In today’s fast-paced society, it’s extremely common to shorten or truncate language in order to get a message across quickly and efficiently. We can see this penchant for abbreviation in things like the 250-character tweet or text messages filled with linguistic acronyms meant to convey broad meanings with as few letters as possible. While code-switching can truncate language, it is much more involved than simply saying less to convey more.
Code-switching is when someone changes their spoken and nonverbal language and mannerisms depending on who they are speaking to or what kind of social setting they are in. While most people change their communication style depending on who they’re with, not all instances of truncated or slang speech is code-switching.
What separates the act of code-switching from simply being the use of slang is that the former is a survival technique that many marginalized groups use to protect themselves in social settings where they interact with the dominant culture (white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, abled, neurotypical society). In comparison, using slang is merely a style difference.
It may seem extreme to label this action as a survival tactic, but that’s exactly what code-switching is at its core. Being deemed as different by dominant culture can have significant consequences for people from marginalized communities. When the dominant culture labels you as different, often that different means less than. To be seen as less than places marginalized communities at a disadvantage, ultimately pressing these groups to the margins of society which can prevent them from accessing the things they need or want.
As an African American woman, I am well aware that when I walk into certain rooms, I’m immediately underestimated. For some people, the color of my skin and my gender mean I’m less skilled, less intelligent, and less capable than my white male counterparts. That I possess both graduate and undergraduate degrees means nothing because people can’t see my degrees when they meet me. They see a Black woman and, whether or not they know it, begin making assumptions about me and my value. Understanding this, I know that in order to access society, I have to get certain people to take me seriously. To accomplish that, I have to speak the language that they value.
People who code-switch are essentially bilingual. They have to learn to speak and mimic the standardized language and accepted societal behavioral norms oftentimes better than those who belong to the dominant culture. They do this to fit in enough to access what they need. As a result, they only speak their native language or reveal their natural mannerisms when they are in circles where they feel safe. Feeling safe means that they are in an atmosphere where they do not fear that being their authentic selves will be seen as a detriment, and where their identity isn’t weaponized to take away the things they need and want.
To those who belong to the dominant culture, needing to change the way you speak, the language you speak, including your body language, probably sounds farfetched. As someone standing on the outside looking in, it’s easy to dismiss this need to assimilate in order to find success. If you are a disbeliever, let me offer you some concrete examples of how code-switching is a necessary survival skill for marginalized communities.
As a Black writer who pens stories that celebrate Black characters and Black culture, there have been several instances where my skill as a writer is called into question by those in gatekeeping positions within the romance publishing industry. I’ve had acquiring editors turn down my work because they felt my use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE-English dialect used in Black American communities) was proof of bad writing instead of an accurate characterization of my characters. I’ve also had copyeditors assume my use of AAVE was an error and consistently mark those instances wrong or change them to their standardized American English equivalents. As I hope you can imagine, both scenarios are equally problematic, prohibitive, and mentally and emotionally exhausting.
The first instance actually prevented me from acquiring book deals, essentially blocking me from entering my chosen industry. The second created professional frustration that either required me to educate the copyeditor on code-switching and AAVE, or erase authentic representation of my characters and culture to make the language of the book more appealing to audiences from the dominant culture. Whichever scenario, as the person from a marginalized community, I am tasked with attempting to find a way around these gatekeeping measures.
Code-switching isn’t something singularly particular to Black people. Other marginalized communities have developed some form of this skill to protect themselves while interacting with larger society as well. People from the LGBTQ+ community also employ code-switching methods to access society too. Remember, code-switching isn’t just about spoken language. It’s about presenting the individual in a way that prevents the dominant culture from flagging the individual as different and therefore less than or abnormal. This can include everything from the way someone speaks, to the gestures they use, to the way they dress, to their tone of voice and use of inflections; all of these things contribute to code-switching.
Like Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color, LGBTQ+ people are often forced to present themselves in ways the dominant culture finds acceptable in order to access what they need to survive and thrive. When in certain social settings, they have to suppress their authentic selves to fit in by conforming and being inconspicuous. Whether that’s dressing, behaving, or speaking in gender-conforming and heteronormative ways, or modeling their relationships after what the dominant culture would consider traditional, LGBTQ+ people, like Black people, code-switch to survive in a society that tells them who they are isn’t good enough or welcome.
Disabled communities also code-switch by means of masking. Masking is when a person with disabilities conceals their disability in order to present a normative appearance to the abled world. They do this to make abled society feel more comfortable. Why should people with disabilities be concerned with abled society being more comfortable in their presence? Because like all the aforementioned marginalized communities, people who have a disability, whether visible or invisible, have to be concerned with being prevented from accessing society in meaningful and positive ways for survival. Suppressing stemming behaviors such as leg bouncing or other repetitive movements when in the presence of the abled is one example of how a neurodivergent person might attempt to mask their disability.
While there are various ways people code-switch and/or mask their differences to fit into accepted societal norms, what’s most important for writers engaging with this topic is that they recognize the significance of why people code-switch. It’s also important that writers understand that people being their authentic selves shouldn’t be an assumed lack of intelligence, means, ability, or moral decency. To assume so perpetuates harmful stereotypes that further marginalizes underrepresented groups.
Assigning negative connotations to authentic representations of underrepresented communities plays a significant role in what I refer to as the “struggle story.” The struggle story is when the protagonist’s identity is the source of their conflict. “I can’t be happy or have good things happen to me because I am Black, gay, disabled, neurodivergent, etc.” is a recurring theme in fiction when depicting diverse characters (characters who are from typically underrepresented/marginalized communities).
Writers usually present these sorts of stories as sympathetic and compelling. However, what they actually do is display marginalized characters as lacking and in need of being saved from their circumstances (circumstances caused by their identity) by someone from the dominant culture. Struggle stories continually perpetuate the idea that to be anything other than white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, abled, and neurotypical is to be less than or abnormal and unworthy of having their full humanity recognized and respected.
As writers, recognizing our characters’ full humanity regardless of identity helps us to construct three-dimensional characters who leap off the page. Focusing on who our characters are instead of what they are will help us craft nuanced representation of a multitude of identities. Identity, culture, and community are important. However, they are not the sum total of who a person is. To become hyper-focused on how a character identifies is to lose the individuality that every person possesses.
Regardless of our backgrounds, we are all individuals contributing to the mosaic of culture and community. If we depict that in our work, we help readers understand that people are people no matter their race, sexuality, gender identity, ability, or financial means. We help them see how all those identifiers influence the overall makeup of the individual, but by no means defines who they are.
Understanding why people code-switch or mask makes for much more interesting storytelling because it allows the nuances of a character’s personality to shine through. As the author, you’re creating a richer writing experience for yourself because you’re crafting different people every time you sit down and begin work on character development. It also provides character depth that engages the reader and forces them to think about who people are, challenging preconceived notions about different identities. Most importantly, understanding why people code-switch acknowledges the lived experiences of underrepresented communities and removes the stigma that to be authentic is to be abnormal, less than, and unwelcomed in the larger society.