3 Ways to Navigate Code-Switching to Promote Positive Personal and Professional Growth

In this blog, we will talk about the act of code-switching, the career and personal effects that are the result of code-switching, and three ways to navigate the complexities to support professional and personal growth. This content was inspired by the research conducted and published by the Harvard Business Review in November of 2019. This research on code-switching was part of a five-part series known as “The Big Idea Series: Advancing Black Leaders.”

What is code-switching, and why does it matter?

According to Dictionary.com, code-switching is modifying one’s behavior, appearance, etc., to adapt to different sociocultural norms: ex. People change the way they communicate with their friends and family as opposed to their colleagues.

Truth be told, code-switching for many black people and marginalized groups alike may be as innate as it is to breathe. Being in the minority goes beyond physical representation and deeper into the sociocultural differences that create conflict. As mentioned in the Harvard Business Review article, The Cost of Code-Switching: “Code-switching is a common practice amongst black people and people of color alike in the working environment as a way for us to minimize the negative effects of cultural bias and stigmatization.” I believe it is essential to personal and professional prosperity to understand code-switching and its effects while also knowing when to use it. By no means am I advocating for abandoning one’s cultural identity to assimilate into the majority; however, I encourage you to contemplate and act strategically. Code-Switching is real, sometimes necessary, and can be detrimental, but there are ways to overcome it.

Impacts on Professional and Personal Lives

Black people and other marginalized groups may engage in code-switching to minimize the adverse effects of being associated with stigmatizing racial groups to level the “professionalism playing-field.” As a black male, elusively dodging stereotypes when seeking employment is one of the most stressful job search aspects. I believe that we all want to share our authentic selves while also providing our future employer with an insight into who we are as a potential employee but finding the balance is critical. Constantly code-switching can be toxic and lead to adverse effects on performance and cultural identity. This is something that I do not think you need to process on your own, and I encourage you to seek support from anyone that you feel comfortable with on or off-campus. If you would like confidential support, I suggest connecting with a Student Health and Wellness Office (SHAW) staff member. For career and professional development conversations, I encourage you to schedule a coaching appointment with a Career Center coach. You would be surprised. There are faculty and staff who could relate as they’ve had similar experiences throughout their professional lives. Even if they haven’t, since everyone’s story is unique, being able to talk through your experience with a supportive coach or adviser can be incredibly helpful. Just know many individuals are here to help you navigate all aspects of your career journey. The point is, you do not have to process this kind of personal experience on your own, and it is okay to seek help and guidance.

Strategic Code-Switching: 3 things to consider

  1. Reflect on Your Needs: Finding the balance that works best for you is essential to reduce code-switching distress.  This behavior is exhausting and often frustrating because it is often the default way to assimilate into a majority culture or customs to avoid discrimination. Questions I would ask myself are “what does professionalism look like to me?” or “what does professionalism look like in my industry?” Uncertain of where to get started? Talk to a career coach or an industry professional – like a mentor from the Husky Mentor Network. These kinds of career conversations with people who have shared experiences or interests can be helpful in various ways that enhance your awareness and decision making.
  2. Assess Your Values: It’s essential to determine your values because your values paint the lens through which you see the world. Each of us has experienced life events that have impacted how we engage in our daily lives. Having a firm understanding of what you value will help you to determine how to code-switch. Code-switching is taxing because it pulls on many facets of your identity. Commitment to your values provides a framework to support your beliefs, empower cultural expression, establish boundaries, and strengthens self-assurance in cultural identity. Remember, this is about balance and strategy. There are various ways to assess your values, but here are a few ways to get started. I would start by asking myself, “what is a value?” and “What does that mean to me?” Then I would generate a list of six or seven values. Once you have your list, prioritize and rank them. Take a step back (walk away from the list) and reflect (a day or so). Here in the Career Center, we can help you assess your values and we encourage you to schedule an appointment if you feel comfortable.
  3. Assess Your Environment: “Read the room” is something that one of my mentors once told me to do when I enter an interview or a meeting. I interpreted this to mean that I should be aware of who is in the room, their role, and what situational information can help me determine what “version” of Wiley will be the most effective. As a rising professional, I took the advice and used it as a guiding principle early on in my professional growth. As I matured, I began to question if that approach was the best advice. Was suppressing my own identity to appeal to those around me, or was I suffering from feeling like an imposter? It’s hard to tell, but it’s worth exploring as I share my authentic self while displaying my professional aptitude. Awareness of your surroundings and the individuals in them are essential, but code-switching to appease is emotionally taxing. While there are benefits to doing this, it is also detrimental to the individual’s well-being. Knowing when and how to balance this will be an everyday struggle, but it is something that black people and other marginalized groups wrestle with on a day-to-day basis.

However, you decide to code-switch is ultimately is your decision. I encourage you to find balance as you strategically navigate this phenomenon that many black people experience. If you take anything from this blog, I hope you are more comfortable processing this social dilemma to best support your personal and professional wellbeing.

Things to consider: 

Written by: Wiley Dawson (pronouns: he/him/his)

Photo by Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash 

By Wiley Dawson
Wiley Dawson Career Consultant Wiley Dawson