Code-switching isn’t just for work

An “identifier” neutral look at how you may miss the tell-tale signs told with real life stories

Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

Full disclosure, I wrote out this piece 6 times, trying my hardest to balance the anger I felt from the stories I am about to tell and keeping a neutral tone, so it wouldn’t be perceived as an aggressive post. I decided to forgo the neutrality (and frankly the editorial finesse it could have used) to authentically tell the stories as they deserve to be told. I also realized that just telling a couple of these stories isn’t enough, so inevitably this will be a series. Here’s my pick of the first three

Recently, I have seen an uptick in conversations around code-switching for work, especially as it relates to the most common identifiers i.e. gender, race and sexuality. These issues have existed of course, for a long time, but COVID-19 has certainly exacerbated some of these. As i increasingly found myself amongst peers and friends, with a drink or two in hand, I realized that some of these horror stories deserve to be told. I use the term horror loosely here, as these might appear mundane to the naked eye, but seeing the effect that they have had on the “light” of some of my peers, I put them as equivalent to the gore in slasher flicks.

The purpose of this piece is not shame the behavior of the “antagonist”, or to create panic about the rather dystopian scenario they portray- indeed, I am a believer that we have come a long way in the awareness of some of these issues. My intention is to share some personal stories I have been privy to(with consent of course) of how inclusivity doesn’t just start/stop at creating policies and rules at work. Hence, code-switching, defined as compromising on expressing ones self to fit the norms of our social structures, is a problem both in work and personal lives-and sometimes, the worst in circles closest to us.

Hopefully these stories will give you a hint towards subtle ways of spotting when someone might be code-switching or tokenized

“Are you sure you need that on your face?”

Working in a corporate, private sector role, I knew I had to always play a part. I knew I couldn’t wear my hair in unnatural colors, or have any significant facial piercings. This all stemmed from my early days, when once my manager’s spouse told me that if I wanted anyone to take me seriously I should take out my piercings and dye my hair back to its natural color. In that moment, in my early 20s, I felt that all my years of working hard were dismissed simply because I had green hair and rings on my face. I looked at them, nodded, then went in the bathroom and cried. The next day, I showed up sans-piercings, with dark auburn hair. The level of applause I got from that change alone, re-affirmed my view that fitting into a particular mold was rewarded, regardless of how hard I had worked to prove myself. This re-surfaced for me in my 30s, when I decided to reclaim my independence over my own physical look. Now, having had additional years of experience under my belt, and in a leadership position, I decided I would subtly start adding these pieces back in. It was important for me to create a space, where those around me would feel comfortable expressing themselves. Then my first day, in the new role, it happened again. One of the senior directors in the company, someone who was crucial in my hiring, told me that if I wanted to put the right foot forward, I should probably “simplify my look”. This time, however, I decided to hold on to my independence, one I had taken so long to gain, and decided not to change anything. Then as I got passed up, over and over again, for senior roles and opportunities, I was always left wondering if my physical appearance had anything to do with it. I cant tell you definitively that my hair color or my piercings were the reason why I kept getting passed up, but I can tell you the feeling of self-doubt I was always left with because the way I looked was uncomfortable for others around me. Something as simple as one comment, had a huge bearing on my self worth and how accepted I felt. It never felt like a comfortable, safe space.

“On your next email, can you try adding in some pleasantries? Your’s are just cold”

My mannerisms have always been dominated by my OCD. I try to limit that by being very clear and concise in my messaging. It has worked very well for me in my career as a developer, because its a place where being mechanical is appreciated and rewarded. We start our days with virtual sprints written out as shorthand. There has never been an expectation check in on someone’s life or mood when all they know about me is my avatar and my status notification on slack- and truly that’s a space where I feel most comfortable. However, I quickly realized, that this is a place where ceilings come fast and early in your career. So I decided to venture out into a professional world of humans AND machines — a tech company. These worlds are vastly different. Slowly, I started realizing, that starting a meeting with “let’s get to our objectives” vs. “how was your weekend” was frowned upon. I also realized that who you knew, and how well you knew them, had a lot to do with how you were perceived. For someone like myself, who wanted to come in, work in their office, and then go home- the perception quickly became that I was rude and cold. And then slowly, what little interaction I did have, became uncomfortable and forced. In my development check-in with my manager, I came prepared with a list of what I had accomplished and some areas of potential improvement. I was met with a lot of positive feedback, followed by the ever great “one more thing”. My manager proceeded to tell me that I needed to interact with others at the office more. It was followed by a pensive “I cant force you to go out to drinks with your colleagues, but it cant hurt”. When I reminded them that I had obligations outside of work, which don't allow for too much fraternizing (of course, it was an excuse. I just wasn't comfortable hanging out with my colleagues, or many humans at that), the conversation was dropped. Then months later, during a round of written feedback, I got the cherry on the sundae- an entire paragraph dedicated to how my interactions were cold, including written ones. In a follow up chat, when I asked what I could do to help that perception, I was told I need to add something to the effect of “Hope you are well” or “How are you?” to my emails at minimum, and that I can forget any chance of a promotion if I wasn’t a “part of the crew”. It started with the emails, then manifested as awkward conversations in hallways, staying for after work drinks and dinners. And while not all of it was awful, I would come home, absolutely exhausted. The joy I had felt in my role was completely taken over by the fact that I had to show up and put my “happy human” face on day after day. The loss of self-identity I felt, proceeded to haunt me for the rest of my career, as I became a hollowed out version of myself.

“Have you tried working less or prioritizing?”

I work in a very type-A atmosphere, where slipping on your projects even for on week might cause you to significantly fall behind on the growth curve. Add to that, being a minority, and constantly having to prove myself when it comes to new ideas and innovations. I found my manager and their managers coming to the same conclusions a couple of months later, and would get frustrated at the time wasted. So, at the expense of my own personal life, I decided to escape being marginalized by producing supplementary evidence with any little idea i suggested up front. At least then, I figured, they wouldn’t have to take my word for it, I had evidence from other (homogenous) experts, which would resonate for them. I was simply not considered enough of an expert myself (my academic accolades and work experience would say otherwise). Of course, this then resulted in taking on significantly more work then I had originally anticipated, including working weekends and nights most weeks. As I looked around me, my friends and family started to build this narrative about how I was too work dominant, and was missing the life happening around me. In fact, I was so consumed with making sure I am providing hours and hours of research to supplement my business cases, that I was missing major life events, and delaying others (some of them being time dependent like having children)But for months, I continued like this, because I was made to feel asking for help would equate to defeat in this case. The atmosphere had built up in my head this idea of help meant I wasnt able to handle my responsibilities appropriately. Eventually, several mental breakdowns later, I decided I needed an intervention. I prepared details on on both ROI and workflow, for adding resources. As I gingerly brought up the topic, the discomfort was probably visible in my face and my body language. After my presentation, I was met with the infamous “have you tried working less or prioritizing better?” Of course, this sentence, in itself is harmless- and could potentially even be great advice. But this sentence mixed with the reality of my situation — having taken on an exceptional amount of work in a flagship portfolio, having forgone any dreams of rewards related to performance, and having to deprioritize my life for months- had a huge impact on me. As I fought back tears, I left the meeting with a defeated smile and agreement that I would come back with a prioritized list of responsibilities. Then I went back to work- for the next 16 hours.

As I read back through these stories, they converge on an interaction being the defining point when the realization of despair and angst sets in. These quotes, sans context, are harmless and probably could also serve as sound advice in some cases. The thing to keep in mind is that these quotes, accompanied by the atmosphere that already existed- is the straw that broke the camels back. Sometimes the negatively impactful moment aren't as earth shattering or blatant as we might think of them. For those, who dont feel comfortable or safe brining their full selves to work, its a silent struggle that takes a toll. I have seen the brightest people second guess their worth and competency, all because of simple quotes like the ones above. I have seen people lose their light completely, and turn into shells of themselves, because the struggle of being themselves was too much. I implore you to look for these signs for those in your circle, work or private, the signs are subtle but there. and then create spaces, safe spaces, where people can come be their true selves. Humanize interactions by being vulnerable yourself, and sharing gratitude, if you are one of the ones who is “allowed” to show up as yourself.

And for those, who are code-switching, being marginalized, or not showing up as their true selves, give yourself the love and the care through the networks that truly understand you in all your glory — I ensure you, the world is waiting !