Etiquette Questions, Answered: Tricky Conversations
What Should I Do When Friends Speak in Another Language?
Q. A few friends of mine often revert to speaking in their native language around me, though they know I can’t understand
them. I always assume they’re cloaking their conversation and find it rude. How should I handle this situation?
Name withheld by request
A. There’s nothing like being surrounded by a group of people gabbing away in Norwegian to send you into a spiral of paranoid insecurity—which can build into rage if no one notices that you’re stuck in an existential void. (Remember that classic episode of Seinfeld, in which Elaine became unhinged when her manicurist wouldn’t stop speaking in a foreign language around—and, well, about—her? You don’t want to have a similar outburst.) Without question, it’s rude for people who can speak English to converse in a language that not everyone in their vicinity can understand.
But odds are (Seinfeld episode notwithstanding) their conversation is not malicious, conspiratorial, or intended to be exclusionary. It’s just easier and faster for many people to use their mother tongue. However, that doesn’t fully excuse the behavior, so I encourage you to say, in a lighthearted tone, “Would you mind speaking in English so I can understand you? I can’t help but fear the worst!”
Hopefully, once they realize you’re feeling left out, they’ll stop. (And you’ll probably find out that they were discussing the local Laundromat’s hours of operation, or something equally eye-glazing, and you’ll wish they were speaking Greek again.) If they refuse to change their ways, you may want to consider spending your time with people who place more value on the importance of communicating well with their friends.
If your dark circles aren’t quite this adorable, you don’t have to grin and bear it. Try these (en)lightening strategies to minimize them.