top of page

"Use Your White Voice": Code-Switching at Work

What Is Code-Switching

The topic of code-switching is more prevalent than ever in recent years and has become conceptually associated with the African American community. Dictionally defined as the process of shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting, the term code-switching is generally coupled with mental images of Black Americans switching from speaking in a Black English dialect to a White “standard” English dialect. Why is this? Well, not only has code-switching been discussed in conversations on topical issues such as diversity, equity, and inclusion, but it has now been seen in mass media. One of the best examples of this was the 2018 film Sorry to Bother You, in which a young, Black telemarketer is encouraged by a peer to code-switch when speaking on the phone with White clientele as a sure way increase his over-the phone sales; resulting in the infamous line,

“If you want to make some money here, use your White voice.”

Although this was one of the most widely broadcasted examples of code-switching, the concept has been around for much longer within sociolinguistic and psychology research. In fact, some of the first examples of code-switching were observed within a rural, Norwegian community (Blom & Gumperz, 1972). While there, researchers found that code-switching can occur within the same or between conversations and can vary based on contextual factors such as conversation setting, participants, and the topic that is being discussed. Similarly, when applied to the United States, the same behavior phenomenon was observed within the African American community (Debose, 1992). African Americans openly discussed how they would use the same social cues when deciding whether to speak in a familiar Black English dialect, commonly known as AAVE, or to assimilate through code-switching by speaking in a White “standard” English dialect in settings where the racial majority is made up of White people. This was, and still is, used as a behavioral assimilation tool in the workplace to avoid discrimination or other harmful consequences faced not only by Black Americans, but other members of racial minority groups when speaking in a “non-standard” English dialect.


Although commonly defined that way, code-switching isn’t limited to speech. Broadly, code-switching has manifested into additional assimilation behaviors used by Black Americans as well members of other racial minority groups within American organizations. These behaviors often remove many aspects of one’s own ethnic cultural identity to assimilate to the dominant White culture and can include,

  1. Changing clothing worn/dress style

  2. Altering hair