Office Speak: When the use of different languages become a breach of courtesy

by epi on August 14, 2012

Q: I hope you can advise me on the etiquette regarding speaking one’s non-English native language at work.  I have three co-workers in my group whose native language is Russian, and they’ve always had occasional conversations in Russian.  Our office has an open floor plan, however, and now two of these workers sit next to each other (and me).  All of the frequent conversation between them is in Russian.  I find this behavior distracting and excluding, but I’m not sure if it is actually a breach of business courtesy.  Can you tell me if it is, and suggest a kind way of addressing it?

A: The key to your question is that part where you describe the situation as being “distracting and excluding.”  Feeling distracted is a business issue, while feeling excluded is a personal issue.  Let’s tackle them one at a time: First, all business communications and conversations should always be conducted in a language everyone can understand.  Your company is responsible for establishing a policy about which language is to be used for business conversation and communication in the workplace.  The language issue aside, any nonwork-related conversations in an open floor plan are distracting, and should be kept to an absolute minimum if conducted at all.  The best way to deal with this situation is, again, for management to institute policies that clearly spell out what is and isn’t acceptable conversation in the open floor plan area.  If people wish to have a discussion — either business or personal — they should move to a place where they won’t bother those around them.  If your company has no such policy, propose one to your manager.  Better yet, if other employees feel the way you do, invite them to present the idea with you.  From the personal point of view, exclusionary conversations are unacceptable in the workplace.  A language barrier isn’t the only way to make someone feel excluded.  Whenever people whisper to each other, they send out the same exclusionary message.  If two people wish to have a personal conversation, instead of whispering or conversing in another language that others don’t understand, they should immediately move to a private place.  Your co-workers are definitely pushing the bounds of considerate behavior in this regard, but you need to decide if the issue is important enough for you to say something to them.  Instead of asking them to speak English, maybe you could simply ask them to move to another area if they want to have a personal conversation, so you can concentrate on your work.  This way, it’s all about being considerate, rather than becoming an issues of language.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon August 14, 2012 at 7:38 am

I have to politely disagree. I speak a second language and know some of a third. I LOVE using it. I don’t want to lose my language skills. When I find out that someone else speaks my second language, I feel very excited and happy, and love to talk to them.

I think that if people want to talk in Russian, that’s fine, as long as business communication is in a language that everyone understands. It’s fine for them to communicate personal stuff in Russian. Plus, maybe they are like me and just really love using their other language. Maybe they struggle with English. Maybe they just want to chat or need to vent about something–maybe even something that has nothing to do with you–without everyone getting in their business.

I’d say that the best advice is that it’s OK to say that you want to focus on your work, like EPI suggested, and make it about the noise. That lets them speak Russian without interfering with you or your work, and lets both people have what they want.

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Joanna August 14, 2012 at 8:13 am

I also speak a second language — in a city where this particular language is rather common — and there are also a few other languages with large speaker populations in the area. Nonetheless, I NEVER converse with anyone in anything other than English at work, unless there is a professional reason. (There have been a few occasions where I have been asked to translate for a non-English-speaking client, etc.)

As far as I see it, people become paranoid when they do not understand the conversation going on right around them. Of course, the odds are, the conversation has nothing to do with them; but most of us hear someone talking around them and we are instantly transported back to our adolescent selves, worried that we are being talked about. So that to me is the main reason for keeping things English-only — it isn’t polite or kind to put people into a situation where they are uncomfortable because they have to wonder if they’re being talked about or even possibly ridiculed.

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Lisa October 29, 2013 at 1:33 pm

I agree with Joanna. Im the only person out of 3 that work in my office and Im the only one who doesn’t know the 2nd language. They talk frequently amongst themselves and I can pretty much tell when its work related or social and its mostly social. I think if they want to have conversations they should either be English since its always in front of me or speak on their own time instead of company time. I do feel at times they are talking about me. Especially if I get reprimanded for something they also do, so then I feel discriminated against. Its just not a great feeling at all.

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Just Laura August 14, 2012 at 9:25 am

I agree with EPI on this one, mainly because another language (ASL) is used in my office sometimes, but not everyone in the office understands it. Obviously when a person who is Deaf enters, those of us who can sign use ASL. However, when talking amongst ourselves, the use of ASL is exclusionary and other people have pointed it out when I have lapsed into it by accident. It can make others feel as if I am talking about them, even if I am not.
The EPI advice isn’t discouraging the use of different languages; rather, EPI suggests taking personal conversations of any nature into a private area.

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Michael March 3, 2013 at 10:52 am

I had this issue before. I had been at work and a few Indian women were talking Hindi and giggling at me. So I decided to purchase a hindi language set and shocked them the next time the did that. I do not find it a bad thing to speak a language I do not know even in a business conversation. I bet you would do the same thing if the native language was Russian and you had a partner who spoke English. If I were you I would use it as a reason to learn Russian. I studied Russian in high school and I had studied Chinese, Arabic, French and Japanese in college. I studied Portuguese on my trip to Sao Paulo Brazil. I am learning Vietnamese, Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Turkish, Tagalog, Italian, and Spanish independently.

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Jerry August 14, 2012 at 10:21 am

As an initial matter, EPI got this exactly right and for the right reasons — you stop co-workers from engaging in an annoying behavior by explaining how it diminishes your productivity. I will only add that exclusionary conversations, even conversations that are entirely social, are bad for workplace morale. Why are they bad? If we work together, and you’ve engaged in a pattern or practice of excluding me, do you really think I’m going to stay late to help you when you need it?

Americans, by and large, are monolinguals. And in this country, it is per se rude to speak any language other than the dominate one. Why? Because there can be no legitimate debate that speaking a second language does, indeed, exclude people. Anon: one’s preference to speak a second language is irrelevant. If you’re in a mixed group of people — even if you want to chat or need to vent — you speak the common language. Otherwise, you go somewhere private where you can speak your second language to your heart’s content. This is really not that hard a concept.

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jill June 11, 2013 at 2:48 pm

i totally agree , i am 1 of 3 in an office where the other 2 woman speak different language and I only speak english , when they speak its NOISE to me and extremely distragting and rude….speak your language at home, here in USA speak the language we speak..period..i am not feeling excluded but they are being ignorant to the fact its just rude.

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Chocobo August 14, 2012 at 11:13 am

I agree with EPI to the extent that the second-language speakers are able to speak the common language of the office. I cannot fault those who can only speak ASL, or who can only speak Russian, for communicating in the only way they know how. But that is a rare exception and does not sound like the case for the submitter’s co-workers.

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Vanna Keiler August 14, 2012 at 1:42 pm

For what it’s worth, I agree with EPI and the general consensus that speaking a different language than the group norm is considered a breach of etiquette (i.e. not very friendly) and not good office etiquette. The focus is not on two people sharing a foreign language together and enjoying a feeling of comraderie, it is the “other” person who is silently excluded. When one works in an office environment, it is HIGHLY distracting to hear a foreign language being spoken in close proximity to you, day in and day out. I applaud the individual who had to endure this. I also speak a foreign second language, but would never speak it regularly between myself and second person to the exclusion of another on a regular basis, whether it is in a personal or office setting. Who would want someone else to feel uncomfortable? Indeed, I would even consider this behavior lending to a somewhat hostile work environment.

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Heather August 14, 2012 at 4:48 pm

This brings up another question for me. Last week I took my infant son to a university to volunteer in an experiment. It involved scientists videotaping and analyzing our play. However, the two main experimenters paused to whisper to each other several times during the set-up. For example, Scientist 1 would say to me, “Okay, stand over here.” Then she’d turn to Scientist 2, and have a murmured, whispered back-and-forth. Then to me, “Actually, I think we’re finished. Thanks for your help.” I’m sure they were just discussing practicalities but it was extremely off-putting. Like someone mentioned above, I immediately felt like I was back in 7th grade and the cool kids were deciding whether I could join their team!

So anyway, my question is– Should I (May I) have said something? I didn’t. But after I left, I thought, Perhaps I should have said with a smile, “The whispering is a little off-putting…” Did I do right in just letting it go?

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Just Laura August 14, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Because they needed to speak with each other about you specifically, and what they were saying may have changed your behavior in the experiment, I see no problem with what they did. The relationship you had with them wasn’t a peer-to-peer relationship as in the business world or with your friends; rather, it was a scientist-to-subject relationship for which you volunteered.

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Mariette's Back to Basics August 14, 2012 at 5:13 pm

There are many different aspects here. Chatting with colleagues during work time is in my opinion not polite. We all should focus on the job and not get distracted. During break times, that is different. But very often my husband or myself had to speak one of several foreign languages while on the phone. There might be a colleague in the same room as well, but one cannot expect the person on the phone to switch to English. Funny was that when we finished the phone conversation we would continue in the foreign language to our colleague till they gave us that look: hey, wait a minute I can’t follow you. That’s the mind shift between languages. But as a fact that Americans, by and large are monolinguals, also means that they barely can voice an opinion about this. It is however a somewhat childish, personal reaction for thinking that the other language is being used for conversing about them. It could be very well about helping each other dealing with a problem they’re facing. Probably they cannot yet explain it in detail in English. Often after almost 3 decades I have to revert to my mother tongue for conveying a certain word, with the help of my husband. The verdict in my opinion is a bit harsh, for the monolinguals they should try to step into the shoes of those foreign language speakers. Believe me, for speaking a foreign language at work all day, does wear you out more than any physical work! For that I can speak from experience as having been an international consultant; dealing with seven languages.
It also very much depends on what kind of job you are talking. That has not become clear in this Q & A example.
Sincerely,

Mariette

PS: the question also states: having ‘occasional’ conversations in Russian…

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Ken September 17, 2012 at 4:50 pm

Yes, most Americans are monolingual but you came here not the other way around. If I move to your native country, then I’d better be fully capable and able to speak the native tongue(s). Because I moved there, it’s a matter of respect for your host nation that when you chose to leave your country that you would have to adapt. Not the other way around and believe me, most of time when foreign speakers choose their native tongue it is due to a covert conversation.

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Jonico October 4, 2012 at 9:13 am

Give me a break, Ken. Suppose you and 3 or 4 other Americans were working at a big office in Bulgaria, and suppose you even spoke some Bulgarian, when talking amongst yourselves with your other American colleagues, you’d speak in English.
If you still insist that you wouldn’t, I’d strongly suspect that you’ve never lived abroad.

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Joseph December 20, 2012 at 11:38 am

I speak three languages and I’ve lived in several countries; however I believe it is extremely impolite to have a discussion in ANY setting – professional or social – in a language other than the one the majority of the group speaks, unless there are mitigating factors:

1- the persons involved in the conversation don’t speak the local language (i.e. the Americans in Bulgaria)
2- the situation requires speaking in another language (i.e. translating for the benefit of others or speaking to a customer in their native tongue)

It doesn’t matter if you’re American, Indian, German or Brazilian, at work or having dinner with 2 friends.

If you’re having dinner with two friends and you all speak German, yet during the dinner conversation your two friends switch to English which you don’t understand – rude.

If you are in a work meeting and 2 people have a loud conversation in Hindi while the rest of you look on baffled – unprofessional.

If you sit in an open plan office in the States and your coworkers speak to each other in Spanish all day long – unprofessional.

Regardless of situation or nationality, the proper etiquette is to speak in the language everyone understands which you (presumably) can also speak.

If you feel the need to speak to each other in a different language, move to a private location or wait until you are alone.

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Shoaib February 11, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Speaking in multi Language is okay. But at a workplace, its considered rude. Specially when you are a minority in that language. I work in Canada alongside a group of chinese people. All of them are amazing only until they dont start speaking in Mandarin or Cantonese.
We have a open concept floor plan in the office, and I just hate it when they start talking in their mother tongue.

I am a multi language speaker but when i am speaking to anyone in the office I use ENGLISH. Even though the person I am trying to communicate with speaks the same language as me.

I just wonder if someone can help me fix this issue in this office and I can have them stop speaking in Chinese. Is there a LAW or a BY LAW that works with it ???

Neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPP

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Cynthia Campbell March 6, 2013 at 1:55 pm

I am looking for a Video on “Speaking a Foreing Language at the Workplace. I would like to conduct in In-service of this. Can you help?

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Elizabeth March 6, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Cynthia,
This board is moderated by volunteers. You should contact the EPI (Emily Post Institute) directly.

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Iamsumaty April 17, 2013 at 4:59 pm

It is a natural process for our brains to try to understand the world around us. Unfortunately, it is that very process that becomes a distraction when unfamiliar languages are spoken around us in the workplace. It becomes difficult to concentrate on our work when our brain is asking, “What’s that? What’s that sound?” I applaud and admire people that are multi-lingual. However, it would be nice if they could appreciate the effect their chattering has on us poor monolinguals.

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Tracy Barnes January 9, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Ken has it right!

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Ann June 3, 2014 at 5:08 pm

My supervisor at a state job speaks in Spanish to one of my co-workers while in his cubicle. I brought thi up in a unit meeting and he dismissed my request that they do not speak Spanish while at the work station. I expalined that it is exclusionary and raises questions as to what they are talking about. Today I had a conflict with this co-employee and she and the Supervisor spent 20 minutes speaking in Spanish and I have no doubt it was about me as a bit later he asked me to talk to him about the incident I had just had with the co-worker. It’s not simply rude, it disallows equity in access to the supervisor.

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Obama July 5, 2014 at 3:22 am

I agree with Ken. Communication is the key to success in life and in work! Poly-lingual work environments are hectic. I don’t think it’s racist for an employer to enforce an English only policy. Think about it. If the Martians landed in the U.S. and insisted that we learn how to serve them food in their language, we would have to write the menu in Martian and English, even if the military managed to capture their ships.

Just about every book out there is written in English, even the Bible, which was originally written in ancient languages such Hebrew, Latin, Syriac, Aramaic, and Greek. I personally don’t speak Greek and cannot work comfortably in Greece until I learn the language. I went to college in NYC and worked with foreigners who speak English fluently. I am actually learning two languages just so I can communicate openly when I travel, without having to depend on a paid tour guide. The real question is: Whats wrong with walking around naked at work?

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Mattnug August 24, 2014 at 9:06 am

I would fire the employee who was so emotionally small and petty to complain about personal workplace conversations of others let alone the language in which the conversation was held. If said person was so “professional,” she would would be focused on her task and not those around her. This type of personality will always find something to complain about.

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