Cracking the Code

[This article originally appeared as the “Ground Truths” column in the Fall 2021 Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Tess McCarville, Analyst (Acting), Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

Why is communication so damn hard?

One of the first pieces of feedback I received when transitioning into an office job from the hotshot crew was that my communication style was too blunt. I was supposed to add more fluff. C’mon, fluff…really?! We don’t have time for fluff in this job.

It was amusing because I had honed my communication style to survive in the volatile fire environment. I mean, literally it was a craft. Not because I used the right words to convey where the line was or how far to DP7, but because as a female and racial minority, I had to do some mad code-switching to be deemed credible.

Code-switching is when you shift from one linguistic code to another, depending on the social situation. It’s largely driven by the desire to fit into a cultural norm or tribal identity. Think things like posture, word selection, tone, and other subtle but deliberate non-verbal cues.

As a Korean woman on a shot crew, part of my code-switching strategy was to appear a little less feminine and more masculine. I took a wideset stance. Sometimes I folded my arms in front of me or put my hands in my pockets. I used phrases like, “Hey man!”

Tess McCarville on the Helena Interagency Hotshot Crew.

I talked less and shared fewer opinions than I would in a more diverse group. I tried to show little to no emotions—definitely no tears. And, when I looked in the rearview mirror of the rig, a white woman stared back at me.

I had learned to be white not only because my career success depended on it, but also because my physical safety relied upon my perceived identity. Being accepted and integrated into a tribe gifts trust. Trust on the line equals physical safety.

The code switch is a Jedi trick of sorts. People often don’t know you’re doing it because you’re mirroring their social ecosystem. Most everyone does it to some extent, but the purpose behind minority groups using it is very deliberate. Unfortunately, the ability for certain groups to effectively code switch is a prerequisite to success in our larger culture, not just wildland fire.

Let’s be honest. We’ve built our society and niche cultures to segregate ourselves from uncomfortable racial conversations. We say that we honor through learning. So, here’s a challenge for you: talk about the concept of code-switching in your organization. Listen. Ask questions.

Challenge bias. Acknowledge the effort it takes.

For all you code-switchers out there, I see you.

2 thoughts on “Cracking the Code

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Tess. It is 100% spot on about our ability and need to adapt in different environments to survive.

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