Cultural Switching

As we learned earlier, individuals who are fully immersed in more than one culture likely have a bicultural or multicultural identity, which may or may not be associated with language ability or proficiency. Bicultural individuals may experience difficulty balancing identities because of the influence of both cultures. Bicultural identity may also have positive effects on individuals, in terms of the additional knowledge they acquire from belonging to more than one culture. Using knowledge from more than one culture, individuals are able to make cognitive, behavioral and linguistic switches to negotiate different social interactions and situations. We are going to learn about two types of cultural switching:

  • Cultural frame switching
  • Code switching

Cultural Frame Switching

Cultural frame switching refers to the process of bicultural or multicultural individuals accessing different culture-specific mental modules or changing their perspective of the world, depending on the language that is used (Hong, Chiu, & Kung, 1997). Research with bicultural individuals has shown that the presence of culture-specific cues can elicit culture-specific, attributions values and personality differences. Benet-Martinez and colleagues (2002) found that Chinese American biculturals displayed more internal attributions when primed with American icons (e.g., Superman), and more external attributions when primed with Chinese icons (e.g., Great Wall) Similarly, Hong Kong Chinese and Chinese Americans generated more collective self-descriptions when their Chinese identity was activated, than did North Americans. In a different study, North Americans and Chinese Americans generated more individual self-descriptions, when their American identity was activated, than did Hong Kong Chinese (Hong, Ip, Chiu, Morris, & Menon, 2001).

Different personality traits were activated among Spanish – English bilinguals when completing a personality questionnaire in English (Ramírez-Esparzaa, Goslinga, Benet-Martínez, Potter & Pennebaker, 2004). Spanish-English speakers scored higher on measures on Extraversion, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness when completing the questionnaire in English.


Got Milk
Cultural differences in language and meaning can lead to some interesting encounters. Got Milk literally translated into Spanish means ‘Are You Lactating?’ [Image Public Domain]

From a practical standpoint, culturally influenced differences in language and meaning can lead to some interesting encounters, ranging from awkward to informative to disastrous. Words in two different languages that may seem to be exact translations of each other are likely to have different sets of culture-specific conceptual associations. For example, in Taiwan, Pepsi used the slogan “Come Alive with Pepsi” only to later find out that when translated it meant, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead” (Kwintessential Limited, 2012). Another example is the ‘Got Milk? campaign which was very successful in the United States. When this phrase was translated literally into Spanish as “Tienes (Do you have) Leche (milk)?” for use in its Hispanic media debut there were some serious problems. That particular phrase is taken literally in the Hispanic culture to mean, “Are you lactating?” This was definitely not what the advertisers had in mind but underscores the importance of cultural frame switching when engaging bicultural or multicultural individuals.

Code Switching

Code-switching involves changing from one way of speaking to another between or within interactions and includes changes in accent, dialect, language (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Code-switching can also refer to the process of multicultural individuals using more than one language in conversation or other communicative acts (e.g., gestures, body language, and understood contexts). By using different languages at the same time the brain switches back and forth between transmitting and receiving messages. Code-switching among multicultural individuals creates a dual communication system in which people are able to maintain their identities with their in-group but can still acquire tools and gain access needed to function in larger dominant society (Yancy, 2011).

There are many reasons that people might code-switch. There has been cross-cultural research indicating that an accent can activate stereotypes and change perceptions (Bourhis, Giles & Lambert, 1975; Dixon & Mahoney, 2004). In the United States, people who have a Southern accent are perceived as being less intelligent and having a lower socioeconomic status when compared to individuals with a standard American accent (Phillips, 2010). If an individual believes that their accent is leading others to form unfavorable impressions, they can consciously change their accent with much practice and effort. Once their ability to speak without their Southern accent is honed, they may be able to switch very quickly between their native accent when speaking with friends and family and their modified accent when speaking in professional settings.


Indian men at a call center.
Some Indian call center workers complete intense training to so they can code-switch and accommodate the speaking style of their customers [Call Centre Operators Image by ILO CC BY- NC-ND 3.0]

Increased outsourcing and globalization have produced heightened pressures for code-switching among call center workers in India. Although many Indians learn English in school as a result of British colonization, their accents often active negative stereotypes and reactions among Western customers calling for help or customer service support. Some Indian call center workers completed intense training to be able to code-switch and accommodate the speaking style of their customers (Pal, 2004) and there has been a growing trend toward accent neutralization as a response to racist verbal abuse call center workers receive from customers (Nadeem, 2012).

People who work or live in multilingual settings may code-switch many times throughout the day, or even within a single conversation. Some cultural linguists have argued that as a result of social media, the majority of Americans engage in code-switching regularly. Words like text, tweet, liked, googled and communicating with symbols (e.g., emojis) are used every day, across technological platforms and by individuals of all ages. Also, within the United States, some people of color may engage in code-switching when communicating with dominant group members because they fear they may be negatively judged and switching may minimize perceived differences. Code-switching may also signal a shift from formal interactions to more informal interactions and individuals may code-switching to reinforce their ingroup identity (Heller, 1992).

As our interactions continue to occur in more multinational contexts, the expectations for code-switching and accommodation are sure to increase. It is important for us to consider the intersection of culture and power to think critically about the ways in which expectations for code-switching may be based on cultural biases and how we can avoid ethnocentric bias and misinterpretations.


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Culture and Psychology Copyright © 2020 by L D Worthy; T Lavigne; and F Romero is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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