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Learning the Codes of a New Environment

Have you ever been somewhere you thought you were supposed to be and wondered, “What am I doing here?” Perhaps it was a social function, or maybe a conference, or even your job or a family gathering. You may have felt completely invisible or hyper visible. No one paid any attention to you, or everyone wondered who invited you. This could be a pattern in your life, or a rare occurrence. But when it does happen, the emotional impact is the same: surprise and sometimes shock after realizing no matter how warm the welcome, you just don’t fit in. These people are Fish out of Water.

A Fish out of Water may speak in an unconventional way, or could be someone who thinks differently from most. Their cognitive style may be abstract and random while their organization’s culture is concrete and sequential. They can be in the wrong size pond, be a targeted species, or just be one of a few of their kind for the pond they are in. Visionaries without social skills, Paradigm Shifters without patience, Truth Tellers who can’t keep quiet, Shadow Dwellers —people who are unseen and unheard by those in power—are all Fish out of Water.

It is possible for people to thrive in oppressive or uncomfortable climates – but only if they have the skills to adapt to the culture of the organization they are in. Swimming in toxic waters is not an ideal situation, yet may be a necessary for a Fish out of Water. Some are comfortable sitting on the edges of their ponds, others long to swim in the center and the deep waters with the big fish. Being an outsider is painful to most because of the intense human need for social connection. In the worst cases, Fish out of Water have to leave for safer ponds. What helps people to survive in unfamiliar waters is the skill of code switching.

People who are skilled at moving from one environment to another successfully have learned to code switch. People who code switch well discern when different rules are in force, and what those new rules are. Code switching may mean changing your style of language; it always means changing your style of engagement, learning the “house rules” or cultural expectations of wherever you are.

In order to engage successfully in an environment, you must know and meet the expectations of the culture; code switching sometimes helps. People who care about the people with whom they have relationships, constantly check for understanding, ask for clarification, redirect and refine their communication and learn new codes. Problems occur when it is assumed that everyone knows what the rules are. When the prevalent belief is that the cultural expectations are just common sense, Fish out of Water are punished for not using codes they have not been taught.

For a diverse organization to become inclusive, both dominant and non-dominant groups must develop and enhance their code-switching skills. Code-switching for alpha groups means learning the values and adapting to the needs of those in the group who are not part of the dominant culture. For beta groups, code switching means learning the codes of those in power and using them effectively. To choose not to code switch is to choose to be criticized and perhaps marginalized by those who do. Learning to code switch opens doors and opportunities for life-long learning. Healthy organizational cultures encourage code sharing, which is how a third, mutually understood set of codes is developed. When both alphas and betas code share, learning the codes of the others, new codes that are used by everyone in the group are developed and shift the culture of a diverse environment to one that is both diverse and inclusive.

If you are a Fish out of Water, learning the codes of a new environment:
Observe what others are doing. Most people learn the rules of a new environment by watching what others do.
Try it out. Take the risk to experiment – then ask, “Is this how things are done?”
Get a cultural guide. Finding someone who knows and can explain the rules is invaluable.
Increase awareness. Pay attention to what is going on around you.
Reassess and realign. You may stumble once or twice. Learn from your mistakes, ask questions and keep trying.

If you are managing or mentoring a Fish out of Water, teaching the codes of a new environment
Explicate the obvious. If the rules were that obvious, there would be no Fish Out of Water.
Reveal the hidden codes. Treat the Fish out of Water as a new family member, not a guest who will ultimately leave.
Explain house rules. Whether it is cards, basketball, or school, every environment has its own set of rules that must be learned.
Use the rules consistently. Share the contradictions and exceptions to the rules; these are nuanced understanding of the codes.
Teach, don’t punish. Don’t assume, don’t punish, teach the Fish Out of Water what you think they should know.

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