11

Given an international (work-) environment, I have plenty of coworkers1 not speaking German. It happened already many times to me, that I was having a English conversation with someone not speaking German. Almost always, when a coworker approached me to ask me about something or to join that conversation they start talking to me in German. Except for the fact that really almost everyone does it, and it seems to be a German cultural thing, I personally find it very rude. Especially since they not rarely just interrupt the conversation I am having with others.

What I tried so far was, I explained quickly in German that I am having a conversation in English cause the other person doesn't understand German. But that statement in German followed by the other person responding to it with an excuse or even justifying why they talked in German to me, usually takes enough time that the person I was speaking to before in English, just left us or engaged a different topic in that time with someone else, so me not being able to finishing a conversation I really would have liked to continue.

Yesterday I went one step further, as I was on a tech convention and it happened to me multiple times. So that at one point I explained what I just had written above, in English (rather than in German) to someone approaching me in German. I was hoping the result might be that the person I had the initial conversation with will this way be aware, that I intend to continue the conversation and that person also can feel invited to join the conversation we just got interrupted by. Sadly this just made it a little bit awkward for everyone. The person heading towards me, responded (in German again) That he is "Not getting along so good with $SpecificEnglishTerm you used" and after I told him then, that in that case he might please wait till I finished my other conversation, he just said "Is nicht so wichtig" what would be like saying "Nevermind then" before he left. The result was me feeling awkward, as it felt to me like I was kinda rude, my conversation partner made to me the impression he was feeling awkward cause I just sent someone away due to the language barrier and the person approaching me, despite I couldn't take note of it, very likely was feeling for some reasons awkward, too.

So my question is, given the above scenario:

How can I prevent awkward situations and keep track of an English conversation, when someone interrupts me in that conversation talking to me in German?


1 I would like to keep this question more general and not workplace related, tho.

  • 2
    Do/did these conversations take place in a German or English speaking country? – Elmy Jan 11 at 8:08
  • @Elmy: German speaking country, thats why I tagged it with germany. If that tag isn't making it clear enough, I can edit it into the question :) – dhein Jan 11 at 8:37
  • 1
    Do you usually reply to the "interrupting German speaker" in German or in English? – user53923 Jan 17 at 18:47
  • @user53923: Well usually I did in german, recently as mentioned in my post I tried responding in english, what made things just awkward for everyone. Hence I made this post. I think thats abstractable from my OP. If you should be asking for something else, please be more precise about what you want to know. Thank you :) – dhein Jan 18 at 5:31
3

Almost all my employment happened to be with big multinational corporations. I saw this problem many times, and occasionally I was the problem. Everything I say below applies in private life as well - you just need to make minor modifications to the words, eventually.

Every time, the solution was simple. Tell the person speaking the "wrong language" one of the following (the one which suits better):

  1. It is rude to speak language [XZ] as long as [VisitorName] cannot understand it. Let's speak [Visitor'sLanguage or CommonlyUnderstoodLanguage], so we can all contribute.

or

  1. "English!" (or whatever language suits better) preferably associated with a smile

Approach 1 is more suitable with beginners, which are not accustomed to the multinational corporate culture. They need both the what and the why.

Approach 2 is more suitable with colleagues who already know the rule (and you are sure that they know the rule) - especially if the situation is not very formal.

You can choose different words, but the idea remains the same.

Exception: Person A can only use language LA and person B can only use language LB. If you happen to know both languages, you will have a great opportunity to practice live interpreting :)

Another exception: Some person knows the rule, but refuses to follow it.

  • ask the person to contact you at a later time, if it is not an emergency - and point out that you are engaged in a discussion with a colleague who understanding the "private" conversation.

  • if the same person is rude over and over again, escalate it to your boss and decide together with him what is the best course of action.

10

Living in Taiwan, I know much of what you mean. Interrupting and then carrying on in a language the other person doesn't know is certainly rude, as you say, and makes the person feel like a "lesser" and kept out of the loop intentionally and without apology. This is not to mention that it remains rude to interrupt even in the same language, though interrupting in a different language seems "socially easier" for some reason. It is indeed impolite.

You are essentially asking your fellow countrymen to be polite via using common language. The core problem you face is:

There is no "seemingly polite" way to ask someone to stop being impolite

The best solution is to be ultra-simple and:

Lead by demonstration

Don't presume that you know what the English speaker presumes to be polite. Instead, try this:

When so interrupted, hold up your "polite pause hand" to your fellow German and ask the person you were speaking to in English:

"Do you mind if my friend and I speak in German for a moment?"

Now, you have let your peer define peere-to-peer "politeness" and you have demonstrated to your fellow countryman that you are concerned about being polite to others via using common language. Just make sure that you keep it to a "moment" no matter what.

Nothing is guaranteed to work, but that is probably your best bet and you certainly have improved things.


As an afterthought, this approach does, on the surface, seem "indirect". I gained more skill with indirection while in Asia, otherwise I wouldn't have thought of this answer. But, usually "indirect" approaches are still "attempting a specific outcome", just without saying so up front.

The approach I present here is admittedly indirect on some level, but its value is that it accepts either outcome. In fact, it not only "accepts" either outcome, it makes either outcome acceptable by informing both people of what politeness is and that politeness is important to you, but then also lets people decide for themselves.

So, say the English speaker does feel somewhat marginalized at first, then you ask if speaking in German is okay, then the English speaker feels compelled to say, "Okay," but doesn't really mean it due to social pressure—even then, you still made the offer, which brought its own politeness, and the English speaker did have a chance to say, "No," and thus at least has some ownership in the outcome. So, even in the worst case scenario, at least you created your own opportunity to do something polite—and that might be more important in the end anyway.

...maybe.

4

Working in international company we have a rule that English is the used language. We face all the time the issue of different pronunciations, accents and level of knowledge.

The principle we have (and which I use in personal life) is encouraging people to participate, even if they have to ask additional questions (or just simply by listening), because this will help them learn . Simple "Please, join us, we are discussing this and that".

This should work great in the tech convention settings as people are usually there to learn something and expand their knowledge. Learning new technical terms is also a part of this process. This seems more like a personal choice of excluding themselves.

Remember that someone interrupting your conversation in English is the same as someone interrupting you in German. If you feel like it, you can ask them (in English) to join, and if they refuse (by simply speaking German), explain (still in English) that you will talk with them later when you finish this conversation. This will let know the other person what you are talking about and they will know that you are not changing subjects or loosing interest in speaking with them.

1

I would just take the interrupter's phone number and offer to call them (or arrange to meet them in ten minutes somewhere) after you have finished your current conversation in English.

Then give your full attention back to your first conversation.

I suggest that you say to the German-speaking interrupter "can I call you/meet you in a few minutes and we will talk about your topic, over coffee perhaps?" and then return to your discussion in English. Your first conversation partner will not be offended and see that you dealt with an interruption not of your choosing in a professional manner and you have also acknowledged the interrupter politely. I have tried this myself in a German-speaking environment and it does work.

I do however think that cultural norms matter here, different things are acceptable depending upon locale. I found this when working in Austria with Serbs, Poles, Croats, Austrians, Swiss. Irrespective of where I actually was, different "tribes" had different rules about whether interrupting was acceptable.

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