In Language Limbo: Polite transitions over the phone

by epi on July 24, 2012

Q: I do a lot of work for a company that markets its products worldwide.  I regularly telephone sales reps and customers in Latin America and Europe, but I don’t speak any of their languages.  I’ve been told, when calling these offices, simply to speak in English after the other party answers the phone in his own language.  The firm’s overseas employees are all required to know English.  I feel awkward doing this, since I’m essentially imposing my language on them.  Also, beginning the conversation with an apology for not speaking their language seems odd and inappropriate.  What’s the best way to handle this?

A: You may be over-anxious about the situation.  I say this based on the fact that your company’s policy includes a requirement that overseas employees be able to speak English.  That said, you might feel better if you learned how to greet the people you’re calling in their native language before asking them to switch to English.  It would be a nice gesture of respect toward them, and would make you feel less awkward as well.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jody July 24, 2012 at 6:37 am

I like the last couple sentences of the EPI advice. My firm also has overseas offices, and I occasionally need to speak to somebody in one of those offices. I know that the person(s) I call speak fluent English, but occasionally the person’s assistant or receptionist answers the phone. I speak enough French and German to say “hello” and “I’m sorry, I don’t speak much [their language].” I do agree that the other person seems to appreciate my efforts.


Heather July 27, 2012 at 7:09 am

Good advice! When I call people on the phone in Japan, and I know they speak English, I do start by saying in Japanese, “Good morning, I’m sorry but may I speak English?” It feels more polite than just launching in, and also gives them a warning about what is going to happen next.


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