Dear Etiquette Hell,
I work in a fairly large and diverse organisation, and many people speak a language other than English. Several people have said to me how nice it is to speak their first language with other people, now that they live in an English speaking country. Our manager has even drawn up a list of people willing to translate for customers if needed. However recently there was a complaint made, where one person thought others were talking about them in our break room, and specifically speaking Chinese so as not to be understood. We all received an email informing us that “it is not appropriate to speak in a language other than English” while in the break room. I was shocked, as it seems quite racist to impose this kind of rule.
I believe that the faux pas rests with the offended staff member in thinking that anyone would talk about them while they were present, but use another language to do so. In addition, it is not like there are only two people who speak Chinese, there are at least 30-40 people, so using it like a secret language would not make any sense. A group of staff members has since gone to our union to work out a response.
Is the manager correct, that being respectful involves only speaking English? Or is the offended person being paranoid and oversensitive in thinking people are talking about them? 0426-17
There are more clues that a person is being talked about behind their back than simply a group of people sitting at a table talking in another language. Clues such as surreptitious sideways glances towards the person allegedly being talked about, or the name appears in the midst of sentences. And if there is a history of conflict or misunderstanding or exclusion between that person and the people sitting talking then, yes, there can be a reasonable concern that someone is being talked about behind their back. I suspect there is more to this story than you are aware of because HR/management felt the need to make this rule.
Management has the challenging task of maintaining employee morale and teamwork for maximum productivity. On company property, I do think management/owners can dictate a rule of English only, particularly in an English speaking country, while on company time and property. English is the language of business after all. What employees do on their own time away from the company property is their own business in regards to what language they speak.