Code Switching: How being “Other” leaves you Empty

Last weekend my husband was arranging to have drinks with friends. One couple we both knew would be there, and their kid is just a little younger than ours. So he asked again if I might like to join them, even though he knew the answer would be no.

I became a mom right before lockdown. Being high risk, I haven’t socialised since then. At first, out of survival. After vaccine roll-out, out of energy conservation and self-care.

It was hard for me to explain – it’s not like these are bad people or people who are anything other than nice to me.

I just knew that being around people often makes me feel lonelier than being alone. It makes me dislike myself.

Then I read this article about code-switching and how it impacts mental health, and it all made sense.

What is Code Switching?

HBR describes it as

“Broadly, code-switching involves adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behaviour, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.”

Changing my appearance, body language and tone to increase someone else’s comfort feels like 70% of being awake to me.

Long before becoming a mom, I learned to double-conceal the genetic dark circles I have under my eyes and curl my straight lashes or suffer people pitying me for being “exhausted”. I learned to layer peach blush under a pink blush so my yellow-toned skin wouldn’t be seen as “sallow” and unhealthy. Interestingly, that same pink flush I fake, is seen in Asian cultures as being a sign of having too much meat in your diet – in other words, pink is a sign of goutiness.

My husband sees me getting ready and doesn’t understand why I need to “look pretty”. I’m not – I’m just fending off the concern.

I also have the misfortune of knowing that there’s been a study which showed people were less inclined to socialise with people who appeared exhausted. Not that I needed it; the biggest revelation for me since discovering makeup was that women were more likely to want to talk to me more, not men.

So right before I’ve even got my shoes on, there’s energy expense to blend in and a worry that I might not have done it well enough.

What Code Switching Looks Like

A simple example is this one from psycentral

“For instance, in certain cultures, greeting someone with a kiss on the cheek is not uncommon. However, in other cultures, a kiss on the cheek might be seen as impolite. A person within that “cheek-kissing” culture may code-switch to a less culturally sensitive greeting — such as a handshake — in a different setting.”

I’ve realised that I code-switch in a number of ways:

  • around disability / disabled people vs around people who are not aware of my health specifics. Most people are very uncomfortable even hearing my say I’m disabled, for example. I’ve learned that talking about how life really is for me makes them sad and sometimes scared.
  • Around geeks who actually know of / understand things I’m interested in vs around non geeks.
  • Around people with mental health issues vs around people who don’t have them.
  • Around immigrants vs Spanish residents in Spain. Or as I like to think of it: “People for whom regaetone is a punchline, vs people for whom it’s just dance music.”
  • Among asians vs non asians (the automatic “I have an asian mom” club membership is non-escapable)
  • Around people with difficult relationships with their family vs around those suspicious ones who claim to get along with them.
  • Around moms /parents vs non parents. I hide the details of my life because I know no one wants me to really talk about my kid.

It feels like I’ve always been code-switching in some dimension my whole life.

Becoming a mom meant that the few people who I could talk to before with less code-switching suddenly didn’t want to hear about the thing that occupies all my time.

Why is Code Switching Bad for our Mental Health?

Here’s the executive summary:

  • It depletes mental and cognitive energy – making us perform worse
  • Creates inauthentic connections, where you have to keep a wall up. This impacts our mental health
  • Increases your experience of stress
  • Greatly increases the odds of burnout

“Seeking to avoid stereotypes is hard work, and can deplete cognitive resources and hinder performance.

Stereotype threat in organizations: Implications for equity and performance.

It’s the small things people take for granted.

Do you know how exhausting it is having to prove I am aware of British children’s TV shows because, yes, I actually did grow up watching the same stuff as everyone else? Or that I remember when bus fare cost 50p from Banbury road to oxford centre? Or that my middle eastern school actually did give me a decent education? Or that I do actually love Blade Runner enough to know obscure trivia and I’m not a fake girl geek? These are just a few examples of some of the assumptions I have to break when meeting new people.

Our memory is fallible and editable. Often, I need to keep reminding people who know me of the above points, because they keep over-writing what I tell them with the stereotypes or what an immigrant or girl geek or whatever, should be.

If that wasn’t stressful enough, A 2012 paper exploring the use of code-switching to manage emotional situations found that when code switchers are put into stressful situations, continuing to code-switch can create anxiety and intensify the stress of the switcher.

“The strain I endured as a person of color just trying to fit in was so taxing,” he said, “that it negatively affected every other part of my life.” But even though he’s at an organization now that’s more focused on diversity, he still struggles to find coworkers to bond with because of his previous experience.

Code-Switching: What It Is and What It Costs Us, psych central

Slicing myself into these various segments and deciding which to reveal vs share feels horrible to me. It’s a behaviour that reinforces that I’m unacceptable to others. That other people can show up as themselves and are worthy of my concern and support, but not vice versa.

When I code switch, I feel like a blueberry pie that’s had all the berries picked off, and the crust removed and the whipped cream scooped off. At a certain point, you have to just admit that the person asking for all the picking apart, just doesn’t like pie.

So why force myself on them? Why go through the work of picking myself apart?

quote: When I code switch, I feel like a blueberry pie that's had all the berries picked off, and the crust removed and the whipped cream scooped off. At a certain point, you have to just admit that the person asking for all the picking apart, just doesn't like pie.

Sometimes Code Switching is a Two Way Street

The truth is, it’s not all one way, this code-switching business. My husband’s friends also code switch around me. They literally switch languages – from Spanish to English- most often.

But even if they don’t, they adjust their speech patterns and word choices to be more easily understood. Jokes and cultural reference points I might not understand are also filtered while speaking.
It’s hard for them too.

Recovery is for people with an In-Group. Burnout is for people without one

It’s just that I don’t have an in-group where I don’t have to code-switch later on, and they do. Not being able to show up as my whole self means I can’t recover and feel revived socially, and they can.

It’s different to spend energy socialising when you know you can get it back by rejuvenating with your ride or dies.

For someone like me, it’s depleting my already exhausted reserves.

Before I was a mom, I could compensate for this by planning my freelance workload to have a free day and keeping that day free or light on tasks and chores. I can’t do that as a mom. I’m not even sure I would want to.

So I’m not sure how to navigate out of this for the minute. I know it will change when she’s older and in a nursery.

But with omicron on the horizon, I don’t like to speculate on the future. Either for nursery or my potential social life.

2 thoughts on “Code Switching: How being “Other” leaves you Empty

  1. “…more lonely than being alone.” That’s a line I wrote in one of my poems some time ago, and a feeling I’ve known well. An honest and powerful blog… thanks for writing it. 👏🏼💚


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