Monday, August 15, 2011

Manners Monday: Avoid Speaking Another Language in Front of Others

I hope you all had a great weekend, I'm picking up the Manners Monday series once again and I have several topics in the queue. Today's topic was prompted by my own personal experience this summer. It's one that many probably don't think twice about but it's good to be mindful of.

A classy woman is warm and makes others feel welcome, doing her best to include others and make them feel included when in conversation or in her presence. Everyone likes to feel as though they are part of the group, whether they are conversing with others or just listening as they may not have anything particular to contribute. One way to make everyone feel comfortable is to avoid using native languages that are foreign to others in the group, it's just good social etiquette.

I live in Florida so many people in the state speak Spanish. While I've picked up a few words here and there, I'm far from being able to carry on a full conversation. A few weeks ago a group of us went out for dinner after church. Because of the size of our group, we waited in the waiting area of the restaurant for ten minutes for our table to be ready and others to join us. A friend that I had driven over with and one of her other friends are both originally from Puerto Rico so they are fluent in Spanish although they both typically speak English the majority of the time.

We all chatted for a bit in English and then the two of them began having a separate conversation in Spanish for a few minutes including some laughter. I knew they hadn't seen one another for a few days but I couldn't help but feel left out. I wondered what they were talking about but just sat quietly waiting  for them to finish. The other woman looked over and noticed that I was looking around the room and said, "I hope you don't mind that we're speaking Spanish". Of course I just smiled and said, "No, it's okay". To me this is the equivalent of whispering in front of others in the group which is equally impolite.

On the flip side, my hubby and I were on a cruise last Christmas and had the pleasure of dining with six others every evening. I love meeting new people and making new friends on vacation. To my surprise everyone at the table spoke Spanish, it was an older couple from Uruguay and another couple with children in their early 20's from Mexico City. I was so glad to have their children sitting next to us as they, although young, were mindful of  the language barrier and had enough courtesy to do some translating to make us feel welcome as they were bilingual. We all became friends over those 14 days and actually looked forward to seeing them each night. That is the difference between making others feel invited vs.excluded.

Funny enough, this week I was attending a work meeting where it was stressed to those that speak a second language to not carry on conversations with their colleagues in front of customers other than in English as it can alienate others. Certain languages such as Cantonese for example have a unique sound that to others could be perceived as yelling or sound angry due to the nature of the tone of the language.

Obviously if someone were in an elevator or around complete strangers, it's acceptable. However, in the presence of others whom you know or are getting to know, the best thing to do is speak in a language you all understand. If something is urgent and you really need to speak in your own native language, it's best to take it to the ladies room or excuse yourself from the group as you would while taking a cell phone call and head outside or to another room.

I've observed situations where others appeared to be excluded from a group for one reason or another and they've whipped out their iPhone and started texting someone or checking their email or facebook page as a way to occupy themselves. However, I don't believe in responding to another's inconsiderate behavior with more inconsiderate behavior. I typically sit tight and and wait patiently or excuse myself to find someone else in the room to speak with instead.

How do YOU handle situations where others speak in another language in front of you when they are capable of speaking English (or your primary language)?


  1. I hate the feeling of being excluded when others speak in a language I don't understand. I have been trying to learn Spanish and Italian. Even ASL so I am more prepared at my job and in the community.

  2. Hi Karla! So glad to see you back here on the blog! I've missed your posts... Yes, I DO have experience with this because over half my family is Puerto Rican, and I am (for the most part) lost in a spanish conversation. You're right - it IS frustrating and alienating...and I agree, it is the equivalent of whispering in front of people.- How are you doing these days?

  3. I totally agree with this post...Especially when in my situation I have extended family that speaks other languages... and they will speak it infront of the rest of the fam who dont understand... and makes us wonder what they are realllyyy saying! Not so classy indee. Great post!

  4. OMG!! This is really one of my pet-hates. My mother-in-law (who is Spanish) used to do it ALL the time to me. Finally, I decided to get up and walk out of the room (if possible) whenever she did it. Now she doesn't do it because I understand Spanish! I think because of this, our relationship never developed in a positive way, and I am convinced this was one of the reasons. I felt it was her way of speaking to her son (my husband) and excluding me.
    You are so right. It is like whispering in front of other people.
    Great to see you back Karla xx

  5. While I haven't really experienced that situation I have been in situations where I was with a friend and a group of her friends and felt left out of the conversation completely. For instance I was with a friend and some of her golf league friends and they spoke for quite some time about different situations at their club and people whom I'd never met. I just sat there feeling uncomfortable.

  6. Dear Karla, is it polite or not to speak in front of someone when they do not know your language. My sister in law speaks French in front of me when speaking to her children??

    1. Hi Regina! It is impolite to speak in front of someone when they do not know the language spoken, however I think there should be an exception made as it pertains to children. I have a few friends of my own who speak to their children in English as well as one or two other languages. When children are young is the optimal time to have them learn another language so parents will often lead with the non-English language as they'll pick it up easily anyway. Having said that, when in someone's company, if it's a private matter, the other person should apologize and let you know it was a private matter or give you a brief synopsis. For example: I was just telling my daughter that she needs to go upstairs and put her pajamas on for bedtime. In that way you'd feel more included and as though you were a part of the conversation even though you don't know the language. If the child speaks English perfectly well, for that moment you were in her presence, your sister-in-law could have opted to speak in English vs. French.

  7. Im having the same issue with my Mother-in-law. It's rude period and she knows it but I dont think she cares. I dont even like my mil staying with us anymore because it is annoying and my husband is not accomidating nor does he understand. I hate the holidays because that is when she comes. I cant wait for her to leave.

    1. Tiffany, thanks for your candor. I'm so sorry hear you're experiencing this, especially during the holidays which is supposed to be a wonderful time of year! She is probably used to speaking another language with your husband and she is set in her ways. Having said that, she is a guest in your home and should be more mindful that it would make you feel excluded. It just makes you wonder what they are talking about if they can't speak freely in front of you, in which case they just need to speak privately when they are alone and not while you're in the room where you'll feel left out. Hopefully she'll be headed home soon. Have you thought about telling her how you feel? Perhaps you could let her know that you understand she's probably used to speaking to her son in their native language but you feel excluded and uncomfortable when they choose not to speak in English. Hopefully sharing how you feel and address it head on will solve the problem.

  8. Hi Karla! my mother-tongue isn't english and i do live in a country where my native language is the official language. Although in my country,everyone learns at least two other languages from a young age on, so most people here are able to talk to people we don't share a mother-tongue with. i don't know if you are fluent in another language than your mother-tongue, but if this is the case, you will certainly know how much more easier talking in your native language is than in a second or maybe third language. i personally feel as if in english i am not really able to express myself in the way i would if we where speaking in my mother-tongue. when i meet other people who don't speak my language, we try to communicate in a language we both know. but i feel as if people in the english-speaking world do judge you based on your accent. in movies, for example, the evil character often talks in a stereotyped way of my language, which i find really offensive. furthermore, people seem to think that just because i am not that fluent in english, i am not as intelligent as them. what i find really rude is when people who speak only one language force all others to talk in their language with them. like the example you mentioned, in which everyone on the table except you and your husband spoke spanish, but you wanted them to talk to you in a language in which none of them felt as comfortable as in their own language! i find it very rude to speak just 1 language and expect everyone to make an effort for you instead of trying to learn a new language yourself- if you expect everyone to speak english to you, then it can be that hard to learn a foreign language yourself, can it? or, put differently: this post made me wonder wether you are fluent in a language besides your native one, and if not, why you expect others to be?


Thanks for stopping by, your comments make my day! I read every single one and will answer any questions you have. I hope you'll visit again soon! :)


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