Code-Switching for Success

There are lots of stories, and a lot of research, about people who are adept in two different cultures.  There can be a cost to that—knowing two or more ways of being can make it difficult to feel completely at home in either place.  But there are advantages, too, to being able to move in and out of different contexts and operate well in both of them.

Sometimes that skill is called code-switching.  It takes practice.  After returning home from a semester teaching in Japan, I went to the bank to get some things settled.  Upon completing my transactions, I bowed deeply to the teller.  On the way down, I realized my mistake.  I thought about wheeling around and walking out so I didn’t have to face her.  But I came back up and, as I expected, she seemed both puzzled and worried.  I offered a brief explanation and walked quickly out the door.

A rookie mistake, of course.  Someone skilled at code-switching knows when to bow and when simply to smile and say, “thank you.”  Pres. Obama is a well-known code-switcher–click on the photo, below, for an example.

The president switches codes

W.E.B. DuBois famously talked about the “double consciousness” of Black America—being American, but a despised caste of Americans, and seeing each identity through the lens of the other.  There was a sense of the tragic in Du Bois’s analysis, but a new research study by Tiffany Brannon, Hazel Marcus, and Valerie Jones Taylor (2015) demonstrates the strength of that dual perspective.

Tiffany BrannonHazel MarkusValerie Jones Taylor

Brannon et al. did several experiments with African American university students and found, first, that they do have a double consciousness, at least in one sense.  They can tap into mainstream American cultural values of independence, when appropriate, but also into African American cultural values of interdependence, when that better fits the occasion.  When ask to think about applying to give a speech at their academic department’s commencement exercises, for example, they more often described themselves as independent actors (“I enjoy being the best”).  But when thinking about applying to give a speech at the university’s commencement program for African American students, they emphasized their interdependence with others (“I enjoy spending time with family and friends”).  The independent mindset was “primed,” as well, by reading about a course on mainstream American culture, and the interdependent mindset emerged when reading about a course on African American culture.  Priming African American culture also resulted in students being more cooperative in working with others, while they were more competitive when mainstream American culture was primed.

Interesting . . . but does it matter?  As it turns out, yes.  Connecting with African American culture led students to do better academically in several ways.  African American students primed to think about African American culture performed better on cognitive tasks like word anagrams (for example, re-arranging the letters in ‘disease’ to spell ‘seaside’) and they were more persistent in completing complex math problems.

The researchers also studied this phenomenon in real life.  It turns out that Black university students who connect with African American culture through campus activities, and have a strong network of support among other Black students, do better in school.  They have a stronger sense of identification with their university, and a more positive academic self-concept.  They get better grades, and they’re more likely to go on to graduate or professional schools after graduation.

These results support Beverly Daniel Tatum’s belief that the very first thing we have to do in creating successful, inclusive organizations is to affirm the identity of those in the group.  Brannon et al. describe the process by which that affirmation leads to a greater sense of fit with the organization as a whole and, for university students at least, greater success in meeting the organization’s goals.

To be clear, minorities are not the only ones who need their identity affirmed.  Those in the majority need that affirmation, too, but they get it automatically, time and again, when they see their social group represented in the organization’s everyday policies and practices.  Extending that affirmation to others improves the quality of their experience, but also their success, and, ultimately, the success of the organization as well.

Charles W. Green, Professor of Psychology, Hope College


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