Another Language During Break Causes An Explosion

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about angering a coworker for not speaking English during a break.

I’m Polish, working in multicultural rather friendly office. This morning I was in our staff room with another Polish guy and one Somalian. We had a little conversation with my friend in Polish until my very upset English coworker entered the room and started complain about us.

I tried to tell her that we are on our break, and there’s no need to switch for English as we talking about computers. Our Somalian friend started laughing and said that he doesn’t mind. The English coworker shouted that she won’t have the break with people like us saying that’s f___kin’ rude and slammed the door at us.

We were bit shocked, especially because our breaks are the only time that we (or any one who works with us) use our native tongues. Did we do something wrong? Is there any law that says we cannot use foreign language on the break? To say we can makes us feel discriminated against. I don’t know I might be wrong. Hope you can help me.

Signed, Polish and Like It

Dear Polish and Like It:

It’s good that you have a coworker who speaks Polish. It is natural to enjoy speaking in one’s native language. Did you do wrong to tell your English speaking coworker that there was no need to switch to English because you two were just talking about computers? Apparently your English speaking coworker considered that rude. She felt excluded and behaved badly. Obviously her explosive reaction to you two engaged in a Polish conversation was insulting. In swearing that you were rude and slamming the door as she abruptly exited, she was beyond being impolite. However, might she have had a point?

Let’s suppose that this morning during break in your staff room, you and your Polish coworker were speaking about computers in English when you English speaking friend entered. What would it have been polite to do? It would have been polite to greet her by name and say, “Joe and I have been chatting about computers, would you like to join our conversation or do you have something else on your mind that you’d like to talk about?” That would have shown you wanted to not just be polite, but that you wanted to include her in your conversation, or at least not exclude her. Get my point?

Politeness is the rule that transcends self-interest. Speaking a language that is inclusive is more important, especially among coworkers, than it is to demand that you can say anything you want to in your native tongue because you are on break. What should you do if you think that my perspective is right and that you were wrong? I would apologize to your English speaking coworker.

Say, you were inconsiderate and didn’t want to exclude her. Promise that in the future when others are present who don’t speak Polish, you will not speak in your Polish tongue even though you much enjoy doing so. Don’t mention her explosion. Don’t whisper to other coworkers about the explosion in the staff room. A sincere apology should mend the fences.

Life is too short and work is too hard to allow this incident to make enemies, especially between you and a coworker. Remember that the goal of your work group is to add value to the company and that collaboration should be the rule; and that requires a common language. Think big and act accordingly. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and that what you were hired to create.

William Gorden