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Code Switching is an Important Part of the Multicultural Experience

multicultural codeswitching, bicultural familia

Multiculturals & Code Switching

Have you ever noticed that you have one set of verbal and non-verbal attributes in one conversation and then participate differently in the next?  Our accents may change, our expressions, body language and even our whole attitudes can fluctuate between communities.  

Is this wrong?  Does it mean we’re being “fake”?  Or is it a sign of the growing diversity here in the U.S.?

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Code-switching gets a bad rap most times, but really, doesn’t it demonstrate our growing multicultural identity?

Code-switching implies a broader world view and the accommodation of a variety of communication styles.  A speaker might present themselves differently in each relationship or community in order to more fully engage their audience.  

Often it’s not a matter of conscious choice, but more an attempt to create bonds and build comfortable relationships.  Many times, without realizing it, multicultural and bicultural individuals adjust our actions and words to fit the acceptable standards of the community we’re interacting with or to meet their expectations of us.

What Does Code Switching Look Like?

You might notice that when you’re among your closest friends, you’re more likely to laugh loudly, use dramatic gestures or crack jokes.  With your traditional grandparents, you might be more reserved and with your college friends, maybe you take a more scholarly tone.

Changing the way you communicate to fit the situation or accommodate the individuals you’re addressing is nothing new. And this is one of the things that multiculturals and biculturals do best.

Think about it. Lawyers use one language, school teachers and military members yet another. It seems that we all have different “codes” established within each community.  The codes used can vary by culture, language, dialect, ethnic background, socio-economic status, level of education and even by geography.

Dominicans in New York, for example, have a distinct culture and communication style that sets them apart from Tejanos in Laredo. Yes, there is some cultural overlap, but each community has their own distinct nuances.

Someone who’s grown up within both communities will have an understanding of the “codes” unique to each community and may be able to transition seamlessly between the two distinct cultures.

Even a city kid visiting a rural town might find many differences within the local culture, local dialect, gestures and social customs.  Imagine moving from New York City to Montana or from South Texas to South Cali. 

The experience is going to be different and you need to be able to grow and adjust according to the culture you’re immersed in.

Multiculturals and Code Switching.

Multiculturals seem to be the masters of code-switching, which makes sense.  The more places you’ve lived, religions you’ve practiced, cultures you’ve immersed yourself in, the more smoothly you’ll learn to transition between communities.  

Anywhere that you find a multitude of cultures or languages, you’ll be sure to find a plethora of code switching going on.  And this is especially true near cultural or geographic borders.

To some, code switching might be viewed as “posing” or “acting fake,” but in reality, it’s a skill that multiculturals have developed over years of experience.  It’s also a great skill that helps individuals to compete in a global market and cross cultural barriers that may not even be visible to individuals outside of the culture.

Why Code Switching Matters.

Code switching is an act of consideration and humility that demonstrates your connection to each group or individual that you interact with. 

When you code switch, you actively work to make everyone in the room comfortable.

As someone who code switches, you’re also connecting with your roots and experiences within each culture and creating a space where you feel more comfortable and more like yourself.

For more on code switching and understanding cultural nuances, check out the Code Switch podcast.

This post was first published in April 2011. It has been republished for our current readers.

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  • Ezzy Guerrero-Languz
    April 4, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Thought-provoking post. You made me stop and think about how I communicate. I know I have multiple voices: the hairstylist-nail technician, Executive Assistant, writer, reader, Mexicana-Americana, Southern Californian, friend — all sifted/filtered to adapt to different situations and environments. How much I want to share of my total identity is completely dependent on my comfort-level with the person I'm talking to. Does that make sense?

    • Chantilly Pati&ntild
      April 4, 2011 at 3:58 pm

      Yes! That's exactly what I'm talking about amiga! You nailed it! :) Each social environment dictates a different set of "rules" and we switch our mannerism, language and so much more in order to participate in a way that makes us part of the group. :)

      • Ezzy Guerrero-Languz
        April 4, 2011 at 5:42 pm

        Absolutely. I think the "fake-factor" comes into play when language is changed in a contrived manner, in order to gain approval, which I think isn't cool at all. Great post, by the way. You ask insightful questions. xxx

        • Chantilly Pati&ntild
          April 4, 2011 at 5:57 pm

          Great point! Authenticity is important! I know for me, I have been called a fake or sell-out by my own family for taking an interest in Mexican culture. They've told me that "whites shouldn't speak Spanish" and other ignorant comments. We often tend to look at someone and put them into a single category and those stereotypes extend to the way we communicate. My hubby shouldn't have to know Spanish just because he's Mexican and I should be expected not to speak it or interact with Latinas as I do just because I'm not. Obviously, I could write a few more posts on this topic…lol! Thanks for the comment! =)

  • Grace HapaMama
    April 7, 2011 at 12:15 am

    Great post. I just found your blog through "Yes, We're Together". As an Asian woman married to a Caucasian husband, and living in primarily a white and Hispanic neighborhood… I know what you're talking about, although I hadn't heard the term code-switching before. I also blog about raising a multicultural family, and look forward to reading more of your articles.

    • Chantilly Pati&ntild
      April 7, 2011 at 1:51 am

      Thank you! I'm so glad you found me! I'd love to hear more about your story and we'll definitely be dropping by! Thanks for the comment. =)

  • Karima Heraoua
    April 7, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    Hi, I have given you a ‘Versatile Blogger Award’. This was given to me and I am passing it on to you. Check my latest blog post for information on what this is. http://www.karimasblogs.blogspot.com Hope you can join in the fun, Karima.

    • Chantilly Pati&ntild
      April 17, 2011 at 12:09 pm

      Karima, I haven't forgotten you! Thank you for the award! I'm going to get that squared away this week and hand out more awards to other fabulous bloggers. Thanks so much…it's an honor! =)

  • rae
    April 30, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    great post! very thought provoking. i had never heard the term code-switching but i definitely see it in my multicultural family. i think it is a good thing…i want my children to be fluid and able to communicate (and feel comfortable) with a wide range of people.

    • Chantilly Pati&ntild
      April 30, 2011 at 6:26 pm

      Rae, thank you! I've heard so many people attack those of certain backgrounds for their style of speaking, hand gestures, accents, etc. and I think it's such a shame that people miss out on knowing some really interesting individuals because we're uncomfortable about the differences between us. I think it's great when we can communicate with others in a way that makes them comfortable and definitely an amazing gift to give our children. ♥

  • baovom
    March 21, 2012 at 10:51 am

    Absolutely it is an advantage to be able to call clients or vendors and say to one "Good morning, my Dear!" to another, "Hey Girrrrl!" and to another, "Hola Chula!" 
    I would propose that any teenager does a certain type of code-switching when they are talking with their friends in ways their parents or teachers barely understand. 
    A person can change the way they speak to suit the person who is listening, to bond with them or demonstrate they have something in common. It's a bit more obvious when it involves a whole other language. 
    My son is 3 and has already figured out to whom he should say "hola" and to whom he should say "hi". 
    Maybe multilingual people have an enhanced ability to pick up on how what they say is perceived by another person. 

  • biculturalmom
    March 22, 2012 at 1:47 am

     @baovom Lol…Exactly!!  My daughter is also three and it's fun to watch her switch between languages and mannerisms for each unique situation.  Kids are so awesome to watch and learn from.  :)  I definitely believe that interacting in multicultural and multilingual spaces makes us experts at mixing styles and bonding with diverse people of the world.  The skills learned definitely add up to something amazing for multicultural individuals!  ;)  Thank you for sharing your thoughts!