Coworkers Use Language To Shut Me Out

Question:

I am the only black lady in the office and I can’t understand Afrikaans. My co-workers always communicate in Afrikaans,even about important work related things and I don’t understand, so I feel like a fool.

Also, they always put the air conditioning on a very cold temperature which I cannot handle. They never talk to me. I’m really frustrated!

Signed,

Out In the Cold


Answer:

Dear Out In the Cold:

I can certainly understand why you would feel frustrated and isolated if people are speaking a language you don’t understand and you feel they are doing it purposely to shut you out. The other issues would add to it as well.

You don’t say what the national language is or what language you thought was going to be used in the office when you were hired. Apparently there are a large group of employees who prefer their native language. That might be acceptable under the law for personal conversations, but it’s not a good thing for getting work done and it’s certainly rude to do it all the time to exclude others. However, it happens in many workplaces all over the world and nearly always creates the bad feelings you’re experiencing.

I don’t think you are in the United States, so some of your solution options may be different than here, based on culture and laws. However, I’ll suggest some things that you can try.

1. Ask your coworkers for a translation of what they just said, especially when you think the conversation is about work. Even if you feel angry about it, try saying in a friendly tone, “I think that was about work and I don’t want to miss out on it. What was it you said?” Or, “I heard something about work, is that something I need to know about?”

If the conversation is obviously a personal one, you could pick one or two times a day to let people know you’d like to be part of the group. You might say, “I don’t know what you two were laughing about, but it sounds like fun!”

That way you’re not asking for a translation, just stating a fact and they can decide if they want to share.

You might consider learning a word or phrase or two in Afrkaans, so you can convey that you need to understand what was just said.

The important thing is to not let yourself be shut out. Be part of work, no matter what language is being spoken. The more you withdraw, the less they will feel the need to include you.

2. Talk to your supervisor and ask for assistance. He or she is responsible for the workplace. Focus on the language issue, since that is the most obvious thing. It may be that you can’t do anything about people speaking their native language when it is not about work, but if work is involved and you need the information they should at least repeat to ensure you know it. If you have examples of times when you didn’t get work done or had trouble doing work, because of the langugage difference, be sure to give that example.

3. If talking to your coworkers and to your supervisor isn’t helpful, go to the Human Resource section of your company or to the person who does hiring. Other employees may be having a similar problem or it may be that this is something the larger company is having to deal with. If you were hired thinking your own language was going to be spoken when the conversation was about work, that is something that needs to be brought to the attention of the hiring section or person.

If, on the other hand, your work does not require a great deal of coworker interaction (manufacturing or manual labor) the company may feel that as long as your supervisor communicates with you clearly, that is all that matters. That would be a shame, but it may be a fact.

4. As important as it is for you to understand work-related conversation, the bigger issue is that you and maybe others are made to feel left out at work. This is also something your supervisor should know about. There will always be groups of friends who hang out together, but there should still be an overall feeling that everyone is part of the larger group and no one is shut out or made to feel unimportant.

If there is even one other employee there with whom you have a closer relationship, talk to her about how you have been feeling. Ask if she knows the root cause of the behavior of the others. It may not be purposely directed at you, even though it’s frustrating. It might at least help to know that.

If your group has meetings, consider bringing up this topic in a way that is focused on working better together.

5. If an employee is not liked because he or she is doing something or not doing something that makes the other employees angry, they should go to a supervisor about it. They should not do their own punishment of the individual by the way they treat him or her.

I’m not saying that you have done anything wrong, but it never hurts to look at one’s own behavior and performance to make sure that the others have no excuses for their actions. Make sure you are doing your work well and that no one can say you don’t try to get along with others. Be the best employee possible in every way. If you receive performance evaluations, be the one who is at the top. That kind of value to the business will help you when you talk to your supervisor as well.

6. You mention the temperature issue, and that is more challenging. Usually people won’t be uncomfortably hot or cold just to bother someone else. So, I would guess they all like the area cooler and you may need to adjust your clothing to allow you to deal with it. If it only needs to be adjusted a few degrees to feel more comfortable, talk to your supervisor about that. But, if everyone else would need to be too warm the solution will probably have to be for you to wear layers to stay warmer yourself. I realize that’s not optimal, because your hands, ears and nose may feel too cool, but it may be the only real solution.

If you have a personal work space, maybe you can do something to make it warmer. Or, maybe you can buy heated pads for your shoes or to tuck inside your clothing. I used to heat a thermal pad in the microwave in the breakroom and put it behind my back as a way to stay warmer at my desk for a few hours!

I wish there was some easy solution to your situation, but I don’t think there probably will be one. This will be a time when you may need to decide if you want to stay there or leave to find work where you can be included and where you know you will not be dealing with this type of issue. If you stay, I think you will need to firmly but in a friendly manner, put yourself into the middle of work and at least a few conversations, to show that you don’t want to feel left out.

Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe