Tongue tied and left out

By Jas Saluja
Image used for representational purposes only

Jas Saluja on why there needs to be a language protocol in the workplace

Have you ever been in a situation where your colleagues are talking in a foreign language that you can’t understand? Or, have you been talking in your native language that others can’t grasp? If the answer is yes, then you are not alone. The multi-ethnic and multi-cultural workforce in various sectors is increasingly experiencing this way of communication. But how well it is taken and how well it is handled is arguable.

We all have read about the famous case of two Thai workers who filed a complaint against their Perth-based employer for racial discrimination. This was because they were instructed not to speak Thai in the workplace. The decision was in favour of the employer as it was found that the instruction was solely to resolve an ongoing issue with a non-Thai speaking co-worker. So, obviously a common language was required, which was English.

As per the act, treating someone different because of the language they speak can be against the law but not in all circumstances. Employers need to be careful when issuing similar instructions to ensure that the request is not discriminatory and is made on pure work-related grounds and not on the grounds of race.

That’s the legal aspect of it. We live in an English-speaking country and English being designated as the global communication and development language certainly makes it as the widely accepted norm. But what happens on ground zero? What do people have to say? Is there a unanimous view on it? Am afraid not!

Apparently, people have varied opinions on it.

Some believe that it is time that diverse workforce is understood and included in its true form. People need to understand that when a switch is made to a native language, it’s an innate and the most natural choice of expression. It’s the only language that’s been central so far. It simply allows for a clearer communication as the thinking and spoken language becomes the same. It also provides a sense of comfort and connection to the people belonging to the same culture. There are no deliberate negative intentions behind it and people can be mature and positive about it.

Work Etiquette

Language is as important as any other skill required for a job. Treat it as one of the basic requirements and deliver on it. It’s got nothing to do with culture and use of a native language should be restricted to only breaks, lunch time and private talks. All work-related conversations regardless of the cultural origin of the involved colleagues should be conducted in English. Emergency situations, cooperative assignments, customer interactions, teamwork with colleagues most definitely require an English-only rule to promote efficiency.

Workplace Bullying

Being friendly with only those who speak your language can be considered bullying. Speaking rarely with people who don’t belong to your ethnic/cultural group or repeatedly speaking in front of them in a language that they can’t understand is discriminatory. It often leads to a belief that something is being spoken about them even if it’s not the case. I remember being in a major Mandarin speaking team and feeing exactly like that. Feeling included and secure is every worker’s right and should be honoured.

Good Manners

I met a friend few days back who belonged to a non-Hindi speaking state in India. He had few Hindi speaking colleagues who didn’t understand his native language and therefore felt uncomfortable when it was spoken in front of them. Now, considering the fact that my friend knew Hindi and could have easily preferred that, or English was so obvious for me. But he admittedly chose not to do that. Few years later, he moved to a state that spoke neither Hindi nor his native language. Almost his entire office spoke in a local language that he couldn’t grasp. It was a life changing moment for him making him realise the isolation it causes.

Not just workplace, when we move around in our social circles where people are from Maharashtra, Gujrat, South-India, Punjab, West Bengal etc, I tend to notice many quick language switches in conversations regardless of other people present there. This needs to stop! Show that you care, and you choose to be mindful. Yes, there are exceptions. Our older generation or people who are not exposed to any other language are legitimately challenged and should be supported. Also, if it’s a Maharashtrian only meet up, please go for Marathi. A Gujrati only meet up, please go for Gujrati. But if its diverse then don’t create your own little corners.

Diversity is the new way of life so embrace it and enjoy the ride. Explore and experience the fantastic assortment of different thoughts, beliefs and cultures while remembering to respect and include one and all.


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