Hi, I have to tell you about a personal experience with languages in the workplace. This is a late response to your column of a few months ago: “Should bilingual co-workers chat in their native tongue?” This is a true story.
I was the leading salesman for my former company when my boss wanted me to sit in on a product demo a hopeful new vendor wanted us to add to our arsenal. We met with the two reps in our conference room at our corporate office. They and the product were from France. After about twenty minutes I asked a legitimate question pertaining to the product’s performance/track record. I wasn’t trying to stump them, but evidently I did as they started talking to each other in French. Well, not only was that extremely rude and totally unprofessional, they had no idea my boss was French Canadian and understood everything perfectly. They then addressed me back in English and said they would have to get back to us. My boss and I of course kept perfect poker faces. When they left, my boss told me that no one had ever asked that before and that they had no idea what to tell us. The two of us had a good laugh. By the way, they never sold us anything, and we never invited them back. So reverting to their native language backfired on them.
Thought this would help your arsenal of dos and don’ts. Our great company has since been sold but my old boss and I remain friends.
G. G., Everett, MA
To paraphrase one of Murphy’s Laws: If something can go wrong, it will; and it will go wrong at the worst possible moment. Your story illustrates the risks a person takes in being surreptitious. You make a comment or discuss an issue using a foreign language thinking people around you won’t know what you are saying, and it turns out they know exactly what you were saying. Maybe you’ll recover, and maybe you won’t. But you can be sure that the one time you really didn’t want to be caught, that’s the time you will be. In your example, if these two vendors needed to have an offline conversation to try to get an answer, they should have been up front and excused themselves: “We need a moment to review and discuss your question. Would you excuse us, please? “
We send emails to one person gossiping or denigrating another. The email gets seen by the person being talked about. During a break on a conference call, we push the mute button and then comment negatively about the people on the call. Unfortunately, that’s the time the button doesn’t engage, and the other party hears our comments. The situations are endless, and the results can be disastrous. Be careful out there. Don’t let Murphy catch you.