Recently, somebody complimented me for “never speaking Russian” at the workplace. I am unsure whether it was a compliment because it was phrased like me being “very unusual Russian manager.” (Funny enough, that was the first time I realized that I am “a Russian manager.” )
Days later, another person told me that people complained about the same thing – I do not speak Russian at work, and I discourage others from doing so.
Granted, it is not the “Russian” problem, but a problem of speaking a language different from the office official language at the workplace and doing it consistently. I never thought anybody would question the fact that this is an unacceptable practice, but the question keeps coming up, so I decided to write a blog on that subject 🙂
So why do I hold a strong opinion that people should not speak a language different from the workplace’s official language?
The first reason is that it is plain rude. Yes, when you walk on the streets or ride a CTA train, you hear people around you speaking dozens of different languages, and that’s fine. But if you attend a party and start speaking with somebody in a language, other guests can’t understand, it’s rude. It makes a person who does not understand that language very uncomfortable. If you have ever been on the “receiving end” of such a situation, you know what I am talking about. When you are sitting in a nail spa, and you hear technicians talking to each other in a language you do not understand, you can’t stop thinking they talk about you, especially if they burst into a laugh every minute!
Ok, it may be disrespectful when there are other people around, but what about the situations when there is no nobody else present? You talk to your co-worker with whom you share a mother tongue; what harm is there?
Here comes the second reason: when you communicate in a specific language, you think in that language at the moment. Multiple scientific experiments proved that people do not think “abstract thoughts.” People think using one of the languages they know. If a person speaks only one language, it is often difficult to catch a thought process and realize that you think in words, not abstract thoughts. But any bilingual person (or any multi-lingual person) would tell you that they know which language they think in at any given moment. So if one feels that it’s easier for them to express themselves in a professional environment in their native language, for me, that’s an indicator that they should work more on improving their language skills, at least in the professional area.
I will repeat it (if I didn’t express myself clearly :)) – communications at the workplace are extremely important, and your co-workers should understand your thoughts and decision-making process. If you discussed a problem only with a couple of co-workers who understand your native language and give the rest of the team a summary (it will be brief because, at that point, you might need to translate your discussion, which is more difficult), many important details might end up being skipped. I observed the situations when after a week (or more) of development, it would appear that different parts of the team were solving different problems 🙂
The loss of meaning might be significant. Also, if you “rather use your native language,” you will be subconsciously avoiding discussions with others, thus limiting the pool of co-workers who can contribute to the discussion. To summarise: if you do not feel that you are fluent in the office official language, keep practicing, looking up the words you do not know, and listen to other people.
And the last reason. Keeping communications limited to the office official language can save you from embarrassment. Because guess what: you never know who might understand you! Many years ago, I talked on the phone while riding a Metra train, and the conversation topic was very personal. When I hung up, my fellow commuter cheerfully addressed me in Russian and informed me that she learned the language at school in her home country. There was one even more embarrassing situation at one of my workplaces with the Open Office. The office was relatively big, and my neighbor was a consultant who didn’t know that I speak Russian.
Once, another co-worker stopped by and started talking to her in Russian, unaware that I understood the conversation. First, it was all fine, but after five minutes of conversation, he started to badmouth one co-worker after another, saying horrible things about each of them. First, I didn’t say anything because I hoped it wouldn’t last long, and then after twenty minutes(!) I felt awkward announcing that I understood everything which was said so far, so I kept quiet and tried to work. It lasted for another hour, and I heard a lot! You might argue that nobody should speak badly about co-workers anyway, yet along with taking 1.5 hours of consultant’s time, but still!
I can go on and on with examples, but I hope that my point is clear. Such behavior is unprofessional.