March 18, 1994
If your criterion of what constitutes good manners is that
good manners are those that do not hurt or embarrass others, then
the requirement that when more than two people are present, that
the language spoken be one that they all understand is essential.
Some workplaces require that only English be spoken by its workers. It is a hot issue at the moment because some people believe that requiring English to be the only language spoken in the workplace violates their civil rights. This issue will probably find its way to the Supreme Court.
The issue is not a new one to me. I was first confronted with it in my home as a young child. My parents spoke three languages. They made it a point to speak English to me because they thought that it was important for me to learn that language first. However, when they had something to say to each other that they didn't want me to hear, they switched to another language. When I caught on to that one, they switched to a third language. It is a standard parent ploy to S P E L L things out; a ploy that only works while the kid is illiterate.
As a child, it never occurred to me that what my parents were doing was rude, inconsiderate and embarrassing. Kids don't make up the rules, parents do and a child has little choice but to go along with them. It often doesn't occur to parents that good manners are necessary to a child, if for no other reason than if he doesn't learn them, he will have problems with his peers later on.
When I lived in Nigeria, it was not uncommon for people to switch to Yoruba in my presence without considering that it might make me uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable because I assumed that the only reason they would have for switching languages is that they were talking about me.
After the great war, in Germany, a friend of mine and I went out with two German girls. He spoke an atrocious German, but managed to communicate. I kept silent. When he went to the bathroom, the girls immediately started discussing us, in German of course, and it wasn't complimentary. When my buddy returned, I told him that we were wasting our time. As we left, I couldn't resist saying goodbye in my most flowery German. The expressions on their faces were priceless.
Since people tend to be a bit paranoid, it is asking for trouble to permit people in the workplace to speak in a language that others do not understand.
There is one benefit to it; it encourages people to learn a second language. I picked up a second language trying to understand my parents' secret conversations. I noticed one Anglo in McDonalds who was learning Spanish. It will stand him in good stead in many situations. Mexico is a very different place to visit if you speak the language. Before I visit a non American speaking country, I try to learn at least the basics of the language.
When someone doesn't speak English, the only thing that can be done is to communicate in the person's native language. If they do speak English, speaking another language, in the presence of someone who does not speak the language, is inexcusably rude. In a business, being rude to customers can prove expensive.
If your criterion of what constitutes good manners is that good manners are those that do not hurt or embarrass others, then the workplace requirement that when more than two people are present, the language spoken be one that they all understand is essential. What people do or say in private is their own business.
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