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From "How can I help?" to "Watcha need?" Code switching in the workplace

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May 3, 2013

“How are you today Mr. Moore? What can I help you with?”

Mr. Moore walked in, dressed in his “Wall Street” blue suit and pinstripe tie, and handed her a jump drive, smiling only vaguely. He was in here at least once a week, and she knew exactly what he needed.

“Absolutely, I would be more than happy to sketch out this algorithm for you. We need to first structure a chart to determine the precise code you are looking for. Then we will lay it out and see what the computer comes up with.”

The woman receives a phone call and excuses herself for a moment.

“Hey, watcha need? Yeah it’s in the ca (the r is silent). Stop in, you can pick’em up lata (again r is silent). K- bye.” As the woman returns to Mr. Moore, she notices his head is tilted to one side. He stares at her, eyebrows narrowed, lips pursed. She gives him an uncomfortable smile and returns to her work.

Confused by this dialogue? Let me explain. The young woman who spoke very scientifically and technically to Mr. Moore changed dialogue when speaking to her significant other, showing signs of a New England accent. This dialogue is an example of code switching; variations in dialogue that can be either lingual, or culturally driven.

Many linguists refer to code switching as a person who speaks more than one language and “switches” or “mixes” between the two. But in recent years researchers and linguists have been mapping out other reasons for code switching; starting with socio-cultural aspects. Instead of focusing simply on a grammatical system, linguists have started looking at it as a practice of individual speakers, pushing beyond the formal to the social and cultural functions and meaning of language use.

In a research study on “Code Switching in Socio-cultural Linguistics”, Chad Nilep from the University of Colorado suggests that code switching, as a broader term, should include sociology of language, social psychology, folklore and media studies, literary theory, and philosophy of language. He also states that there is an economical view to code switching; allowing people to be two or more things, fitting into the environment around them. This suggests that code switching is a method of altering communication to “fit in” to certain environments. But this transition may not always happen on purpose—inadvertently, people may slip into a different language, accent or speech pattern without intending to if triggered by another person.

How does this affect the workplace?
Different dynamics in the workplace lend themselves to different outcomes. Let’s take a look, for example, at how code switching, again in broader terms, can change the response between male and female coworkers. When females enter a male dominated workforce (such as accounting has been for many years) it can be hard to “speak their language”. The adage “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” is not a far stretch, especially when it comes to communication. Women speak in different tones and more nonverbal cues than that of their male counterparts.

For example, the word “like” is used quite often in female dialogue, and in a variety of ways, usually without intention. In a corporate setting, simply taking this word out of conversation with colleagues can change the response a woman receives from coworkers.  Another example of cultural or environmental code switching among genders is the natural tendency to explain or provide too much detail in conversation—in essence, being too wordy. Answering questions or briefings with a one word or one sentence answer may receive more positive responses, especially in fields such as finance or accounting.

In today’s marketplace women are graduating with finance and accounting degrees at increasing rates. Thus, a field once populated mostly by men is starting to see more of a balance among genders, likely impacting how firm employees communicate with one another as well as their clients. You may already notice cultural shifts and new dynamics in the workplace; code switching is just a small piece of that.

Code switching is not just utilized in communication between genders. One way new hires use code switching is to actively ingratiate to others. Meaning that, as new hires try to build and develop rapport within an organization, they utilize different tones and inflections they may not use outside of the office. Others may code switch to convey certain concepts. Many people switch verbal tones or employ colloquialisms to express particular ideas, interests or business objectives, which they feel may not gain attention otherwise.

If one were to tune in to the phenomenon of code switching, they might see the way race, ethnicity and culture plays out based on the environment the individual is in.

Ultimately, code switching is not just seen as bilingual “code mixing” but as an interpretation of communication styles. It is apparent in the myriad ways we interact with one another and try to feel each other out. Being mindful of our own code switching can strengthen our professionalism and growth in work settings. But it is a delicate dance; we don’t want to come off as “fake” either. Subtle changes can make a world of difference, while still remaining true to who we are and how we communicate with others.

Shannon Traphagen holds a Master’s degree from the University at Buffalo NY, and started her career as a freelance writer and blog writer. Having been published in the Buffalo Newspaper and working on publication of her first fiction novel, she currently works as a content writer for Freed Maxick CPAs in Buffalo NY. You can email her at Shannon.traphagen@freedmaxick.com.

 

 

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