Intersections of Identities at Work

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Starting with a news story from the BBC, we unpack the pressures of work and how they intersect with personal identities.

The BBC recently published a news piece titled, "Why it's hard for people of color to be themselves at work."  It is a very comprehensive article that we recommend you check out.  We will outline and synthesize some main points here.

Code-Switching

person on computer with headset smilingFirst, some individuals have more than one social group they interact with and each social group can have its own distinct set of vocabulary, mannerisms, and other norms.  These individuals often alternate between the two languages while at work.  This is called "code switching,"  This NPR new piece describes "Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch."

  1. It's inadvertent
  2. We want to fit in
  3. We want to get something
  4. We want to say something in secret
  5. It helps us convey a thought

The BBC news piece suggests the problem of code-switching at work is based around the predominant "code" in our workplace: corporate culture is systemically white.

The BBC news piece suggests that code-switching is exhausting.  Think about it.  If you talk the same way in your personal life, with friends and family, as you do at work then you can drift between the two worlds with relative ease.  However, if you have to subconsciously think "where am I right now" and then change your language and mannerisms to fit in, that's extra mental work.

How does this manifest in our workplaces?  Some of our coworkers may respond a little slower, being more deliberate and careful with their words.  This may be because they are trying to find the best "academic culture" words to fit into the conversation, essentially code-switching in the moment.  It is taxing and exhausting to code-switch.

Another way this occurs is in other communication like email.  Just like verbal communication, code-switching in email is taxing.  You might not realize this, but some coworkers might have to re-read their emails several times before sending just to make sure they didn't use any words their boss might find unfavorable.  It is even more traumatic for the employee when they receive email replies with questions like, "Why would you say it like this?"  As much as some people try to code-switch, it's an ongoing challenge and extra work.

Code-Switching Working from Home

For some individuals, working at home has been a wonderful experience.  Some individuals have a comfortable house, reliable internet, and pets that don't jump onto their laps during a Zoom meeting.  Not all individuals have a "ready made" work from home environment and it can be mentally exhausting to put forth tremendous effort to fit in to this new work from home experience.

As previously discussed, language and mannerisms are part of the extra load of code-switching mental work that some employees undertake.  What about the extra work of code-switching online?

Employees who have spent years cultivating a white-friendly version of themselves have now been asked to explain their experiences as people of color in the workplace – expressly highlighting the very things they’ve been taught to downplay.

Again, this relies on the premise that corporate culture is systemically white which is an argument the BBC news piece makes.  Some individuals have worked hard to code-switch from 9-to-5 and now are being challenged to adapt a large physical space in their home to this systemically white corporate culture.  As the BBC news piece suggests, this can be traumatizing.

Summary

The recent BBC news piece Why it's hard for people of color to be themselves at work is a very comprehensive article that we recommend you check out.  It includes numerous web links embedded within it that can lead you to more information if a particular subtopic interests you.

If you remember one thing, remember this: It might be easy for you to be yourself at work.  It might not be so easy for your colleague.