Tuesday, April 26, 2011
There was a question on today's Dear Prudie column that asked, essentially, "All my coworkers socialize in Spanish and leave me feeling left out. What can I say to get them to speak in English?"
Which brings me back to my days in Leiden, when coffee breaks were scheduled and quasi-mandatory, and chit-chat between everybody happened in a mix of languages (English, Dutch, Hindi, and Chinese). It was the unspoken rule that you only conversed in the language you were introduced in, and after a year of Dutch classes I finally realized just how weird it is to do otherwise.
That being said, I can't deny that it was sometimes very isolating to be in a room full of Dutch conversations and not being able to understand a word. I could still piece together the basic gist of the conversation from the words that I knew and the tone of voice and body language, but at that time it wasn't enough to actively participate in the conversations. Still, though, it felt wrong to ask that people switch languages, even though I knew they could. Well, perhaps not "wrong", per se, but it would have contradicted my stated goal of learning Dutch. Besides, it would have felt rude--I don't think I'll ever get over the whole "manners" thing.
But that does beg the question of how to include people who don't speak the language into a conversation with people who do. It's slow going to translate everything--I used to play translator for my mother, and it wasn't easy, particularly where doctor's visits were concerned. Not to mention, the burden of making sure the one side's intention is understood by the other can be a heavy one to juggle. I don't have any answers here. Etiquette is difficult enough when only one language and one culture is involved.