those you’re addressing will understand is the ultimate example of code-switching.
For example: “Hope this helps” translates to, “Read this and stop bothering me.”
- Self-preservation, self-defense, and survival: Millennials have so many barriers that we have to overcome (*cough, cough* the recently popularized Gen X blame game), and, honestly, we’re just trying to make it in this world – FYI – we’re winging it, just like the generations before us. We have been conditioned to adapt to the world around us until we can change it. This includes how we function when we are in our workplaces, out with our friends, and even at home. We have to confine ourselves to “acceptable standards” or expectations that are laid out for us. In most cases, it’s either do it and shut up, or don’t and leave/get fired–something we see daily.
Our fight or flight response automatically kicks in and we go into code-switching mode as a way to protect ourselves from the same fate.
The reasons that millennials code-switch, of course, are far more vast and complicated than those listed above. They can also vary depending on your day-to-day life, job, and natural born personality. No matter who you are, you’ve either done it or have had someone do it to you. Understanding why it happens and the context in which it occurs will allow you to handle communications better.
Have fun deciphering!