Q: Is it proper etiquette in an English speaking call center for two of the bilingual (Spanish speaking) to hold a non-business conversation in Spanish?D. K., Lithonia, GA.
A. Yes, D. K., it can be frustrating when two people are talking in a language you don’t understand. Basically, anytime people are in close proximity to each other and they are communicating in a way that other people can’t understand, they should speak in a language everyone can understand or move to a more private place to continue their conversation. The problem is one of perspective. For the people conversing in another language, it's a non-business conversation. A person whose primary language is German told me that after hours of speaking English, it was a pleasure for him to be able to talk with a friend for a few minutes in German. Unfortunately, from the perspective of the person who doesn’t understand what is being said, the perception is that the content of the conversation is gossip or something they don’t want to others to hear. Whenever a person is excluded, whatever the reason, it can cause frustration, hurt feelings or misunderstanding. Unfortunately, speaking in a that others don’t understand is a form of exclusion, just as whispering is.
It’s unfortunate that this question devolves into the black and white world of “what’s the rule?” when, in fact, it is fraught with shades of gray. It’s situational. The real etiquette in the question is one of consideration and respect with a good dose of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. If the people speaking another language are having a quiet conversation apart from others and you happen to walk by them, I don’t think they are doing anything intrinsically wrong. However, if you are having lunch in the break room and the two people joined you, the considerate thing for them to do would be to switch to a language you also understood.
The bottom line: If you want that break from speaking in a language that is not your primary language, try to do it in a way that won’t be misperceived by others and don’t use the privacy it affords to gossip or hide your conversation from others. On the other hand, if two people are speaking in a language you don’t understand, try to give them the benefit of the doubt and don’t assume they are doing anything other than enjoying a few minutes of respite from the efforts of the work world. The real remedy to the issue is a healthy dose of thoughtfulness on everyone’s part.
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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
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Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.
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