Code Switching is an Inherently Multicultural Experience
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.?
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, we adjust our actions and words to fit the acceptable standards of the community we’re interacting with or to meet their expectations of us.
For me personally, I’ve noticed that when I’m among Latina friends we’re more likely to be cracking jokes, dishing chismes and throwing out descriptive gestures to exaggerate the dramatic points. With many of my friends from west Michigan we’re loud and use a ton of obnoxious slang, but when I chat with university friends or higher ups I take a more scholarly tone…and of course, I dress differently and have more reserved gestures.
Lawyers use one language, school teachers another and it seems that we all have different “codes” established within each community. The codes used can vary by culture, language, ethnic background, socio-economic status, level of education and even by geography.
Even a city kid visiting a rural town might find many differences within the local culture, local language, 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
Multicultural families 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 youreself 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.
Monolingual or monocultural individuals might sometimes be biased against the concept of code switching. Switching between cultures might seem like “posing” or “being fake” to some, 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 understand the mindset of others who might be different from them.
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 around you.
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.