Our culture is changing at a rapid pace. Much of what we are seeing is the result of people deciding that they no longer want to subscribe to the old ways of doing things. So in addition to adopting new ways, we are also adopting new words and phrases to describe the changes. ‘Code switching’ is one such phrase.

What is code switching? Moreover, is it always necessary? This post will endeavor to explain what code switching is and why people engage in it. As for whether it is always necessary, that’s a matter of opinion. There is no right or wrong answer.

Code Switching Explained

We start with the definition of code switching. According to Psychology Today contributor Kaylen O. Connor, PhD, code switching is the “suppression of multiple aspects of one’s cultural identity” in order to “enhance the comfort of others…in hopes of receiving equal treatment and opportunities for advancement.”

Connor goes on to explain that it often occurs in professional settings. She also says that code switching is most frequently experienced by people who identify as part of the Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) community.

The Opposite of Authenticity

Code switching is often spoken of in the context of authenticity. If someone believes they must engage in code switching in order to satisfy the expectations of others, that person may also feel a lack of authenticity. That makes sense. How can you be genuinely authentic if you have to suppress multiple aspects of your identity in order to please others?

Authenticity is something the team behind the Plurawl LatinX clothing brand is passionate about. In fact, the company was founded on the principle of encouraging members of the Hispanic community to be authentically themselves in their daily lives. They acknowledge the existence of code switching in the LatinX community, as evidenced by a piece of artwork they sell.

Whether he knew the phrase or not, Plurawl’s founder experienced code switching in the work environment. Being uncomfortable with that is one of the motivations that led to him starting the company. Now his mission is to promote authenticity within the LatinX community.

Necessity: Real or Perceived

Attempting to answer the question of whether code switching is always necessary means treading on thin ice. But doing so is an unavoidable step if we want to affect real change. With that in mind, the necessity of anything always comes with a caveat: is the need real or just perceived?

No doubt there are plenty of professional situations in which people believe they have to suppress certain aspects of their identity and culture in order to meet others’ expectations. Call it code switching or being less than authentic; the terminology matters little. The fact is that it is sometimes necessary.

On the other hand, it is also possible to feel like one has to engage in code switching when it is not really necessary. Rather, the need to code switch is either assumed or based on a misunderstanding. The danger in this sort of scenario is in making assumptions rather than verifying facts. Assuming on either side of the code-switching paradigm often leads to unnecessary friction that is otherwise easy to avoid.

The nature of the world dictates that nothing is universally black and white. That alone demonstrates that code switching is not always necessary, even if there is a perceived need. Where it is necessary, those affected by it have to decide for themselves what is most important. Only then can they decide whether to do it or not.