Code Switching is an Important Part of the Multicultural Experience

multicultural codeswitching, bicultural familia

Multiculturals & Code Switching

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, multicultural and bicultural individuals adjust our actions and words to fit the acceptable standards of the community we’re interacting with or to meet their expectations of us.

What Does Code Switching Look Like?

You might notice that when you’re among your closest friends, you’re more likely to laugh loudly, use dramatic gestures or crack jokes.  With your traditional grandparents, you might be more reserved and with your college friends, maybe you take a more scholarly tone.

Changing the way you communicate to fit the situation or accommodate the individuals you’re addressing is nothing new. And this is one of the things that multiculturals and biculturals do best.

Think about it. Lawyers use one language, school teachers and military members yet another. It seems that we all have different “codes” established within each community.  The codes used can vary by culture, language, dialect, ethnic background, socio-economic status, level of education and even by geography.

Dominicans in New York, for example, have a distinct culture and communication style that sets them apart from Tejanos in Laredo. Yes, there is some cultural overlap, but each community has their own distinct nuances.

Someone who’s grown up within both communities will have an understanding of the “codes” unique to each community and may be able to transition seamlessly between the two distinct cultures.

Even a city kid visiting a rural town might find many differences within the local culture, local dialect, 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.

Multiculturals 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 yourself 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.

To some, code switching might be viewed as “posing” or “acting fake,” 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 cross cultural barriers that may not even be visible to individuals outside of the culture.

Why Code Switching Matters.

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.

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. It has been republished for our current readers.

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South Texas Foodie, Traveler, Photographer, and Designer.