Me Hablan En Inglés

by admin on June 4, 2013

I attended a fabulous cookout this weekend that was hosted by a dear friend. Throughout the duration there were 8 – 10 people in attendance. One of these people is of Mexican origin but has lived in my northern state since childhood and freely admits that his English is much better than his Spanish. His girlfriend showed up late, but it was informal on the times so that was fine – people were coming and going over five or six hours. She is also of Mexican descent but was raised in a northern state. Both of them do speak Spanish at home with their parents, but speak English in their everyday lives and have no difficulty expressing themselves as they were educated in the English language.

My question is this, as no one besides these two people speak Spanish fluently (or at all for the most part), was it appropriate for them to trade commentary in Spanish while standing in the same room as five or six friends who are all limited to speaking English? I know one person tried to comment on it by saying that he spoke French if anyone wanted to chat, but they just laughed it off and every once in a while would have a brief conversation in front of us that no one else could understand. I feel that is the height of bad manners – it would be different if Spanish was their primary language and English was difficult – but this was a situation where it was clearly a choice to exclude the group from their conversation.

What should I do when this situation pops up again? Is there a gentle way to point out how offensive this is to the group as a whole? 0528-13

Speaking in another language that is unknown to everyone else or whispering together repeatedly while in the conversational arena that intentionally excludes others from participating  is rude.   Either they are conducting personal business that should have been dealt with at a more appropriate time and venue or they are having a running commentary about the food, the event, what others guests say or look like.

The gentle approach was taken and was ignored.  As a guest you have no further recourse other than to give the conspiratorial couple the proverbial cold shoulder.   If they want to verbally fence themselves off from other guests, you may assist in this endeavor by simply choosing to not engage them in any discussion.   As a host, you can pull one or both aside and privately suggest that if they have unfinished private business that necessitates them speaking between themselves in another language that perhaps they would be more comfortable tying up the loose ends in the privacy of the den.

{ 92 comments… read them below or add one }

--Lia June 4, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Ooh! I know the answer to this one!

The minute they start to speak Spanish, you go over to them and explain that you’ve been trying to learn Spanish, never have anyone to practice with, and would they please speak as much Spanish as possible. As soon as a sentence is spoken, you repeat it slowly in a broken terrible accent. Then you begin translating whatever words you can pick up all while smiling encouragingly, asking for help, repeating again, and looking for all the world like you’re trying to memorize. They’ll have no choice but to “help,” and you keep doing it. If they speak quickly, you hang on every word, interrupt again, make a comment in mangled “Spanglish,” and give a terrible translation. If they want to talk privately among themselves, they’ll have to move away, and you just move with them all the while expressing disappointment in your inability to learn and your sheer delight in their being so clever as to be able to speak 2 languages so well.

I guarantee it won’t take more than a few minutes of this treatment before they’re speaking the language of the whole group exclusively and waiting private conversations until later when they’re in private.

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Moralia June 4, 2013 at 1:06 pm

I’m not sure if my method is rude or not.
When I feel that people are speaking in another language to deliberately exclude me, (as opposed to relaxing into a native tongue or having a friendly conversation) I’ve found the easiest way to get them to stop is to adjust my body language to where it looks as though I’m surreptitiously listening in to the conversation. I even occasionally slightly smile or frown based on tone of voice and known word cues.
It is amazing how often such people suddenly switch solely to English when in my presence. I’ve been asked on occasion, “Do you speak language X?” and I truthfully say that I do not, but that I enjoy listening to the rhythms of other languages.
And I do enjoy the melody of words I don’t understand and picking out random words or phrases that I know, but usually don’t try to look like I’m listening. If that makes sense.

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Brenda June 4, 2013 at 1:15 pm

I’m going to agree with the admin that the guests were rude. As noted, Spanish was not their default language. They chose to isolate themselves and speak in Spanish only with each other, which was very rude.

One time, I attended a child’s birthday party with my son where the host family spoke only Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish at all, except for a few basic phrases (I studied German and Japanese in school). The family was very welcoming. I did migrate towards a few attendees who spoke English, but that was just to have some conversation. I attended when the clown arrived, even though the clown spoke only Spanish; the clown tried to engage me (I tend to stand out with my red hair, anyway), but after it was clear I couldn’t speak enough Spanish to interact, he dropped it and went on with his regular show.

I made a point of conversing with those I could, introduced myself with those who couldn’t, and made the best of it. The family was very kind, and I didn’t feel excluded.

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Carla June 4, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Reminds me of something that happened to my mom and sister. They were in a mechanic shop’s waiting room with a number of Mexican-American people. The man behind the glass was also M-A. They all spoke English, but a little while after my mom and sis sat down, they began conversing in Spanish. The looks they gave each other made it clear that they were doing this deliberately. So Mom and Sis began to converse in sign language. The employee asked if my sister was deaf. “No, she can hear fine.” Annoyed, he wanted to know why they were using ASL. Mom asked, “You can speak English, can’t you? Then why are you using Spanish?” His reply was that he had friends who only spoke Spanish. Mom informed him (truthfully) that they had deaf friends. He was still annoyed by it, but hey, you can’t have it both ways, and it enabled DM and DS to feel empowered in a situation that had been meant to make them feel foolish!

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Ergala June 4, 2013 at 1:28 pm

My husband was with friends at a Chinese buffet when they were all teenagers. One of their friends spoke a dialect of Chinese fluently and what happened still makes me laugh. Apparently the waitresses were trash talking the patrons big time in Chinese. My husband’s friend knew exactly what they were saying and when they said something extremely bad he started laughing really loud (as in exaggerated it) and when it caught their attention he started speaking to them in their dialect. Perfectly. Lesson learned.

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Elizabeth June 4, 2013 at 1:33 pm

This is quite rude and sadly, those that disagree seem to be justifying their own bad behavior.

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OP June 4, 2013 at 1:37 pm

I had no idea this would be such an object of contention when I first asked it… I just wanted to ask the person sitting two feet away from me to not change languages when involved in a group discussion.

For the sake of clarity, the cook out had everyone grouped around one table – either outside or in the dining room at different points. People were not breaking off into groups. It was a small gathering so everyone was more or less talking as a group. The alternate language conversations were held inside the talking group – which is why it felt awkward to the other attendees. I always thought that politeness involved not making others unneccesarily uncomfortable. We generally try to be polite and not talk over one another and the primary language of everyone involved is English. The spanish speaking couple, like many second generation immigrants, do have a limited vocabulary and use regional jargon and grammar as they have learned by hearing their parents speak Spanish at home when they were growing up. I find that this is a common occurance for second generation immigrant families as they may not seek additional schooling in this language.

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Dear! June 4, 2013 at 1:55 pm

This is a tricky one. I lived in the US for years, and although my native language is English, being from another country, I have a thick accent and speak in a certain dialect. When speaking with my American friends, I tend to speak slower and, as the years have gone by, an American twang has snuck into the way I speak. When I return home, or speak to someone from the area that I’m from, my accent comes back full force and I don’t even notice it. Although I’m still speaking English, my accent is naturally very fast and lazy at the same time so other nationalities have trouble understanding me.

This may be the case with the BF & GF. Sometimes it is so easy to forgot to communicate in a fashion that everyone can understand when another language comes naturally.

My question is, was it a group conversation, or were BF and GF simply in the same general area and having a separate conversation? That would make a big difference.

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The Elf June 4, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Yes, they should have stuck to English. That said, a few comments here and there in a language I don’t understand never bothers me.

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EchoGirl June 4, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Like some posters have already said, it really depends on the situation. Because English was the native language here, the switch to Spanish appears to be deliberate and oriented to have a secret conversation. However, I don’t believe that (even intentionally) lapsing back into a language both people are more familiar with is rude. I have an Autism Spectrum disorder, and the result is that for me, even though English is technically my first language, it works more like a second language in my head, what with inability to find words that match up to thoughts. So I know very well how frustrating it is not to be able to articulate what you’re trying to say in the language the people around you are speaking. If reverting to Spanish (or German or whatever) is their way of working through that, I have no problem so long as the intent is not to exclude.

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waitress wonderwoman June 4, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Just yesterday, a friend and I were treating ourselves to pedicures at a local nail salon. The nail technicians were Asian. I’m not quite sure of their specific native origin. While we were sitting in our chairs getting our pedi’s done, her technician and mine repeatedly kept speaking to each other in their native language. Honestly, this tends to happen a lot at this particular salon. We were absolutely convinced they were discussing the horrible condition of our neglected, unkempt feet (it was both our first pedicure after the harsh, closed-toed, winter months!!!!) I suppose, if they had been discussing us, and of course, we are not sure they were, it would be unprofessional (actually, if I really think about it, just them speaking their native language loudly in front of customers whom they are well aware have no clue what they are saying is somewhat unprofessional) but my friend and I just laughed it off. It’s not that big of a deal, to her or me at least, to stop us from going there. Our feet look pretty and polished now btw. :-)

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KJ June 4, 2013 at 2:52 pm

Kind of off topic, but this whole discussion reminds me of when I visited family London as a teenager (I am from the US.) My first night there we were all sitting around talking, and as I hard as I tried, I could not follow the conversation! They were talking very fast (at least it sounded that way to me!) were interjecting slang here and there, and were using words with different meanings than are used in America. I felt like I was on another planet until I got the hang of it. I really didn’t expect that in another English-speaking country!

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sv June 4, 2013 at 2:53 pm

As a person who lives in an officially bilingual country I think this is the height of rudeness. Good manners dictates that you do not exclude those around you if at all possible, and in my country this would be considered quite offensive.

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Allie June 4, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Although, I’ve experienced some people assuming the opposite in a crazy way. I worked at a theme park that had quite a few Spanish-speaking visitors from other countries. I speak Spanish. I conducted a conversation and transaction in the store in Spanish with a woman from another country. Another woman came up to me and accused me of being rude and claimed I must have been talking about her.The kicker? I was telling the first lady where the bathrooms were. I wasn’t talking about the other lady at all. I can tell you, as a non-hispanic woman who speaks fluent Spanish, that I have not once overheard someone talking about someone else rudely in Spanish.

On the other hand, I can very much understand getting together to practice a language with someone. My brother and dad are both fluent in German but don’t have much of an opportunity to speak it, and so they’ll speak German to each other to practice.

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--Lia June 4, 2013 at 3:29 pm

Ooh! I know the answer to this one!

The minute they start to speak Spanish, you go over to them and explain that you’re trying to learn to speak Spanish, never have anyone to practice with and would they please speak as much Spanish as possible so you can learn. As soon as a sentence is spoken, you repeat it slowly in a terrible broken accent. Then you begin translating what ever words you can pick up, all while smiling encouragingly, asking for help, repeating again, and looking for all the world like you’re trying to memorize. They’ll have no choice but to try to “help,” and you keep doing it. If they speak quickly, you interrupt again, make a comment in broken “Spanglish,” and give a terrible translation. If they want to talk privately among themselves, they’ll have to move away, and you follow them all the while expressing disappointment in your inability to learn, and your delight in their ability to speak 2 languages so well. Make sure you listen, jaw open, following every word, every time they speak in Spanish in your sincere attempts to learn.

I guarantee it won’t take more than a few minutes of this treatment before they’re speaking the language that everyone understands.

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Missy June 4, 2013 at 3:37 pm

I’m going to disagree with admin here.

Here is why: if you assume that “I can’t understand it” means “It’s all about me” then you are displaying a level of self-absorption that is the root of so many other rude behaviors. If two people have a side conversation because they are the only people in the room who watch Downton Abbey, is that rude? If they are the only two knitters, is that rude? What if they are the only two “cat people” and are discussing ways to stop clawing? All are conversations that can be completely foreign to other people and exclude a large portion of the population.

Why would people speak a different language? Here are a few reasons why I have and do occasionally do this:

1) It can be insanely exhausting to speak another language. Unless you know that person intimately, you have no idea how hard it is for them. When I was an exchange student, I did my schooling and socializing in Greek. But when it was done it felt very good and relaxing if I could speak English again. If I am speak Greek for 3-4 hours I am completely mentally exhausted. (My husband started speaking Greek at age 2 and does not have this problem.) So if I went to a party and someone struck up a conversation in English, I was always glad to oblige. To me, speaking Greek after a long day of speaking Greek is sort of like taking the SAT and then sitting down to a long evening of analyzing religious imagery in Moby Dick.

2) Not many people in the US speak Greek. Finding someone who speaks it is a great way for me to practice it. I didn’t speak a word of it before age 14 so it really is “use it or lose it.” I now have my husband to practice with now, but for several years it was the luck of the draw. Mostly, I would meet Greeks who wanted to relax (see #1) and will let me practice with them. (Just as I got to “relax” with people wanting to practice English before.)

3) Even someone who speaks a language well might have trouble fulling expressing themselves. I could talk to you about every day life and High School academic subjects in Greek. Please don’t ask me to speak about the political-economic situation there in Greek. I never learned how to speak about complex economics in Greek. So for some subjects, it has to be English.

What do I talk about when I speak Greek? Well 98% of the time it’s Greece. Not about the Parthenon, Mythology or anything interesting. But about mass transit, the vast quantities of olives available, how crowded the beaches are, and that sort of minutae that would leave anyone else bored if you haven’t lived in Greece.

There is a time and place for everything. If I went on a double date and the other couple spoke Japanese, I’d be a little put out. But the incident described above was an informal party where people “came and went.” A personal conversation about a particular interest is NOT out of place in such a setting. I find it odd that it would be characterized as such.

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Michele Newell June 4, 2013 at 3:40 pm

@josie: I used to frequent the Lancaster County Dutch Market in Germantown, Maryland (so tasty I’m mentioning it by name). The people who run it are Mennonite, not Amish, but they also speak Pennsylvania Dutch. I speak German, the language from which Pennsylvania Dutch evolved, so I can often understand most, if not all, of the “Dutch”. The number of snide comments and curse words I heard from those sweet looking devoutly religious people nearly made my eyes pop out of my head!

I’m with the admin (and, IIRC, Miss Manners) on this one. Although USA doesn’t have an official language, a party sure does: the one that -everyone- there can understand.

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Marozia June 4, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Very rude indeed. @Lia & Carla, your comments are fantastic! At the nail salon where I go, the technicians speak their own language and surprise, surprise I was talking to a customer there who spoke Macedonian, so we both conversed together in that language. I have to say that the techs were a little unnerved, as they had never heard Macedonian before. Surprise, surprise *again*, they started talking English to each other and us.
I agree with Admin comments. Guest=cold shoulder, host=confront them.

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Drjuliebug June 4, 2013 at 3:55 pm

I can’t imagine why this should even bother anyone. I grew up in an extended family whose members each spoke some subset of three or four languages (none spoke more than two, and some spoke only English) and no one would have batted the proverbial eye over a side conversation at a family or neighborhood gathering. I’ve also been part of a heavily multicultural workplace where English was the dominant language, but no one would have taken notice of two co-workers chatting in Russian or Mandarin. Once a non-speaker of the language joined the group, everyone would normally switch to English, but it always happened seamlessly.

Unless the speakers of the other language are obviously gossiping about or ridiculing other people (and the body language is often obvious when this is going on), why all the fuss?

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jeab June 4, 2013 at 4:04 pm

I am a multilingual person with enough lifetime experience in several languages that my brain automatically switches when I hear any of my secondary languages spoken (regardless of whether it is encountered in direct conversation or randomly heard on the radio, television, etc…). This is totally out of my conscious control. I will immediately start thinking in one of those languages if I hear or read them because my brain has wired itself to do that over the last thirty years. If these two people normally converse with each other in Spanish, it is completely understandable to me that they would continue to do so even in this scenario.

I also take issue with the idea that they should automatically speak English because that’s their first language. For a lot of people, the line between first and second language is blurry. Technically, the first words out of my mouth were English but by the age of four I was already bilingual. The result is that if I see someone with whom I normally speak English, then I automatically speak and think in English. But if I see someone with whom I normally speak another language, then I automatically speak and think in that language. (It can be overwhelming when people are speaking all the languages I speak in the same room — and don’t get me started on the confusion I feel when someone is speaking one language on television with English subtitles or interpreter on top of it. AARGH!) The point is that this probably wasn’t a conscious effort on this couple’s part to isolate themselves or make others feel uncomfortable. There’s a good chance that it’s simply how their brains work. Unless you know these two people to have a history of rudeness, I’d give them the benefit of the doubt.

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NostalgicGal June 4, 2013 at 4:16 pm

A positive bit about other language speaking… many years ago not long after I was married, I worked in a 24 hour restaurant, night shift, in a college town (three uni’s and colleges). As we had some inexpensive filling menu items we tended to be popular with the college kids… and. The Foreign Language Club from one college came in after their meeting to eat, it was a huge table of like 15, and we were busy… I went to get orders and there were small groups excitedly going on in at least four languages that I could tell, and I was being ignored, trying to politely interrupt in English. I cleared my throat and in German (the one I was comfortably fluent speaking at that time) ‘excuse me please? I’m glad you’re having a great time, may I bother you for a moment and get your orders?” all said nicely with a nice expression, and my ticket book and pen in hand. As I got to ‘great’ the whole table had gone dead silent and I had their attention. One of them said back in German ‘you speak german?’ In English I said I did, and I understood others… then ‘beandipped’ into going around the table and taking down their food orders. I do remember getting some good tips off that table…

This is one time when multiple languages and small groups in a large one would be an acceptable thing. Most of what I could get of the conversations was just ‘practice with someone else speaking X’….

OP said in an update (getting back to topic) that the Spanish speaking was done in the middle of a larger conversational group that was ‘active’. Since the two were not conversing in their native language but deliberately choosing to switch over, that is what makes it rude. An accidental lapse into the Spanish if that was their native is one thing, so it seems it was deliberate.

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Barbarian June 4, 2013 at 5:19 pm

Guests or hosts sometimes break off into exclusive groups when they don’t like the hospitality, the company etc. Language is an effective barrier. I have to entertain 2 family houseguests during holidays that will cluster together whispering to one another in their own private conversation if I am the only one present, They see each other every single day when they are not visiting us, so I’m sure they just don’t want to converse with me. Ah…the ways of the elderly are often far from endearing.

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Rosie June 4, 2013 at 5:27 pm

This comes up a lot in my family too because my husband and my stepson grew up speaking a different language. I know it’s important to them to use their language and that it’s probably the easiest for them, even though they’ve both been here long enough that English is a comfortable language for them. Sometimes I’m glad that I’m not drawn into a conversation about who’s turn it is to take out the garbage, but it’s frustrating when they turn a three-way English conversation into a two-way private conversation. Ultimately, I feel like I shouldn’t complain at home since they have had to go to the effort of learning a second language and if I really wanted to understand them, I could always learn their language. But I worry about the impression they give in public, switching into a foreign language: as some people have noted, some people will think you’re talking about them, and also it makes them look not so smart, like they don’t understand English.

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Stella June 4, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Hmm. Guest or host, I would laugh and jokingly say I don’t speak the language and would it be alright if we kept to English. With a light tone, I think that wouldn’t be embarrassment inducing to anyone, especially if you handwave any possible apologies with a smile, but what does mod think? Should a guest keep quiet in the OP’s situation?

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KB June 4, 2013 at 6:41 pm

I have an aunt and uncle who know sign language. Constantly, even while having conversations with other people, they will be signing to each other. I consider it very rude.

If the couple in question had just stepped off to the side to have a quick exchange or conversation in Spanish, then rejoined the gathering, I would assume it was something urgent that they suddenly thought of and didn’t want to bother others with (i.e. “Did you turn the faucet off before we left? I don’t want the bathroom to flood…”). Doing it continuously, however, is impolite and excludes the rest of the party that they chose to socialize with.

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Lo June 4, 2013 at 8:30 pm

@OP

In the situation you are describing, yes, the couple is being rude by the etiquette standards of every country I can think of.

I don’t blame you for being offended. I personally wouldn’t be, but I’m used to this dynamic. I still stand by my original post in that respect.

I also agree with those who said they may not even really be aware of it. And also those who say better not to call attention to it.

I still think people should lighten up a little about this. I know this is nothing like the situation you described but I remember being abroad in a place where I ran into few English speakers and didn’t speak the language and how hurt I felt when people glared at me for daring to ask a question of my then-partner in English. And how eagerly I seized on the chance to speak to other English speaking tourists just to be able to express myself again. The national language was beautiful and I learned as much as I could to get around but I could not really communicate. That’s a terribly isolating feeling. That’s why I could never begrudge someone in the US speaking their native language in public.

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Elle June 5, 2013 at 12:59 am

I experienced the same thing but in the work place. When I first interviewed for the job, I was asked by one of the interviewers, (there were 5 people involved in the interview) if I spoke a second language, I don’t and answered with a no. With that question being asked, all I could think was I don’t have the job because I lack a second language as that has been the case with most of the job’s I’ve interviewed for. I was assured by the manager that it was not necessary to have a second language and she seemed very annoyed that the question was even asked. She told me that all her employees pretty much spoke more that one language, and that English was the only language spoken in the office . She even mentioned that she did not like employees speaking to each other in their own language to each other as she felt that it would divide her department into little cliques. I got the job, and on the first day I met the two other people that were hired as well. One lady spoke four languages including English, and the other, a gentleman spoke two, including English. I was never acknowledged or engaged by this woman in any of the conversations, and if I asked her questions and said anything she would ignore me. However, she tried to engage the gentleman who was training with us in his second language. He would reply to her in English and in the end told her to speak to him in English only as he felt she was being rude to me.

Once we were on the floor with the rest of the employees, she made it a point to find out who spoke what language and that is how she would communicate with them. A couple of times I would be in a group conversation, and she would make a point of switching to whatever language most of them spoke and I would just drop out of the conversation and go back to work. My manager called me in one day and asked me why I didn’t talk to the others as much. I ended up telling her that they would speak their own language and I couldn’t follow along. I had asked them to speak English so I could understand, but they would just ignore me. My manager ended up sending out a memo stating that English was spoken at the office and that personal conversations could be conducted at lunch or during break. The worst part was, that the gentleman that I trained with said that a lot of the conversations were initiated by our co-worker to make us feel out of the loop. In the end this lady was let go, as she had turned the office into a toxic environment.

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Mer June 5, 2013 at 1:20 am

Missy: “If two people have a side conversation because they are the only people in the room who watch Downton Abbey, is that rude? If they are the only two knitters, is that rude? What if they are the only two “cat people” and are discussing ways to stop clawing? All are conversations that can be completely foreign to other people and exclude a large portion of the population. ”

Yes, these all are examples of rude behaviour. Again, when you are in group, you choose topics and languages so that everyone can participate in the conversation. OP in her/his second post said that they were all sitting around table, they were not in separete groups around the house. In this situation, the polite thing is to have one conversation where the whole table can join. So if there is only two knitters, they won’t be talking about knitting. (Unless, of course the rest of the table is showing interest towards knitting and wish to know about it. But even then, the discussion is for whole table to participate, not private knit-talk session for the two of them.)’

I know that speaking different language can be exhausting for longer period, English is not my native language, but sometimes I have to work in English as we have people from our offices abroad with us. It would be rude if I were to talk in my native language around them when they are clearly part of the “conversation group”.

Also, politeness solves many situations. If you feel that you met the only person to speak certain language with, state it for the whole group! “OH, you speak Greek! Maybe we can chat up bit later on, I haven’t talked it for a while.” And maybe go for a smoke or excuse you from the main group for a while. While not perferctly polite action, among friends most would probably understand. Then chat for a while and come back. You have to remember that host did not set up this party so you could practice language. Host organized it so everybody could have a nice evening together. And if you are sitting around table where few are hogging the conversation space with discussion none of the rest can follow, it’s really annoying for the others.

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Amanda June 5, 2013 at 1:26 am

I am not blessed enough to be fluent in a foreign language, but I do know limited ASL (American Sign Language). When in similar situations, I tend to look at the person and sign the phrase “I don’t understand Spanish.” When they look at me blankly and tell me that they do not know sign language I again sign (and this time speak) the phrase “I don’t understand Spanish.” That usually does the trick. If not, I continue to sign at them until they “get it”.

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UK Helen June 5, 2013 at 4:20 am

I think it was rude. I have friends – an Asian couple – whose first language isn’t English. When we go to see them, they speak English the whole time, even when they’re talking to each other in the kitchen while we’re in the lounge. That’s politeness!

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Bibianne June 5, 2013 at 8:20 am

I think I have earned my place in e-hell… both hubby and I are French Canadians, who are fluent in English. However, our mother tongue IS French. We sometimes lapse in French… and we usually realize it right there and then and apologize… usually it’s about: “n’oublie pas ta viande sur le BBQ” (basically the message is: keep an eye on the meat on the bbq ;-)) or “ou as-tu mis le tire-bouchon?” (where did you put the corkscrew?)

Yes e-hell… here I come ;-)

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amyasleigh June 5, 2013 at 11:33 am

A fair degree of cutting of slack is seen, in the comments, re the other-language-talkers at the OP’s gathering, or other gatherings mentioned. I can see both sides’ points; but tend toward giving a break to the other-language-talkers, even if their conduct is technically rude.

Re some PPs telling of people in the service sector, knowing an obscure language and using it to talk about their customers, sometimes in a scurrilous way: by the general canons of etiquette, bad behaviour; but knowing the misery of completely-and-utterly boring jobs, I find it hard to condemn too fiercely, people in such jobs, for relieving the boredom by acting thus, if they have the opportunity. They do run the risk, if so, of a customer understanding the language, and one way or another catching them out — in such circumstances, apologies would be in order.

The same kind of situation: in parts of Wales, the Welsh language is still in daily use — it’s a birth-speech, and the preferred language with Welsh-speaking peers, for some 500,000 people (nearly all of whom, are at least as competent in speaking English). The language is in decline, though its survival is being fought hard for. I’m English; but IMO Welsh is a beautiful language, with a fine literature of its own; if I were less lazy, I’d learn it myself — have made a couple of attempts to.

There is in Wales, an amount of (low-level) dislike and mistrust between Welsh and English people. One way in which this is manifested, is — understood generally as fact, not paranoia — use of the Welsh language between Welsh folk, to talk (maybe negatively) about English people in their presence, without the latter’s understanding. The chance of doing this, is an incentive for the continuing use of the Welsh language, where Welsh people might otherwise not bother.

Some English folk resent being treated this way in Wales. My personal feeling is, if I’m visiting Wales and this is happening in my presence — I can see where the Welsh are coming from, and can live with them badmouthing me (which I can’t understand anyway), if doing so keeps the language going a bit longer. The whole thing is, anyway, pretty mild — the two sides mostly get along OK day-by-day, and very few in either camp would be ready personally to take it to blood-spilling.

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June First June 5, 2013 at 12:16 pm

@Lia– Butchering their language isn’t going to encourage them to speak yours. You call it “this treatment”—and that treatment isn’t very nice.

@NostalgicGal– That’s a great story! Thanks for sharing.

If the Spanish-speaking guests didn’t respond when the other guest made a comment about speaking French (which was well done, by the way), I’d say just directly include them in the main conversation. You must have something in common, otherwise you wouldn’t be friends.
Example: “I think Helen Mirren would make a great Doctor after Matt Smith leaves. What do you think, Julia?”

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Amber June 5, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Mer: Yes, these all are examples of rude behaviour. Again, when you are in group, you choose topics and languages so that everyone can participate in the conversation. OP in her/his second post said that they were all sitting around table, they were not in separete groups around the house. In this situation, the polite thing is to have one conversation where the whole table can join.

But that’s not how parties work, even dinner parties! I have never been to a party where the entire group is talking about one subject while taking turns the entire time. People break off into their own conversations, come back and join the main conversations, create other groups of conversations, etc. This is the point of mingling, is it not? The type of group situation you describe as “not rude” sounds more like a big debate platform, and awfully boring for anyone who would like to talk about something other than the main speaker’s subject.

Heck, even when dinner parties were Emily Post’s main bag, your description wasn’t how people conducted conversation. There are whole sections on how to properly seat your guests so that they could have good singular conversations with their neighbors! Of course whole tables may discuss one subject, but it certainly is NOT rude for two or three people sitting next to each other to start talking about something else if the main convesation sparks something – unless the speaker is giving a speech or a toast, of course.

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SJ June 6, 2013 at 1:13 am

Sorry, I can’t get on board with this being rude. They both speak Spanish at home, so they probably both converse in Spanish together. They are a couple, they talk about things just the two of them sometimes.

My husband and I sometimes break off and have our own conversations. English is the only language we both speak fluently, but we have a number of made-up works, phrases in other languages, and secret codes that come up when we talk. Is that rude?

I guess it must have been excessive or something.

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Gee June 6, 2013 at 12:43 pm

My husband’s family did this, and it irritated me. They’ve since gotten better after one of their daughters dated someone from another country and his family did it all the time–all of a sudden, they realized that it is rude to exclude others that way. Now, if they lapse into their own language, they’ll catch themselves and explain what they said in English so that I can understand.

Maybe a joke, like, “Too bad you don’t come with subtitles!” would get the point across?

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Stella June 6, 2013 at 1:11 pm

SJ: If you have your private conversations knowing perfectly well others can’t understand, and you’re in a group where generally speaking everyone is sharing one conversation (rather than several small groups and you and your husband are your own group) then yes, that is rude. Now you know.

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Denise June 6, 2013 at 4:13 pm

I don’t think this is rude at all.
If it is obvious that they are doing it to be mean that is different. If they said something then laughed hysterically and said “nothing” if you asked what was funny then it is rude.
I have been at casual parties where I have been specifically talking to my husband and will say something like “hey don’t let me forget to pay that bill on the way home.” I’m not interrupting the party, I’m not making fun of anyone, I’m simply putting a mental post it note up when I’m standing talking to my husband. I don’t do this in the middle of conversations with other people or say at a sit down dinner.
You don’t speak Spanish so you don’t know what they were talking about. She could have just asked him a question about his day. That would have been a conversation that you didn’t need to be included in. Maybe they are working on their Spanish because of issues in their parents homes. Just because you can’t hear everything said in every conversation going on at the party do you think people are rude for not including you? I think that being this concerned about rudeness is crazy. Don’t invite them again. I have Mexican friends that talk to me in Spanish and I don’t speak any of it. I don’t throw a fit and walk away, I just roll with it because I trust my friends to not be making fun of me. If they were they wouldn’t be my friends.

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Aje June 8, 2013 at 8:14 am

I too understand the idea that when you find someone who speaks your language r dialect, you get really excited. When I hear Spanish from Andalucia it´s exciting because it´s what my ear is used to. I want to speak it with that person.

In almost all group situations though, to speak in another language with someone is considered rude. Now some have pointed out that two people talking about topics in English would have been considered fine, and that´s true. But if the guests tried to enter in a conversation or change it to try to talk with the knitters, it would be easily done. It´s not the same in another language, is it? If someone gently makes a remark or joke like they did above, it was a way of saying that they wish to communicate with you too, and that they are unable to because of language.

I should think it differs depending on the social situation too.

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Michelle C Young June 9, 2013 at 4:41 am

I’ve had experience with several different languages, although I have only ever been fluent in two, English and Dutch. However, it has happened that when I was particularly involved in something, or particularly distracted, I would literally forget what language I was speaking. In fact, I remember one time when I could not actually identify English as my own native tongue that I ought to be recognize. It was fleeting, and it really alarmed me, at the time. That was years ago.

Even today, I find myself using certain words and phrases from various other languages, because those words express my meaning better than English. Of course, that only works with my family, or other people who have the same languages. But for certain ideas, different languages can just be more efficient. A language may have one word for a concept which would require a whole sentence to describe in another language.

Is it possible that these people are simply forgetting that they are speaking Spanish? How often does it happen? If it’s just an occasional thing, I would chalk it up to forgetfulness. But if it is an ongoing thing, and they seem to want to exclude other people, then you might as well shrug it off, and socialize with the other people there, instead.

As for whispering in public – sometimes there is an actual need to whisper. However, if you’re going to need more than one or two sentences, just take the conversation to another room.

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DB November 15, 2014 at 9:09 pm

Or, they could just be speaking personally to each other. My Husband speaks a second language (mother’s language), which I am learning. So most of our personal conversation, is in this language.

We do speak to each other publicly in this language, but only when the conversation has nothing to do with anyone else and is no one else’s business. Such as flirting with each other, saying I love you, giving each other a compliment, ect. Even simple things like grocery shopping.

Things we used to do in English, but got snotty comments for. Apparently, a couple that has been married as long as us being sweet on each other is apparently offensive. Since switching personal conversation to another language, that issue has stopped. Resulting instead in only the rare curious inquiry about the language or the far more rare paranoid / nosy busy body.

But whether in English or another language: If the discussion doesn’t involve you, it doesn’t involve you. If a couple was off to the side of the conversation speaking amongst each other in English, in a lower tone so as not to disrupt the other conversation, would it be considered rude and assumed they were gossiping or judging the food, party or attendance? Or would it be assumed they were having their own private conversation. Its the same situation, you just can’t eavesdrop as easily.

When I’m out at a social and someone speaks amongst themselves in another language. I just assume its not my business and leave it be. I don’t walk around assuming everyone else’s conversation involves me, whether its in English or not. They may just be more comfortable and use to speaking among themselves in Spanish, just as my in-laws do in their native language. My Husband and Mother-in-law both speak English, but speak to each other in their native language. Not to try and exclude others, but because this is what is normal and comfortable in their personal communication.

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DB November 15, 2014 at 9:32 pm

I guess I don’t see this as rude or unusual since I have a multi-cultural family and keep a very diverse social group. Hearing a variety of languages or hearing people switching back and forth between languages is neither unusual or rude to me.

But I suppose if one’s social circle was more homogeneous and generally speaks exclusively English, exposure to this could be disconcerting. But the world is a diverse place. And language is no less so.

If a guest or hostess did find it unsettling, the simplest thing to do would be to attempt to draw them back into the main conversation and keep it engaging.

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