Social Question

JLeslie's avatar

Do you agree with this policy about speaking foreign languages at work?

Asked by JLeslie (47500 points ) September 8th, 2011

When I worked at Bloomingdale’s in Boca Raton, FL, USA the rule was to speak English while on the selling floor, unless directly speaking to a customer who preferred a different language. I agree with the rule, wondered what the collective thinks.

I figure it might vary depending on what country, or city, you live in. Montreal certainly has French and English used interchangeably with no problem. There is an assumption almost all people working in the service industry know both. Since most Americans don’t speak two languages, I think there is a different attitude about it. In parts of Miami many times I was greeted at restaurants in Spanish, but they quickly change to English if the customer prefers, but many Americans don’t like it, or assume the person does not even speak English. I have never had that happen, I have never been anywhere in Miami where people in a service position did not speak English well enough to help me with what I needed, or at least had someone in the store who could help me.

Please let us know where you live and why you agree or disagree.

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43 Answers

poisonedantidote's avatar

The rule sounds like a good rule (on a selling floor). However if you work in a plastic factory or something away from buyers then it’s a terrible nasty oppressive rule.

JLeslie's avatar

@poisonedantidote I agree. We were able to speak any language in the break room, or other off the selling floor areas.

boxer3's avatar

I dunno. there’s sort of a thin line. .. One of my best friends is from togo africa. she her mother and myself all worked at the same place for a while in a catering service. one evening one of the women was trying to get my friends mother’s attention to ask her question on the head count but she wasn’t hearing our co worker. So my friend yelled over to her mom in their native language – because thats obviously going to catch her attention, and she was trying to help the other woman, and her mom did respond back, in their langage. BUT before my friend could relay the message the woman angrily glared at my friend and said this is AMERICA we speak ENGLISH here.

well holy shit. I was just as angry as the two of them.,
Im sorry but minimum wage was not enough to deal with that. ha.

tinyfaery's avatar

In L.A., some places won’t hire you unless you can speak another language. I’ve been in work places where people speak other languages to each other while on break, but always use English when working.

I couldn’t give a flying fuck what language people speak. Most of the good Mexican restaurants employ people who can’t speak English. I AM NOT giving up my molĂ©.

JLeslie's avatar

@tinyfaery The waitstaff and hosts can’t speak English?

tinyfaery's avatar

Not always. And it’s not just Spanish speakers. Armenians, Chinese and others are the same.

JLeslie's avatar

@boxer3 Yeah, a momentary lapse into another language would not be scrutinized where I worked. That woman was a bitch who said something to your friends. That sort of thing has happened to me when I have been out with my MIL. People can be unbelievably intolerant and ignorant.

jca's avatar

I used to work with an older woman who would get mad when co-workers would converse in Spanish. She would say “Speak English, folks, you’re in America.” I don’t care what people use when they’re chatting with each other. Whatever they’re comfortable with is fine with me. I could see, for customer service, the rule being English first since most people speak English in this country. As you said, with the rule, if they prefer something else and the help speaks something else, go for it.

boxer3's avatar

@JLeslie , I’m glad you agree, I’m pretty sure my blood pressure shot right up hah.
And I was even more upset because I actually knew her language and knew she was trying to help the woman. We were only about 17 years old at the time…

JLeslie's avatar

@tinyfaery I think it depends on the place. At a restaurant it would not be a big deal to me, especially a small local ethnic restaurant, whatever ethnicity it is. It’s nice if the menu has an English translation though. But, if the majority of their clientele is Spanish speaking they may see no need for it. Bloomingdale’s a store of 250–500 employees depending on the time of year, not including the NYC store of course is different than a local shop or restaurant I think. What do you think?

Cruiser's avatar

I think it is a good policy if it enhances the atmosphere of the customer interface as that is crucial to the image and marketability of a company. And if I enforced a speak English policy at my company in the back work area, I would lose 25% of my work force. Plus I have a sizable customer base that can barely speak English and I have to get my Formulator on the phone or at the front desk to handle these customers. Every situation is unique though and I would expect them to be evaluated so.

JLeslie's avatar

The rule is not there because when in America speak English dammit! It is because speaking in another language when everyone is able to speak English is similar to speaking in a whisper, telling a secret. It excludes those who do not understand the language. Most people in Boca Raton, FL are from very diverse areas of the Northeast and are accustomed to hearing many languages, so they are not put off by people using another language, but English was the rule for the comfort of customers while shopping in the store. As I said a little bit of another language being used here and there would not have been a big deal to anyone.

Blackberry's avatar

As long as you can communuicate with the customers and co workers, I don’t care. Seems pretty simple.

Aethelflaed's avatar

Adding to the ethnic restaurant bit: While it’s nice when they speak at least a certain amount of English (that pertains to the job – check, chicken, water, etc), sometimes half the fun is just pointing to a random thing on the menu and seeing if it tastes good. So it’s often not as big a barrier as it might initially seem. I’m blessed in not having any food allergies, though.

tinyfaery's avatar

I don’t see a difference. I know what I’ve lived, and I’ve grown up not always knowing what people were saying. I go to Bloomie’s here and people speak a heavily accented English quite often. If I was spoken to in Spanish I would see it as a chance to practice, but if I was spoken to in another language, I would politely say I don’t speak that language. I will never be that asshole that says “this is ‘merica, talk English”. That’s just rude.

We have no national language for a reason. This was once the land of freedom and opportunity, now it’s the land of assimilate or die.

boxer3's avatar

@tinyfaery I’m with you all the way.

stardust's avatar

This rule was enforced at a place I used to work for the reasons @JLeslie states. It was deemed rude and offensive to customers and staff alike to speak a language the majority of staff couldn’t understand. It doesn’t bother me on the whole. However, if I was on my lunch break and two or three people were speaking Polish and I’m the only English speaker in the room, I might’ve felt uncomfortable on the rare occasion.

harple's avatar

When I worked for a company and had some responsibility for hiring people, I learned about their language policy, which was that the only language allowed at work was English, and the reasoning made sense, namely:

If staff spoke in a different language to each other, and one of them was bullying or abusive to the other, there would be no back up for dealing with this as no one else would have heard or understood. Similarly, if staff spoke in a different language to a customer there would be no back up for dealing with abuse (in either direction)...

JLeslie's avatar

@tinyfaery I think a store like Bloomingdale’s might be different. It does depend on the customer I guess, and the store is trying to err on the side of not offending anyone. Again it has nothing to do with when in America speak English, but rather we are in America and there is a presumption of English. Some people when they hear another language all around them wonder whether anyone speaks English, and also feel left out of a conversation. You and I don’t feel that way because we grew up in a multilingual environment. I do think it rude at times when people speak in another language carrying on a full conversation when they could easily use English, knowing others around don’t speak the other language.

I don’t feel my SIL and husband are being rude when they use Spanish, because many times they use English for my benefit, or other people in the family who are not Spanish speaking, but at times out of habit fall back into Spanish. Around me, since I speak quite a bit of Spanish it isn’t a big deal. However, one of my girlfriends, who is very accepting, likes the melting pot of America, is the only American born, English only, employee in the small store she works in. The other girls use Spanish primarily and she is left out of many of their conversations, and customers do complain the whole place is always speaking Spanish. We had a couple of complaints in Bloomingdale’s too when associates were having full conversations in another language. Since customers do sometimes complain, for business purposes better to have the rule I think. If I were in Deerborn, MI and the store I worked at always had everyone speaking in Arabic, I think I would be frustrated at being left out of conversations with my colleagues after a while, if it was a constant thing. However, if I were a customer, as long as they switched to English for me when I spoke English I would not be put off if they were speaking Arabic when I first walked in.

In a very diverse cities in America English is usually spoken in the work place, because it is the common language. The Indian guy, and the Mexican women both speak English. But, in places where 50% of the population is Spanish speaking, and people are still immigrating in fairly large numbers, so their is percentage of people who don’t speak English, sometimes when someone walks into a store and only hears Spanish, the wonder if anyone is going to speak English well, or are just put off by it.

tinyfaery's avatar

To those who think others are talking about them…umm, self-involved much?

Those who make assumptions about what language they might hear in a country with no national language, I liken those to people who still assume heterosexuality. They live in a world that just does not exist.

Adapt or die.

JLeslie's avatar

@tinyfaery It is not necessarily they think they are being talked about. It is that they are left out of conversation. It is rude not to include everyone. If you were sitting with three coworkers all speaking English, and the three of you laughed and talked about the fun time you had three years ago one night and completely ignored the fourth person who had no idea what you were talking about, because she was not there, and you three made no effort to put the funny stuff into context for her, basically excluding her from the conversation, going on for a long time about the night while she sat silent listening to the three of you it is rude. It is not a matter of just language, but about being polite to those around you. Being aware of them.

zenvelo's avatar

I work at a stock exchange. We have an SEC approved rule requiring only English to be spoken on the trading floor. It’s because otherwise “secret” trades could be pre-arranged if people spoke in another language.

But we have always let the data entry staff and the development staff speak in other languages. Before automation we had a large number of Tagalog speaking employees. And our developers consist of a large number of Hindi and Russian speaking staff. It hasn’t caused any problem.

tinyfaery's avatar

That’s what I do now. That’s rude? To not talk to someone I have no interest in talking to? Oops.

lillycoyote's avatar

When I was in grad school, in Austin, I had two part-time banquet serving jobs: One at the Irwin Center, on campus and one at the Doubletree Hotel. The Irwin Center had majority, English speaking Anglo crews, a lot of students from U.T. so English was the language generally spoken both in the back and “on the floor” but at the Doubletree the banquet crews were almost entirely Hispanic; actually a guy from Iran and I were the only people in a crew of about 15 regulars who couldn’t speak Spanish. About a third of the people were thoroughly fluent both in English and Spanish and the rest spoke English well enough to get by.

We were required to speak English out on the floor, when actually serving the banquet. But there’s a lot of preparation before and cleaning up and putting away after the actual banquet and when we did that stuff, sit around back and polish the stainless and glassware, fold the napkins, or bus the tables after everyone left, that sort of thing, everyone spoke Spanish, most of time, except for me and the Iranian, of course, though we tried. I had a reasonably large Spanish vocabulary of food and tableware related words and phrases at one time. I had friends among the group who were bilingual and who I could talk with and sometimes they would tell me what the other people were talking about. I didn’t really have a problem with it. Why shouldn’t people talk to each other in their native languages?

The only time it was ever a problem was when the banquet captain would occasionally forget that there were at least two people, sometimes more, who didn’t speak Spanish and he’d get everyone’s attention and bark a few orders and everyone would get up and scurry around, busying themselves with various tasks and I would be left going “Whoah, wait a minute, non-Spanish speaking person here.” But either the banquet captain would catch himself or one of my bilingual friends would tell me what he said, what he wanted us to do. No big deal.

bob_'s avatar

I agree with the policy. Since English is the most widely spoken in the U.S., speaking in English first seems like a natural choice.

Pandora's avatar

These questions just always make me feel so sad. When I went to Spain, and was shopping around, the people would hear me speak English to my husband. So they would speak to me in English first. Their English wasn’t always first rate but they did ok. In Europe it was always so easy to encounter people who spoke two or more languages. I’m sure they don’t have an issue with what people speak or don’t speak because they are better educated in foreign languages. Here, we just stick to one and make a sad attempt at teaching our children by junior year or senior. It would be so much easier to teach kids languages when they are young.
When my husband came here he knew 3 languages by 12 years of age. He father know 6.
Why are we so backward? Its a huge world.
What is even sadder is that our own children perform poorly in Engish.
To answer the OP question. I think your job had it fairly done.

JLeslie's avatar

@Pandora At Bloomingdale’s we immediately switched to Spanish, French, Russian for customers who spoke those languages. The policy was regarding staff working on the floor speaking to each other.

I agree in Europe they are more adept at languages in general, and America needs some improvement. We should enhance our education to be raising at minimum bilingual children, but of course, since English has become such an international language, and because we are such a huge country, we can be lazy about it.

I think having a common language in the country is a good thing, although I am not saying I want it to be a law, I have not really thought about the pros and cons (that might be my next question). Being able to communicate well opens all the opportunity of the country to every individual. I also think it is more efficient in general in a country. However, I am also all for printing in things in several languages, I am fine that my MIL could take her drivers test in America in Spanish. I am also fine that when I call somewhere they might have a Spanish or Creole or whatever option, based on the local population. I do not feel strongly new immigrants have to learn English, I think it better for them if they do, but if they don’t I am understanding, especially if they come here when they are older. But, children born here should go to English speaking schools, which is exactly what happens. The generation born here, or raised her from a young school age is fluent in English.

JLeslie's avatar

@tinyfaery My example was you are sitting at a table with three coworkers. In my example I figured if you are sitting with them you want to be with all of them. So, I will rephrase, you are sitting at a 4 person table with three friends. At work, when you are working in a public place like Bloomingdale’s (when I use the term public I do not mean public property, but a place open to the public) everyone who walks in is to be acknowledged if they come into your area. So, they are all people you want to talk to, it is a requirement of the job.

YoBob's avatar

IMHO, it really depends on the job in question. If, for example, you work in a field where most of your communication is between colleagues, then the language of choice should be dictated by what is most expedient to good communication. If, for example, tow Chinese engineers are working on a problem I don’t have a problem with them talking to each other in their native language rather than handicapping them with communication constraints.

OTOH, if you are in a service business and most of your communication is directly with customers, or even if you are carrying on conversations that customer’s can hear it is rather impolite to do so in a language other than the native language of the realm. Do do otherwise makes the customers wonder what you are hiding.

mattbrowne's avatar

We got the same rule in Germany in customer-facing environments. Back offices are different. To me that makes sense.

YoBob's avatar

Regarding the side issue of a common language, I fully support the idea of an official national language for several reasons. The most fundamental of those reasons is the whole can of worms you get into when you are required to provide equal accessibility. For example, your company might make legal contractual documents available in English and Spanish, but what about other languages. Doesn’t that lady from Korea have the same right as everyone else to understand the information? With the specter of businesses being sued out of existence over petty issues, are they required to make all legal documents available in any obscure language a customer demands lest they be brought to court for discrimination?

That being said, however, I believe that Americans as individuals should strive to be multi-lingual.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I think it’s a bit paranoid to make people speak in the same language. I always thing that kind of thing comes from people thinking that other people are talking about them, which they’re not.

JLeslie's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir When a customer walks into Bloomingdale’s I don’t think the customer thinks the sales associates are talking about them. They just walked into the store or department.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@JLeslie Yes, but when the customer begins to speak to the worker, the worker will obviously start talking in the customer’s language so it doesn’t matter what they were speaking before.

JLeslie's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir Yes, that is how I would feel as the customer, I would just start talking in English assuming the sales associate was bilingual. But, some customers are uncomfortable, and if the staff at the store speaks English, what is the harm in asking them to speak English while on the selling floor? I think it is worse when the sales staff is talking to each other, whether it be English or not, and not acknowledging the customer is there. They are not doing their job, and the addition of the customer not being able to understand what they are talking about adds to the feeling that they are not doing their job, but talking amongst themselves.

Not sure if you read one of my comments about a friend of mine who works in a boutique store where all the other employees speak Spanish, and she doesn’t. All day long they speak in Spanish to each other, and she is basically excluded from conversation. Do you find that rude?

tinyfaery's avatar

@JLeslie You’re barking up the wrong tree with me. I grew up in a barrio of L.A. where I was one of a few people who didn’t speak Spanish. My friends would often speak in Spanish without including me. I’m used to it. It would sometimes bother me until I decided if someone wasn’t talking to me then I didn’t care what they had to say.

Americans are so egocentric, in general. I don’t always have to be included. It’s not always about my comfort.

JLeslie's avatar

@tinyfaery I’m used to it too. Half my life is not understanding what is being said around me. I think work is different. And, I think when hanging out with friend it’s nice to be included in conversation. I don’t care about an occasional lapse into a foreign language. Hell, I do that with my husband, some words we use the Spanish for whatever reason. Anyway, I am not trying to change your mind. But, possibly since you have the experience you do, you are not being empathetic to those who are uncomfortable in the situation? I am not talking about those who are hateful, just simple discomfort. You want them to think like you, but as a business owner/manager we don’t have time to change the world, we have to deal with what is best for business.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@JLeslie I’m pretty anti-social anyway, at work so it’s not the same. If they would do that all day and not include me, I don’t care what language they’re using, ‘cause it’s rude but not because of the language.

tinyfaery's avatar

Maybe I’m not sympathetic, the reason being I’m not. I can’t abide people who put their own privileged comfort, over those who do not have that
same privilege. To not put
yourself in another’s shoes, to not understand how it must feel to fumble over words and makes oneself so obviously other is just so selfish.

JLeslie's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir Good point.

@tinyfaery It works both ways, who is comfortable who is not. In Bloomongdale’s you have to be fluent in English to work, we aren’t asking someone to stumble through a language they barely know. If I worked in Mexico I would use English as much as possible, and would have a hard time working in a job that dealt with the public directly, except in a very limited way. At least at first. I am empathetic to the circumstance of the person who is limited in their knowledge of English. My FIL speaks very broken English, but he owns and runs a small sub shop. My MIL still does not speak English, I communicate with her in Spanish.

jca's avatar

@tinyfaery: I am not sure if Bloomie’s is in your area, but here in southern NY it’s one of the better department stores. A store’s goal is to try in every way to please it’s customers, so they want to return. If there’s a chance, just a chance that a customer will feel excluded and perhaps might not want to return to the store because of it, or because of feeling offended for any reason, she may not return ever. The goal in marketing is to have the customer come and spend their money (and at Bloomie’s we’re talking lots of money) over and over again. So the store will make policies that will be about making a pleasant environment for customers so they want to stay, want to come back, want to spend spend spend and will have no “post purchase doubts” (Marketing 101). Since so many stores have gone out of business (not sure if all these are in your area but some examples are Linens and Things, Borders, Abraham and Strauss, Caldor, Bradlees, Fortunoff) the stores that remain do their best to coddle the customer in any way possible.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

While employers have the right to dictate that employees speak English (for example) among themselves in areas where they are in the company of clients unless clients make it clear they prefer some other language which can be supported.

Courtesy and consideration often dictate that conversations in alternate languages should be allowed to result in isolating large groups of others.

If extended conversation in an alternate language is for the purpose of enabling foreign language employees to collaborate on work related tasks in back-room areas away from immediate client contact, then this makes sense.

Most modern countries value people who are multilingual and who can communicate effectively in on or more of the majority languages.

Like it or not, in the USA, the proportion of legal residents who speak languages other than English as their mother tongue will continue to grow. Taking into account the reality that many people who speak languages other than English are a growing part of the distribution of spoken languages.

Instead of fearing the growing need to speak languages other than English, Americans would be wise to embrace the opportunity to speak two or more world languages that may serve them in their working and social lives.

Draconian measures to prevent the use of languages other than the one majority language, are doomed to fail and will certainly damage the larger society of which all people play a part.

boxer3's avatar

@Dr_Lawrence , well stated.

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