Have you ever found yourself adjusting the way you talk or behave when transitioning from one environment to another? Perhaps you shift from casual banter with friends to adopting a more formal tone in professional settings. Many refer to this chameleon effect as code-switching, a strategy that people use to alter their self-presentation in different contexts and situations. Often, the way people adjust how they present themselves is driven by societal expectations and norms. To align with the norms of different contexts, people may switch out of various identities, including race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, socioeconomic status, and disability status.

In graduate school, you may find yourself switching how you present yourself in interactions with your advisors, during a presentation, or when you are writing for publication. The demands of academic publishing and peer-review, for example, typically require a particular dialect. Using academic language to communicate your work is a learned skill, and often a survival strategy in the academic jungle, a means of securing credibility and recognition within the scholarly community. Academic language can become a necessary coat of armor, even if it means veering away from one’s authentic voice. In other spaces such as the workplace, code-switching can manifest as changing the way you speak or act in adherence to the norms of the company, which are often implicit in nature.

The dual nature of code-switching: Costs and benefits

Code-switching strategies are multifaceted and varied, and can result in a variety of benefits and drawbacks. For one, people may code-switch to obtain professional opportunities, avoid stereotypes, accrue cultural capital, or attain social belonging. These outcomes may bear a positive hue, yet the shadow of code-switching looms large, casting uncertainty upon one’s authentic self-expression. This incongruence in how individuals behave in different contexts can cause identity confusion and impact feelings of belonging in certain spaces. Moreover, the sustained act of code-switching can exact a mental toll, potentially leading to cognitive fatigue and burnout, as individuals remain hypervigilant to monitor their surroundings. 

In a social context, successful code-switching can mean that you are more likely to earn the favor of the group enforcing norms. For example, psychology research shows that job applications that downplay or conceal one’s racial minority identity (aka “resume whitening”) are more likely to receive interview invitations from recruiters (Kang et al., 2016). Other work by McCluney et al. (2021) suggests that employees who code-switch are viewed as more professional, compared to those who don’t code-switch. Yet, there can also be downstream social consequences for those that code-switch. For example, research shows that racial/ethnic code-switching can lead to accusations of “acting white” from members of one’s own racial/ethnic group (Durkee & Williams, 2015). 

Overall, it seems like code-switching can be a double-edged sword. Navigating code-switching in different spaces can be a multifaceted endeavor, with implications both for individuals and the institutions they engage with. Yet, at the heart of this complexity lies an undeniable reality: many institutions, including those in higher education and professional workplaces, still maintain cultural norms that have deep historical roots, originally tailored to cater to a specific demographic. For example, institutions of higher education are rooted in white cultural norms (i.e., “whiteness”) and continue to perpetuate these norms (Corces-Zimmerman et al., 2021). Despite the rise of institutions embracing initiatives for greater diversity, equity and inclusion, people continue to engage in code-switching within these spaces, which underscores the importance of confronting implicit norms and pressures.

What should we do about it?

Across academic and business workplaces, individuals share a responsibility to develop awareness and vigilance in addressing bias and stereotypes. This commitment to self-reflection is a crucial first step, as acknowledging the biases we unconsciously hold is essential in dismantling them. Individuals can start with taking steps to develop skills inequity and inclusion, as outlined in GradPro’s Professional Development Guide. Complementing this resource are an online course dedicated to managing and reducing implicit bias; an implicit association test to understand some of the thoughts, attitudes, and feelings you might hold outside of conscious awareness; and a tool to recognize microaggressions and the messages they signal. 

It’s equally important that organizations, businesses, and institutions evaluate existing practices related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Improving representation can reduce the significance of long-standing institutional norms that have historically pressured people to code-switch. One key aspect of this is ensuring that this representation and diversity extends to senior leadership, as this helps set the tone for the entire organization and paves the way for meaningful change. Ultimately, organizations and institutions should actively seek out ways to enhance diverse representation, not merely as a matter of compliance but as a testament to their commitment to a truly inclusive culture.

As for administrators and faculty in higher education, it is essential to recognize the unique challenges graduate students grapple with in academic settings. Graduate students often feel pressure to code-switch when writing papers, participating in lab meetings, and engaging in scholarly discourse. While there may not be one-size-fits-all solutions, offering support and resources for students to navigate these challenges is critical. This could include mentorship programs, peer support networks, and workshops that empower students to find their authentic voices within the academic landscape. The emphasis should be on fostering an academic environment that encourages diversity and recognizes the value of varied perspectives, allowing students to thrive without compromising their authenticity.

For students embarking on academic or professional journeys, it can be helpful to carefully consider the environments you would like to end up working in. Seeking out spaces that align with your authentic self and actively value inclusivity can be a powerful strategy. Such environments often possess the infrastructure and ethos necessary to support diverse voices and perspectives. While it is almost inevitable that some degree of code-switching will persist in various interactions, you can make the choice to seek out work in places that genuinely embrace your identity-expression and authenticity. This choice can help you to weigh the importance of your professional goals alongside the likelihood of finding a workplace that aligns with your values and self-identity, and that not only encourages, but thrives on, the diversity you bring.

Finally, for graduate students who are dealing with some of the challenges of code-switching, such as burn-out or feelings of inauthenticity, consider accessing these resources:

About the Author: Nirupika Sharma is a Ph.D. candidate in Social/Personality Psychology at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on the effects of identity on perceptions of the self and group relationships. In particular, her dissertation work investigates the psychological and social implications of code-switching. Additionally, Nirupika is co-founder of a resource hub and community aimed to help graduate students navigate the Hidden Curriculum in Psychology (HICCUP). Nirupika also serves as a Professional Development Liaison (PDL) at GradPro.