In the past week I heard two stories about Americans who felt that they were squeezed out of a conversation. I think there is a solution. Learning a language in both instances could ease tensions and foster empathy.
My friend’s coworker, Amy,* notices that she doesn’t get invited to meetings. This worker collaborates with their office in Israel. She noticed that the Israel office, unfortunately, started scheduling meetings at times when she could not be present. They wanted to hold the meeting in Hebrew, and she doesn’t speak Hebrew. This seemed passive-aggressive. She wants to collaborate with her Israeli colleagues, but they stubbornly insist of excluding her by conducting meetings only in Hebrew and avoiding discussing in English.
One friend, Ahmad,* often does work in China. He enjoys going to China and he likes Chinese people. He finds he has a lot in common with them. Because of putting in time with communicating with non-native English speakers, he has a handle on how to adjust his communication style to fit with the situation.
On occasion he feels marginalized. When he is the only non-Chinese speaker at a meeting, the meeting will lapse into Chinese, and someone will translate the gist of the conversation for him. He knows, though, that he is missing nuances and content that could be valuable for him. Why would they speak Chinese around him when they could just as easily speak in English? Were they trying to push him out of the conversation?
Let me take the Israeli and Chinese point of view for a second. I don’t think the problem is an incompatibility between Americans and Chinese or Israeli people. Speaking a language is hard, even if one wants to order a croissant after studying French for four years. Understanding the response is even harder. Trying results in painful feelings of inferiority. So experiences the Chinese- and Hebrew-speaker at meetings held in English. Granted, ordering a croissant in English may be easy for them, but collaborating on a project, offering ideas in a positive, nuanced way can easily make them feel stupid when it comes out weird or they can’t fully understand the response of their American counterparts.
These Chinese and Israelis likely are not giving Amy and Ahmad the cold shoulder. They may just be anxious or tired. By learning some Chinese or Hebrew and feeling their pain, Amy and Ahmad would display a desire to sympathize with their colleagues. The Americans could sympathize with their colleagues’ need to switch out of English, if only to let their brains rest, or to express to each other what they’re really trying to say. The more we English-speakers try to learn others’ language, the more they see us open ourselves to their struggles through sympathy.
Have you felt shut out of a meeting? Have you managed to make your way back in by learning a language?
* Names have been changed.