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Shades of gray

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 donít understand. Basically, anytime people are in close proximity to each other and they are communicating in a way that other people canít 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 doesnít understand what is being said, the perception is that the content of the conversation is gossip or something they donít 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 donít understand is a form of exclusion, just as whispering is.

Itís unfortunate that this question devolves into the black and white world of ďwhatís the rule?Ē when, in fact, it is fraught with shades of gray. Itís situational. The real etiquette in the question is one of consideration and respect with a good dose of putting yourself in the other personís shoes. If the people speaking another language are having a quiet conversation apart from others and you happen to walk by them, I donít 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 wonít be misperceived by others and donít 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 donít understand, try to give them the benefit of the doubt and donít 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 everyoneís part.

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