Have you ever heard of code switching? If not, it is one of those terms that has made it into a modern culture seeking to throw off the norms of the past. The term is often used in conjunction with ‘authenticity’ and its many derivatives. Unfortunately, too many people view code switching as a bad thing. There are times when it can be perceived as negative, but there are other times when code switching can be a good thing.
Before you choke on your coffee, consider this: we human beings have a bad habit of viewing the world in black-and-white. We get fixated on a particular idea or principle and assume that it is always right or always wrong. Truth be told, there are very few things in the world that are truly black-and-white. Code switching is one of them.
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The Original Definition
Code switching was originally defined as a linguistic phenomenon. Researchers like John J. Gumperz studied it in the context of people of different languages trying to communicate with one another. For example, when a native Spanish speaker attempts to communicate with a native English speaker in English, that speaker does their best to utilize known English mannerisms while speaking. Rather than simply speaking English words, the person tries to appear as an English speaker.
Like just about any other word or phrase, ‘code switching’ has evolved in terms of its definition. Today, we take it to mean any attempt at changing ones mannerisms, speech, presentation etc., in order to meet some external expectation. A good example is the phone voice concept.
In the business world, it is not unusual for people to have normal voices and phone voices. They speak to their colleagues in one manner but, as soon as they get on the phone with a customer or vendor, their manner of speaking changes. The phone voice tends to be more professional and business-like. It tends to be more serious. But is that a bad thing?
People and Cultures Are Different
People and cultures are different. We know and accept that. We also generally accept that it’s good to maintain our differences because they are what make us unique. But there is also nothing wrong with accommodating unfamiliar cultures under certain circumstances.
Imagine yourself, as a hearing and speaking person, attempting to communicate with someone who has been deaf from birth. You are on two separate planes. If the two of you are going to communicate effectively, you’re both going to have to work together. You are going to have to compromise and modify the ways in which you communicate. By today’s standards, this amounts to code switching.
You could both dig in your heels and refuse to accommodate the other person. But doing so would effectively eliminate any chance of successful communication. Refusing to compromise would be foolish, especially if your only reason for doing so is the false belief that code switching is always bad.
A Time and a Place
The Plurawl boutique clothing brand sells a very popular t-shirt that list characteristics associated with being both authentic and inauthentic. One of the latter characteristics is code switching. While code switching may not necessarily be helpful in one’s pursuit of genuine authenticity, there are times when it is unavoidable. That is not a bad thing.
Code switching can be quite helpful at times. Other times, it can be absolutely necessary in order to work with other people. Rather than declaring code switching as a bad thing across the board, it’s better to figure out when it is appropriate and when it’s not.