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Ask Sue
A Weekly Q&A Column About Professionalism, Etiquette and Problems in the Workplace
by Sue Morem

Coworker Using a Foreign Language

Dear Sue: Is it proper to speak in a foreign language in a corporate atmosphere? Isn't it rude to speak a foreign language like Russian or German when others don’t understand? We work in cubicles and can hear each others conversations. When I need to make a personal phone call that I don't want people to hear, I use a phone in an office and shut the door. My coworker, however, begins her conversations in English and then switches to her foreign language, talking loud enough for everyone to hear, but not understand. I always get the feeling that this person is hiding something and/or showing off that she can converse in private without anyone knowing what she is saying. Am I being too critical? Should I take up a foreign language myself?

- Shut out

Sue Says: It can be awkward to be around people speaking in a language that is foreign to you, and understandable that you feel excluded. However, you might be reading too much into the reason your coworker switches to her native language when talking on the phone. I doubt your coworker is intentionally trying to make you feel uncomfortable. There is a good chance he or she doesn’t even realize speaking in another language is creating a problem for anyone. There is a chance your coworker is saying something he or she doesn’t want you to hear, but probably has more to do with his or her comfort speaking in a particular language than anything else.

Depending on who your coworker is speaking with, he or she could be accommodating the person on the other end of the line—perhaps that person doesn’t speak or understand English well and communicates more effectively in another language.

While I agree it can become awkward when around people who appear to be switching languages to say things they don’t want others to hear, try not to judge them too harshly or assume their conversation has anything to do with you.

Take a foreign language if you want, but don’t do it for the sole purpose of trying to understand what others are saying. You shouldn’t feel threatened by differences or allow language be a barrier. Why not ask your coworker the reason he or she often switches languages during conversations? Perhaps if you got to know your coworker better it would ease some of your suspicions. You might learn something and will benefit by getting to know your coworker better.

Sue Morem is a professional speaker, trainer and syndicated columnist. She is author of the newly released 101 Tips for Graduates and How to Gain the Professional Edge, Second Edition. You can contact her by email at or visit her web site at

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