Code-Switching And Identity: Embracing An Intentional Approach

GUAA Career Coaching Partner Dhru Beeharilal, Identity and Leadership Consultant, Nyan Leadership, LLC

Originally published on Forbes In an article for Encyclopaedia Britannica, Carlos D. Morrison defines code-switching as the “process of shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting.”

Our identity is a blend of our intrinsic self — our absolute identity — and our contextual identity, which is the way we adapt to our ever-changing situation. Deriving satisfaction from life requires a balance between these two identities, and often, our professional or personal challenges can be traced back to a failure to understand and integrate one or the other. This can be particularly difficult when we attempt to reconcile the survival tactic of code-switching with our absolute identity. Rather than code-switching as a reactive, defensive mechanism, we can find greater success and satisfaction by actively exploring its place in our contextual identity and set boundaries consistent with our absolute identity.

What Are Absolute And Contextual Identities?

Absolute and contextual identities are a duality used as a means of self-reflection and the basis for effecting positive change in our lives. Stripping away all external factors, our absolute identity describes and defines our fundamental self. What drives us, brings us joy and makes us feel genuine satisfaction? Think in terms of characteristics such as creativity, contemplation, challenge and connection. If it is part of our absolute identity, a life that doesn’t nourish this characteristic will come up short. On the other hand, our contextual identity consists of the many roles we play in our life and how our behavior adapts to each role. As a parent, a professional or a tourist, we speak, dress, act and even think differently to suit the situation. Without intention, we can find ourselves subsumed by our contextual identity, so attached to a particular role or goal that we neglect our fundamental values.

What Is Code-Switching?

Studies beginning in the early 20th century looked at code-switching as a linguistic practice by minority ethnic groups. The term has come to signify switching not only language, but accent, affect, dress and other forms of social presentation when in different communities. The child of immigrant parents might speak one language at home and another at work, or they might speak the same language and modify their accent, depending on the listener. A Black judge might use specific vocabulary from the bench that differs greatly from their word choice at a family reunion.

By code-switching, we protect both ourselves and our connection to a certain community, often one that is a minority or is marginalized. As minorities code-switching in places such as school or work, we protect ourselves from judgment and discrimination by adhering to the “norm.” When we switch in our minority community, we maintain a special connection to others who share a language, dialect and presentation. Whether done with conscious intent or habitually, it has been shown that code-switching can be a source of frustration, strain and burnout for minorities who recognize the perils of failing to switch — a lapse that can lead to negative consequences.

Code-switch, but remain authentic.

Integrating Code-Switching With Our Identity

When we consciously explore and deploy the roles we play in our lives, we have a better opportunity to align them with our absolute identity. Rather than seeing code-switching as an external imposition, we can strategically determine how we want to switch — what aspects of our context complement our aspirations. We need to ask ourselves to what extent we are able to be authentic in our various roles. If we fail to account for authenticity, if our interactions are pure performance, we can miss out on connections, insights and opportunities because we are too focused on the superficial role. In addition, there is a personal, psychic drain in inauthentic performance.

Instead, we should explore our limits. What aspect of a role is a price too high to pay? What compromises and performances are we willing to make to achieve our goals? If we have a deeper understanding of our absolute identity, we can better evaluate the pros and cons of a particular adaptive strategy. Code-switching is a significant part of our contextual identity, and we can ask ourselves whether we are appearing in a way that is consistent with our fundamental values.

People who engage in code-switching typically recognize that they get a benefit from this ability. They are better able to fit into their different situations, and it can facilitate career advancement, connection and other forms of success that come from being accepted within a group. However, the switch exists on a spectrum — we can make deliberate choices about what changes we make in order to fit in. By exploring our options and checking them against our absolute identity, we can be more authentic in our lives, which creates an atmosphere in which we can achieve success.

Dhru Beeharilal is a GUAA Career Coaching Partner. To learn more about Dhru and his work, check out his profile on the GUAA Alumni Career Services website.

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