Multicultural Dialoguing: How does code switching look in today’s world?

On my last blog, I introduced a common behavioral change practiced by people who are not completely integrated into a group. In socio-linguistic terms, it is referred to as “code switching.”  A strategic social move, it is practiced by almost anyone who is treated as having lesser rank in society. Just think of how you talk or behave if you are the only woman in a group of men, or a young adult in a group of elders, or a person of color in a work team of Caucasians or Anglos, and the list goes on.

This week, I watched a TV program in which a Caucasian young woman was relating to a middle-aged female professional just how tough it is to show herself as strong and self-reliant in today’s society.  Almost in tears, she referred to the negative reaction she often gets and how she is painfully learning to “tone it down”.  A sad, but real and extremely common dynamic. Of course, it is unfortunate that it happens, regardless of who needs to endure these types of scenes.  However, I thought to myself, “if she were to be poor, or a ‘woman of color’ the reaction would be even heavier!” I believe this lesson is particularly tough for those of us who have been taught that everyone should be treated with respect and dignity, and more so, if we come from a somewhat privileged background ourselves.  Take my case, for example.  Raised in a middle class family with really high educational privileges, it has taken me years to realize that my values of equality and expectations to be treated as such would never equate the impact that code switching would.  In fact, going about the world as if such negative reaction was not real could easily make it worse.  Of course, we need not loose our identity when we intentionally behave like what the mainstream society expects of us.  Yet, it is complicated to learn what that looks like, as no one is telling you “how to act or speak White” (as teenagers often refer to it).  I mostly have learned a few things by trial and error, and believe me, have much more to learn! 

In my experience, many African Americans are geniuses in code switching.  The fact that not so long ago they could be lynched for “looking a White person the ‘wrong’ way” (and according to the White’s interpretation of their behavior) may have a lot to do with it.  I always say that if President Obama talked and behaved like Jesse Jackson (regardless of what he said), he would not have made it to the White House.  The fact that his first culture happens to be White is not a coincidence and a great advantage to him.  In fact, he is not code switching!

But, how does code switching look?  Through my almost 20 years living in the USA, I have learned that my passionate and exuberant conversational style is only somewhat accepted when talking about nice and joyful events—and not always.  When talking about complicated or unfair matters, it is best to tone down, slow done, talk less and for shorter periods of time, and be very careful with superlatives—as the tendency in Anglo culture is to take things literally.  More over, it is best to first very softly try with a complicated matter and watch the response of the group.  If ignored or unheard, as it often happens, I may later on try again with other language and/or angle.  If it is ignored or unheard again, I just drop the topic altogether—as the chances of being further excluded are pretty high.  Since making a positive difference is my only agenda—I am utterly aware that there is no point in being outspoken if not heard, or outright discriminated against.  Needless to say, it does not mean that in the process I give up or transform the essence of who I am.  I was glad to listen to the female middle-aged professional suggesting something along these lines to the young woman realizing this unfortunate dynamic. And, again, they were both US nationals and Anglo women!

Food for thought: Regardless of your cultural heritage, reflect on how you may change your behavior, especially the way you talk (tone of voice, topics to cover, timing, pauses, etc.) when you interact with people who are somehow different from you.  How did you learn how to do that?  Does it always work? If you are Anglo, ask your friends of color if they “talk in a different language” when they talk or behave with Caucasians.  If you approach the conversation within a curious and non-blaming attitude, I bet you’ll learn about many things you were unaware of!  As mentioned, my only hope is that it will make a positive difference in your life.

Suggested bibliography: “Black and White. Styles in Conflict”, 1981, by Thomas Kochman. University of Chicago Press.  Amazingly contemporary, despite it being written almost 30 years ago.